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UNC Football: Positives from the halfway point of the season

Despite an up and down season, there have been several bright spots from the Heels to start the year.

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at North Carolina Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

On paper, the 2018 season is going differently than most of the good folks in Chapel Hill anticipated, or at least hoped for. Carolina would need a 5-2 finish just to become bowl eligible. While I’m as big of a believer as anyone when it comes to the power of a good bye week, the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl just doesn’t seem to be in the Tar Heels favor this season.

It’d be easy to use the bye week to look at everything that has gone wrong this year, but that’s not what we’re going to do. As the great Willie Nelson once said: “Once you replace negative thoughts with positive ones, you’ll start having positive results.” There actually have been several positives so far this year, so let’s spread some much needed joy.

One Carolina

The biggest headline of the year has been Hurricane Florence and what it did to the affected areas. It has been inspiring to see everyone come together in support of those most impacted by the storm.

The Carolina Panthers gave a shout out to the more than forty schools that donned the One Carolina helmet decal, including *most of the schools in the Triangle.

Former Tar Heel and current Panthers Defensive End Julius Peppers donated $100,000 in partnership with Foundation for the Carolinas. Peppers, a native of Bailey, North Carolina, even started his own “Julius Peppers Hurricane Relief Fund” to help in the relief efforts.

This doesn’t specifically have to do with UNC’s season this year, but it’s been really cool to see the whole region come together because of the hurricane, and a North Carolina alum has been one the forefront of the relief efforts. Not nearly as important, but as my colleague Chad Floyd pointed out, we didn’t have to play UCF because of the hurricane.

Rushing Attack

Coming into the season running back was expected to be the deepest position on the team. That has absolutely proven true through the first half of 2018. Returning backs Jordon Brown and Michael Carter, and Ohio State transfer Antonio Williams, are all averaging at least 4.0 yards per carry. As a team North Carolina is averaging 178.3 rushing yards a game. Those aren’t exactly 1982 SMU numbers, but it’s solid enough and that is definitely the strength of the offense so far.

Antonio Williams assumed the lead back role during the first half of the year, kind of... Against Cal and Pitt, which were one-score games, Williams averaged 16.5 carries per game. In the ECU and Miami games Williams only averaged 5 carries per game. Some of that has to do with game flow, but Williams has been great this year and Carolina needs to get him more than 5 carries a game, even in blowouts. Through four games he’s 21st in the country in rushing yards per carry with 6.53 yards per carry, which is an insane stat. (Not related, but shows the depth at running back at Ohio State with Weber and Dobbins if Williams can average over six and a half yards a carry and not even see the field.)

Michael Carter came back from a broken wrist against Pitt and averaged 10 touches (rushes and receiving) in the two games he played in. He’s averaged 7.2 a touch, and is going to get more involved after the bye week.

Add Brown to the mix, who I think is going to play better as the season gets going, and I’ve been advocating for more two running back sets since July.

Special Teams

My guy Freeman Jones was perfect through the first two games of the season on field goals and extra points. He’s still at 78% on the year, which is good for 45th in the country. North Carolina is also tied for 9th in the country for blocked kicks. Senior punter Hunter Lent is ranked 18th in the nation in net punting, and Carolina is in the top fifty in punt return defense.

Again, these aren’t Ohio State or Utah special team statistics, but Carolina’s specialists have been really solid all year.

Defensive Standouts

The team defense has been less than consistently stellar throughout the year. There have been a few players who have played really well all season.

Linebackers Dominique Ross and Cole Holcomb have probably been the best defensive players for the Tar Heels. Ross looks like a different player than last year, and he was good even then. He’s flying all over the field, and has improved a lot in pass coverage. He just looks faster is the best way to put it.

Cole Holcomb is in the top 50 in the country in solo tackles per game. He was a pre-season All-ACC caliber player, and while there’s been a few misses he’s been over all really impressive. Holcomb is one of those linebackers who just seems to always be involved in the play. I wrote in my season preview that he reminds me a lot of Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis, instinctive, physical sideline to sideline player. Ross and Holcomb have been as good or better than advertised coming into this season.

Bryson Richardson had Carolina’s first interception of the season against Miami. He was one of the true freshman I highlighted as a candidate to make an impact for the Tar Heels in their first season in Chapel Hill. It was a tip drill interception, but Richardson still showed great awareness and made the play. Hopefully that was just the first interception by Richardson and the rest of the Heels.

Defensive end Malik Carney also forced a fumble by Miami quarterback N’Kosi Perry in the third quarter of that game. Both of Carolina’s turnovers against the Hurricanes came when the game was out of hand, so they didn’t impact the on field result. However, for a team that’s only fumble recovery all season had come from their kicker, getting two defensive turnovers before the bye week was huge. Hopefully Carolina can keep that up going into the last stretch of the season.

Recruiting

It’s still really early in the 2019 recruiting cycle, but Carolina already has twelve commits in this class. I haven’t done a complete breakdown of the class yet, but one player I’m really excited about is running back Josh Henderson

Henderson is one of the top rated players in New Jersey, which is one of the top states in the entire country for producing Division One talent. Richardson holds offers from twenty-one schools, most notably: Duke, West Virginia, UCF, and NC State. He’s been committed to the Tar Heel since mid June.

Henderson lines up all over the field for his school, literally he plays seemingly almost every position. He’s primarily a running back, but he also takes snaps at receiver and linebacker. He’s 6’ 200 lbs and a physical runner. Whether as a receiver or out of the backfield he’s shown good ball skills as well. Players like Henderson who can line up at any position are a coaches dream because it allows them to be creative with their offensive sets and play calling.

College Football is the Craziest Time of the Year

North Carolina has seven games left on their schedule, and they’ll most likely be favored in only one of them. It’d be easy to just mail it in and count down the days until basketball season, (30 days.) However, there’s a lot of football left this season. Sure it’s not all going to be fantastic, but some of it will.

There are going to be more plays like Jonathan Sutton’s punt return tackle against Cal, or Anthony Ratliff-Williams stiff arming half of ECU’s defense, or Chazz Surratt’s touchdown run against Miami. Carolina has some really talented players on both sides of the ball who are going to continue to provide highlight plays through the rest of the season.