The Tar Heels enter the bye week well ahead of last year’s pace, with three wins to the 2018 team’s one. Last season, the Heels limped into the bye week after making the trip south for a 47-10 curb-stomping in Miami Gardens. This year, the bye week comes a little later in the season, but the return of the Mack has led to a very different look in terms of on-field product. Instead of backing into the bye week, North Carolina should carry a bit of momentum after avenging last season’s loss to the Yellow Jackets of Georgia Tech last Saturday.
With the benefit of a week to rest, for the team and for us as fans, we can take a step back and take a bigger-picture look at the season thus far, including how we got to where we are in terms of each unit. For some forecasting in terms of wins and losses, check out Chad’s in-depth look at how many coins the Heels will need to flip correctly to get that rematch with Clemson in the ACC title game.
That being said, here we are in the bye week, and it’s time for midterm report cards. Let’s start with the youngest, then wind our way through the rest of the offense to the defense, handing out letter grades as we go. It’s important to keep in mind that midterm report cards aren’t included on final transcripts, which may be a blessing for some.
Sam Howell, through these first six games, has shown every facet of who he is as a player. A gifted quarterback, with a live arm and the ability to make dazzling plays, as well as a natural leader. Howell has demonstrated on multiple occasions that he has the strength of will to lead his team back from the brink, orchestrating electrifying fourth-quarter comebacks and, even in losses, keeping his team close enough to have a shot at winning the game.
For all of this upside, and it is considerable, his age and lack of experience has also shown on a few occasions. For three quarters against Wake Forest, a handful of drives against Appalachian State, and again at several points in the near-miss to Clemson, he looked like a high school quarterback on the field, struggling to adjust to a new level of play.
Still, it’s hard to discount those flashes of brilliance when they do happen, and freshman errors are to be expected from someone who is, in fact, a freshman. A little more work, perhaps an extra-credit win over Virginia or a bump in completion percentage, and I could see this grade bumping up to an A.
Running Backs: A-
Group projects have never been easy, but this group of Tar Heel backs has made it look that way. Generally, you have one person who gets saddled with the responsibility of picking up slack for the rest of the group, but this running backs’ room has divided the load impressively through the first half of this season. Michael Carter (84 carries) and Javonte Williams (83 carries) have seen the lion’s share of attempts, with Antonio Williams joining the fun occasionally. If it’s not one, it’s generally been the other as the Tar Heel rushing attack has been able to find success against every defense they’ve faced thus far. It’s refreshing to see a rotation of backs who can do damage, as a one-man show is often more easily shut down.
Perhaps the most exciting group of players on the field at any given time, the receivers have been dynamic with the ball in their hands. Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown are a tandem that cause headaches for opposing defenses, and Beau Corrales and Toe Groves are also more than capable of toasting a defender for a big gain. Brown, the big play threat, is averaging nearly 18 yards per catch and has already notched five touchdowns on the season, while Newsome has been reliable in the medium passing game and a solid safety net for Sam Howell. The only thing holding this unit back from an ‘A’ has been a few bouts of the drops, suffered at inopportune times.
Offensive Line: C+
The Tar Heels offensive line, when healthy, has been solid. The problem is, the line hasn’t been healthy all year, and the void left by Nick Polino and Charlie Heck was telling. Heck has since returned to the lineup, and with him a pseudo return to form, which is a blessing. Obviously, injuries are part of the game, but the lack of experienced depth has hurt the Heels in a few games this season, and it’s hard to look past how bad the protection was when the line wasn’t at full strength.
Defensive Line: B-
Trouble stopping the run was one of the hallmarks of this unit’s early season, until flipping a switch against Clemson and limiting a very talented running back in Travis Etienne to only 67 yards. As one would hope, the defensive front has improved throughout the season, with a few blips here and there, but generally can be relied upon to stuff the run and try to get pressure on the opposing quarterback. Jason Strowbridge, back from injury, and Aaron Crawford are studs on the line, and with a few more sacks this grade could easily hop to a B+ or even an A.
The linebackers have had an up-and-down year, but have shown improvement as the season has progressed. Chazz Surratt has been a surprising bright spot for the defensive unit, as the converted quarterback had been generally solid up until losing his damn mind against Clemson and balling out, practically living in the Tigers’ backfield. Chunk plays have been an issue for this unit, though, and the inability to make the big stop when it’s most needed has reflected poorly on the defense as a whole, not just the linebackers.
Defensive Backs: C+
The Tar Heel defensive backs have struggled this season. The defensive secondary got toasted against Wake Forest, allowing Sage Surratt to catch easy balls and rack up 169 yards on only nine catches. That’s the most egregious example of a North Carolina unit that has struggled in coverage and with open-field tackling, as well as a unit that has displayed a tendency to fade in the big moments. The injury bug has also visited the Tar Heel DBs, as Patrice Rene and Myles Wolfolk have both suffered considerable injuries (Rene is out for the reason, Wolfolk is out indefinitely), a huge loss for the blue and white, and partially the reason that this grade has been curved.
Special Teams: B
Special teams, after a shaky start, has improved greatly. Punter Ben Kiernan has settled into his role, and is punting much better after six games than he was at the onset of the season. Kick coverage has been a bright spot, eliminating big returns (helped by the big leg of Michael Rubino). Good special teams should quietly do their job, as notoriety is a sign of something gone poorly, and the Heels have done that. The return game has been solid, with no muffed punts and solid decision-making displayed by the returners. A few blocked/missed field goals and one or two shaky outings in the punting game are keeping this unit from being graded an A, but the improvement from the beginning of the season has been refreshing.
The new (and in some cases, old) coaching staff has settled into their roles, it seems. This can perhaps be attributed to a more intimate understanding of players’ strengths and weaknesses, but it also reflects a willingness to change and adapt, something that’s often overlooked in a staff. Preparation has been fantastic thus far this season, and every game the coaching staff has either won or put the team in a position to have a chance to win. Barring a few flukey plays (like a blocked field goal), the Tar Heels have been right there in every contest thus far, whether it be against an unexpectedly good Wake Forest team or the reigning champion Clemson Tigers. The coaches have seemingly had a solid game plan in place for each opponent, and that bodes well for the rest of this season as well as seasons to come.