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Return of the Mack: UNC Offensive Preview

Go Longo

Appalachian State v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

UNC has had itself a weird season so far. After starting the year with comeback wins against South Carolina and Miami, the Tar Heels weren’t able to recover from early deficits against in-state foes Wake Forest and App State. Somehow they managed to play Wake Forest as an out of conference game. Things appear to be on the upswing in Chapel Hill, where the Tar Heels have already matched last seasons’ win total. Freshman quarterback Sam Howell is exciting, offensive coordinator Phil Longo is highly regarded and old/new coach Mack Brown is having the time of his life.

As of writing Clemson was favored by 27 points by Vegas, while SP+ gave the Tigers a 26-point margin and a 94% chance of winning. Longo didn’t sound enthused about this week himself, saying “We identify three guys every week just schematically or personnel wise that we want to attack…There aren’t three guys this week. I mean, they’re solid.” Welcome back to your 2019 Tigers, we’re very sorry about our schedule.

Phil Longo comes to Chapel Hill fresh off of a run of productive offenses in Oxford. Last years’ Rebels team ranked 12th in offensive S&P+. Longo runs an air raid scheme that Mack Brown described as taking “what they did with the Oklahoma system with Lincoln Riley and he’s combined [it with] the power running game”. Riley, it should be noted, has been pretty invested in the power run game himself lately.

While many prominent coaches associated with the air raid have incorporated power runs (Holgorsen was doing it two jobs ago), Longo stands out for the extent that he lets and demands his receivers to adjust their routes to the defense. The end result is a scheme that famously runs less than thirty plays, although each pass can be called “10 times in a game and it can look like six different things depending on what the receivers are seeing”. As Longo puts it, “I’m not going to try and guess (what defenses might do when I call the play), we want to teach them how to react.”

The Tar Heels operate mostly out of either 10 or 11 personnel, usually with the TE as an H-back. Occasionally they’ll mix in empty, 12, or a goal line look but UNC has a lot fewer personnel packages than some of the teams we’ve seen so far.

UNC mostly runs inside zone, outside zone, power, counter, and a lot of QB draw + quick route RPO’s on third downs. Longo uses the threat of the QB run to keep defenses honest, both with the option and direct snap runs. In addition, they run RPO’s just about as much as anyone in the country. UNC has a pair of productive running backs in Javonte Williams and Michael Carter, and a third in Antonio Williams who has been deemphasized lately, but was productive last year.

They haven’t gotten much opportunity behind a porous offensive line. That’s unlikely to improve any time soon given that the unit is without its two best players.

Howell is athletic enough to be a viable ball carrier, although his rushing numbers have been deflated by the offensive line as well. The Tar Heels enter Saturday’s matchup averaging 3.8 yards per carry, a number unlikely to improve against a Tigers front allowing less than 100 rushing yards a game.

While UNC is an air raid team, they do need to keep defenses honest by running the ball for their offense to function. Longo, more so than some air raid coaches, is a “very firm believer that the best odds in the house are taking what the defense gives you”. This is accomplished by running a scheme that emphasizes options on almost every play, either with receivers adjusting routes or quarterbacks having pass options on run plays.

UNC makes frequent use of hitches, slants, screens and deep outs to take advantage when defenses overcommit. Howell has a strong enough arm to force you to defend the entire field. In addition, while Longo has usually used his tight ends as blockers, he is quite good at scheming them open at big moments.

The heavy use of RPO’s comes at the expense of UNC’s quick game, which isn’t as effective without the threat of a running play. The downfield passing game benefits from the run threat as well. Longo calls deep shots liberally and will run play-action on almost any down and distance.

When the downfield passing game works it looks un-guardable, with receivers seemingly walking into open pockets of space. Take this four verticals play, where Howell finds the backside receiver open between the safety and corner.

Plays like this and staples such as snag, Y cross and stick can be very effective when everyone is in sync. A lot of these plays take a while to develop, and screens/draws haven’t been enough to take pressure off an offensive line that the Tar Heels are openly scheming around. Offensive line play likely contributes to North Carolina’s third down struggles this year, although third down has been an issue for Longo’s offenses for a while. Howell can make something happen, such as on this dig/pivot concept, but like a lot of freshman he can get confused or out of rhythm.

Despite all Longo’s success at Ole Miss, Rebel fans weren’t entirely torn up to see him go. This might be surprising until you take a closer look at their season last year and realize that while his offense put up big numbers against lesser competition, the offense sputtered against Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Mississippi State. What those Rebels fans saw was a very talented offense that couldn’t beat equal to better teams. In the eyes of some, Longo’s scheme crossed the line from “simple” to “predictable” against elite competition, and he appeared to let his best players be schemed out of key games.

Finally Longo’s offense, like many spread offenses historically, has struggled in the red zone when the defense doesn’t have to worry about defending much of the field vertically. You still need to be able to run the ball to score in the red zone, and UNC has two rushing touchdowns in 2019.

There’s no reason to predict an upset, the Tigers have won the last three matchups and UNC is in its first year under a new coach. I wouldn’t be surprised if Clemson doesn’t cover though, Dabo has a lot of fondness for Mack Brown. The Tar Heels have had big fourth quarters in most of their games, and Clemson tends to sit on leads. But it’s hard to see this team putting together sustained drives against a Clemson front they shouldn’t be able to run on. The Tar Heels offensive line, which has given up sixteen sacks so far, probably doesn’t have an answer for Clemson’s pass rush either.