Just like that football season has come and gone. Every year it seems like we have to wait forever for college football to finally begin, and once the season finally kicks off it’s always over much too quickly.
The 2018 football season for North Carolina was supposed to be about putting the 3-9 2017 season behind as a blip. It ended up being essentially a carbon copy of 2017 that ended with Larry Fedora and the good folks in Chapel Hill deciding to go their separate ways.
There’s a lot to be hopefully optimistic about in 2019. We’ll have about eight months to cover that though, we’re going to take one more look back at how the 2018 season turned out, compared to how we expected the 2018 season to turn out.
The 2018 schedule was supposed to work out in North Carolina’s favor, especially their conference schedule. They avoided Atlantic Division opponents Clemson, Florida State, Louisville, and Boston College and instead got to play Syracuse as their non-State Atlantic opponent. Flash forward and not playing Clemson unsurprisingly turned out to be a Godsend. Florida State, however, had their first losing season since 1976 (and looked terrible doing so). Boston College started hot, but imploded down the stretch and really played uninspired football their last few games. Louisville was quite possibly the worst team in the country this year.
All the while Syracuse had a heck of a year under coach Dino Babers and quarterback Eric Dungey. They finished 9-3, and two of those losses came to Clemson and Notre Dame, the second and third best teams in the country (pre-College Football Playoff rankings). North Carolina had a shot to win the game against Syracuse in the Carrier Dome, but due to inconsistent quarterback play and mental lapses on defense (like forgetting how to tackle) North Carolina blew a lead and lost in overtime in that game.
Losing in overtime to Atlantic Division opponents turned out to be a mood, as North Carolina ended their season by losing in overtime to State. As far as UNC’s own division goes, the clear cut short term answer for immediate success is to simply schedule Pitt more often and stop playing everyone else.
North Carolina’s out of conference schedule included losses to Cal and East Carolina, a win over Western Carolina, and a canceled game against UCF due to Hurricane Florence. I wrote that to have a shot at bowl eligibility Carolina would have to be at least 2-2, so simply win one out of three games against FBS schools. Instead, North Carolina threw four interceptions against Cal and got blown out by East Carolina. They didn’t get the opportunity to play Central Florida, but that might not have been the worst thing in the world the way North Carolina started the season.
Inconsistent isn’t quite the right word to describe North Carolina’s offense this year, partly because their quarterback play was pretty consistent throughout the year, unless Cade Fortin or Jace Ruder were playing. It wasn’t consistently good by any means, but consistent none the less.
Nathan Elliott started the first four games of the year, and rotated snaps with Chazz Surratt in an uninspiring loss to Miami. Surratt hurt his hand in that game, ending his season after one game due to injury and suspension. After the bye week true freshman Cade Fortin started against Virginia Tech, only to go down with a knee injury, bringing back Elliott to finish the game as QB1.
There Elliott would stay until the Georgia Tech game when he was replaced by other true freshman Jace Ruder to give the offense a spark. As surprising as this may be, Ruder played well and then left the game with a shoulder injury, leaving Nathan Elliott to finish out the game. In total five different Tar Heel quarterbacks attempted a pass in 2018. While Fortin and Ruder flashed promise, injuries and not fully taking advantage of the new red-shirt rule that allows players to play in up to four games and not use a year of eligibility dampened their impact.
The running back situation actually ended up panning out how we thought it would, despite an early season injury to Michael Carter. Carter, Antonio Williams, and Jordon Brown all were within ten rushing attempts of each other, which is pretty remarkable it was that evenly distributed.
A pleasant surprise was true freshman Javonte Williams, a three-star prospect out of Teachey, NC. Despite being fourth in line in the running back room in Chapel Hill, Williams was tied for the team lead in rushing touchdowns, along with Antonio Williams. While Javonte Williams certainly made some freshman mistakes, his ability to carve out carries despite three (THREE) more experienced running backs ahead of him on the depth chart shows just how special his freshman season was.
Game to game the running game was far and away the most dependable part of the offense. It was the passing game that sputtered more often than not. On top of the inconsistent quarterback play that we’ve already discussed, there was never really a feeling that the receiving corps was about to turn the corner.
No North Carolina receiver finished with more than two touchdowns, which speaks to the depth in a way because five different receivers were tied for the team lead. But if the team leader for receiving touchdowns only has two then that clearly wasn’t a part of the offense that you can rely on.
Anthony Ratliff-Williams, a preseason All-ACC receiver, was the clear cut number one guy. The biggest surprise of the year, though, was Dazz Newsome coming on late in the season as an explosive receiver and returner. Newsome was one of the five Carolina receivers with two touchdown receptions, but his ability to contribute on special teams as well as in the run game is what helped him stand out.
In the article linked in the previous paragraph there is a highlight of Newsome’s punt return that went for a touchdown against Syracuse. Below is a clip of how Newsome’s explosiveness added creativity to North Carolina’s offense. In this clip he lines up as a running back in the back field and takes a simple sweep handoff to the house against Duke.
Newsome gets an A+ on the year for over achieving as much as anything. Ratliff-Williams wasn’t as productive as expected, but we’ll blame that on said quarterback play. The rest of the receiving corps, and even Newsome and Ratliff-Williams to an extent, were plagued by dropped passes throughout the year.
One of everyone’s favorite subplots heading into the season was cornerback K.J. Sails’ exuberance for everything. Sails’ has a unique ability to celebrate a ball going over the receivers head with more passion than most players celebrate actual interceptions. Unfortunately he went down during the Pitt game with a season-ending injury. North Carolina came into the season expecting to rely on Sails as the number one corner-back.
In Sails’ absence both Patrice Rene and Trey Morrison stepped up in a big way. Defensive back became somewhat of a rotating position in Chapel Hill, but by the midway through the season Rene had become the de facto number one guy. Morrison was asked to line up both outside and in the slot. Just like Javonte Williams on the offensive side of the ball, Morrison made it clear that he was a freshman. More often than not however Morrison made big time plays in critical moments that showed why the coaching staff had such confidence in him. Arguably his best games of the year were the Syracuse and Virginia Tech games (the two most heart breaking losses, but no need to get into that).
Cole Holcomb was a stud all year, Malik Carney showed why he was a pre-season All-ACC team pick in the games he got to play in. As a unit, however, the defense just could not put together strong performances for sixty minutes at a time.
As far as statistics go, North Carolina ranked 20th in the country in total sacks. That was even without their best edge rushers, Malik Carney and Tomon Fox, playing for the entire season. Other than that though there wasn’t anything that North Carolina did particularly well as a team. They didn’t even rank in the top fifty in anything besides sacks. So despite some individual standouts throughout the year, big picture wise it’s easy to see that the Tar Heel’s defense wasn’t exactly the ‘85 Bears in 2018.
The big thing 2018 will be remembered for is Larry Fedora’s last season in Chapel Hill. While Fedora had some success early in his tenure, and had *relatively sustained success in recruiting, a 3-9 2017 followed by a 2-9 2018 was just too much losing. Add in fractured relationships with in-state high school coaches, and it was time for a change. My colleague Chad Floyd explained all this quite articulately a few days before Fedora was actually let go.
2019 will bring a lot of change for North Carolina. Mack Brown returns as head coach with the gold folks in Chapel Hill hoping he’ll bring bowl eligibility in the short term, and a return to relative football relevance long term.
Really though, 2019 will be all about what the 2018 season was supposed to be.