It’s easy to look at everything wrong with Saturday’s 47-35 loss to the Louisville Cardinals, but the fact is that even the most optimistic fans were fairly sure that this game was going to end up in the “L” column. The good news is that for more than 3 quarters, the Heels kept it close; it’s going to get lost in the Lamar Jackson hype, but after 45 minutes of play, UNC was ahead on the scoreboard. And to say it charitably, that was primarily thanks to the offense’s play. So let’s take a look at some of the best plays on offense, but more importantly, these are plays that serve as good indications for UNC’s future both short- and long-term.
UNC’s first offensive play on Saturday involved a bit of creativity and trust on Larry Fedora’s part. Freshman Dazz Newsome gets the call on a jet sweep play for his first touch as a Tar Heel. He makes a couple of defenders miss and gets down the field for a 54-yard gain.
The first thing to note here is that it confirms UNC has a playmaker at the wide receiver position, which was a serious concern for the team heading into the season. Austin Proehl is a great player, but he is not the most explosive receiver. Newsome here shows the ability to create offense.
Secondly, look at the blocking on this play. The three key blocks here are carried out by receiver Jordan Cunningham (#10, top of the screen), tight end Carl Tucker (#86, lined up at fullback), and running back Jordon Brown (#2, lined up at tailback). Tucker makes the most impressive block, driving his man backwards and creating the hole for Newsome. Cunningham sticks to the defensive back for an impressively long time, and Brown completes the lane with a cut block.
From there, Newsome is one-on-one with the Louisville safety, and leaves him grasping at air with a vicious juke. I’m not sure why Newsome didn’t take this to the sideline, but that’s not a huge loss because UNC scored on the next play anyway. Knowing that UNC has big play potential in the receiving corps already is a big relief for the team’s prospects this season.
The last play was primarily about scheme and coaching tendencies, but this one is all about execution. This is the kind of play that gives us hope that Chazz Surratt can be the UNC quarterback for years to come.
Look at the play design—it’s a naked bootleg-type zone blocking scheme, where the offensive line tries to take the defense to Surratt’s weak side. Meanwhile, Surratt takes the ball the other way. The strongside players on Louisville aren’t fooled, though; as soon as they see Fritts leak out from the weakside fullback position, they follow Surratt and force him to take his bootleg back to the 15-yard line.
What Surratt does, though, is special: On the run, he throws a pass 10 yards into an extremely tight window. Fritts has half a step on the linebacker covering him, but just half a step. If the throw is any further back than it was, Fritts gets tackled as he catches it and UNC is forced to try and punch it in from the 1 (Given UNC’s other goal-line efforts in this game, this was not a guaranteed score).
If the throw is any farther forward, Fritts falls to try and catch it. By placing it at the height and lateral position that he does, Surratt creates the YAC necessary for Fritts to score a touchdown. It’s this kind of throw that gives hope for Surratt’s, and by extension, UNC’s future.
The last two plays were about Carolina’s future. This one is about the present, and it’s one of the reasons that we still don’t know who UNC’s quarterback will be against Old Dominion. I’m not saying Chazz Surratt couldn’t make this throw, but we certainly haven’t seen him do it yet.
Meanwhile, Brandon Harris, after some early-snap jitters, showed his experience in the NCAA on this play. He stands and delivers in the pocket despite the pressure surrendered by right tackle Charlie Heck, and throws past two defenders into the waiting hands of Thomas Jackson. This is special arm talent—Harris guns this pass so that the two defenders trailing Jackson don’t have time to react to the pass.
The pass above from Surratt showed that UNC has a quarterback for the future, and possibly the present. However, as I alluded to in my positional grades, if Harris wins the job this year, we might still be in good hands, despite the evidence from the California game. It’s also worth pointing out that Thomas Jackson is becoming a very reliable target after breaking on to the scene as a walk-on receiver last season. He makes this catch and secures it as he’s getting tackled.
Here’s another sign that the present state of UNC Football might not be as dire as it might seem based on preseason prognostication and the team’s current record. Austin Proehl, as the color analyst said, is one of the best route-runners in the country, and he shows it off here by turning a Louisville cornerback all the way around—like, 360 degrees around—with a single step towards the middle of the field before he breaks to the corner.
Look at how little movement he wastes on that cut, maintaining his top speed until after his break and creating space at the stem of his route. That separation allows Proehl to create a 30-yard reception, with enough space to slow down, turn towards the goal line, and dive to maximize yardage. I said before that he is not the most explosive player, by which I meant that he’s not as dynamic with the ball in his hands as Ryan Switzer or Bug Howard. On plays like this, though, he more than makes up for it, especially if whoever is throwing him the ball can make this throw consistently (it was Harris on this particular play).
Getting 15 yards per catch is more than adequate. Proehl needed to step up this season to carry an inexperienced receiving corps, and with eight catches for 120 yards in the ACC opener, he looks to be taking that role and running with it. The big hope is that he’s also mentoring the guys below him, and given the atmosphere that the UNC coaching staff has created, I think there’s reason to believe he might be.
UNC shows signs of having more competent quarterback and receiver play than most expected coming into the season, and even coming off a pretty bad loss, there is a lot to be optimistic about both for this season and beyond. The tape does not lie.