August was a simpler time. Students were ushered back to Chapel Hill with a renewed faith in the world and their football team that each new school year seems to bring. Alas, we find ourselves in mid-November and the Tar Heels are two games away from finishing what can charitably be described as less than perfect season. I was one of many optimistic fans who thought that UNC would be able to find themselves bowling again this season, but it wasn’t to be.
While mathematically we’ll have to wait another season for a possible bowl berth, on an individual level several players have had an outstanding season. There’s a lot to build on going into the last two games of the year, and into the 2019 season.
Dazz Newsome, Wide Receiver
Dazz’s play down the stretch has been critical in UNC’s improved offensive play. I truly can’t say enough about how impressive he’s been.
I can sure try though. Dazz had pedestrian games against Cal and ECU, but since the unscheduled bye due to Hurricane Florence he’s been on an absolute tear. Starting with the Pitt game Newsome is averaging over 10 yards per reception, which belies how explosive he’s been. He had two huge receiving touchdowns against Syracuse and Virginia, but more vital than his scoring, and reflected in his stats, has been has ability to convert first downs and keep the offense on the field. He’s shown how much of a threat he can be down field, but just as (or more) important is his route running ability to get himself open, especially in obvious passing situations.
As a freshman Newsome flashed his receiving ability, and coming into the season was expected to be a “starter” alongside Anthony Ratliff-Williams and Dyami Brown. What’s been a revelation this season has been his contribution in the return game, and also as a rusher.
Against Duke, Newsome lined up in the backfield (something Carolina has experimented with a bit through out the season) and promptly broke an 88-yard touchdown run to tie the game at 28 in the second quarter. Newsome lined up in a two back shotgun set opposite of Jordon Brown. Newsome took a simple sweep hand off from Elliot, broke a tackle, and was gone. Newsome had fantastic downfield blocking from the receivers who took their assignments out of the play, which didn’t hurt. Jordon Brown in particular did a great job as a lead blocker, getting upfield to the safety in a hurry.
The biggest takeaway on that play though, was how quick Dazz can accelerate if he has just a small window. This was also on full display on this punt return against Syracuse.
Just like his long touchdown run against Duke, he makes a couple people miss first, but once he gets to the sideline, no one is touching him. That’s been the most impressive thing about Newsome this season; he doesn’t necessarily have the close space quickness of some other receivers his size like K.J. Hill at Ohio State or Britain Covey at Utah, but his own refinement as a route runner has achieved the same effect. His breakaway ability is icing.
Newsome has been spectacular, and has improved seemingly every game that North Carolina has played this season.
Dominique Ross, Linebacker
Dominique Ross has actually seen his playing time dwindle as the season goes on. He was so impressive in the early part of the year, though, that he makes the list.
When Ross is on the field, he’s all over the place (in a good way). Going back and watching the film, I saw three distinct impressive traits that I want to highlight: maintaining his responsibility in run defense, ability to play man coverage against receivers, and meeting blockers straight up as opposed to getting pushed around.
On every play, linebackers have a responsibility for both a run and a pass situation. They take what’s called a read step to figure out run or pass, and then accordingly decide if they’re going to play their run responsibility or their pass defense assignment. That gives only about half a second to figure out what’s going on, and by the time that half second is up a lot of times there’s an offensive guard coming in hot trying to take them out of the play.
With everything going on, young linebackers have a tendency to rush their reads and simply follow the ball, similar to little kids playing soccer. Ross is so patient with his read step, though, and he sticks to what he’s supposed to do. When defenders chase the ball instead of maintaining gap integrity, that’s how explosive offensive plays occur. Even on plays where Ross doesn’t make the tackle, when he’s in his gap it prevents the ball carrier from bouncing the run into what would be an open gap. He’s seldom the reason for a big play in the run game.
Ross also excels at covering slot receivers in man coverage, which he has been asked to do fairly often. Against Cal, and in similar situations throughout the year, Ross has defended those receivers really well, which has a ripple effect on both the defense and the offense. Because Ross can be left on the field in obvious passing situations instead of being replaced by another defensive back, it takes away the offense’s ability to try to sneak in a screen pass or break a long run because of the defensive personnel. Simply by having one more linebacker on the field instead of another defensive back, offensive coordinators are going to be much more likely to call a pass play, which helps Carolina’s defense have a better idea of what’s coming.
The third thing Ross does well that helps his teammates a lot is taking a blocker head on. He doesn’t shed blocks, so on film it looks like Ross is just getting blocked, but what he’s actually doing is holding up the blocker and forcing the ball carrier to pick a side. The blocker, whether it be an offensive lineman or a fullback, is trying to get the linebacker out of the way. So Ross meeting him head on and sticking the blocker up might mean that Ross doesn’t make the tackle, but it’s again, what you’re supposed to do and is a key part of playing team defense. It encapsulates Ross’ season, really. He’s been an excellent team defender this year.
William Sweet, Left Tackle
Sweet actually started the season at right tackle. Sweet and sophomore Charlie Heck spent training camp splitting reps between the left and right side. Against Cal, Sweet started at right tackle, but was switched to left tackle in the second half due to an injury to Bentley Spain, and has been playing left tackle for the Tar Heels all season since then.
Coming into the season, talent on the offensive line wasn’t necessarily a problem, but who would be playing what position was certainly uncertain. Having an every-game left tackle wasn’t guaranteed in August, but here we are in November and Sweet has done a great job holding that position down. For the offensive line, as much as or more than for any other position group, continuity is tantamount. So Sweet being consistently locked in as the starting left tackle benefits the entire offensive line.
He’s also just a good player. He’s solid in pass protection, but his biggest strength is run blocking. On Carolina’s explosive run plays this season when the ball carrier has broken the run outside, oftentimes it is possible because Sweet has, with a powerful down block, taken the defensive tackle out of the play, not allowing him to disrupt it in the backfield (the defensive end is often left unblocked on purpose, as in option runs and RPO’s, or will be the lead blocker’s assignment). Sweet’s down blocking ability takes away the chance of a negative play if the right read is made at the mesh point.
Sweet’s consistency has been one of the bright spots for Carolina’s offense this season, and he’s had a breakthrough year.
With all of these players almost certainly returning next year, UNC has some good pieces in place to start fresh in 2019. It’s never too early to look forward, right?