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UNC Football: 6 things to watch in the second half of the season

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UNC has some momentum. Here are a few things to look for in the next 6 games.

NCAA Football: Clemson at North Carolina Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

On Tuesday, we broke down the six things learned over the first six games. It was an extended version of our regular post-game feature. If you haven’t had time, go back and check it out.

With the Heels entering the second half of their season next week against Virginia Tech, adding a six things to watch for the final six games also made sense. As with many things on this site, we’ll look to add a little more depth to some of the analysis than you’ll get most other places, while also trying to avoid the obvious. Let’s see how that works this time.

To help you understand some of the topics, here is UNC’s remaining schedule.

October 19: at Virginia Tec
October 26: Duke
November 2: Virginia
November 9: Off
November 14: at Pitt (away)
November 23: Mercer
November 30: at N.C. State

Race for the Coastal

This conversation is going to pick up steam if North Carolina handles Virginia Tech and Duke before UVA comes to town. Winning those three games, not surprisingly, would put UNC in the driver’s seat. If the Heels enter Heinz Field with a 5-1 conference record, they could seal the Coastal that night. Assuming I understand how tie-breakers work, even a season-ending loss to N.C. State wouldn’t impact the final standings.

Right now, UVA, Pitt, Duke, and UNC all have just one conference loss. Miami and Georgia Tech have two losses. In the above scenario, UNC would be undefeated against all Coastal opponents, and all Coastal opponents would have at least two losses. So even a 6-2 conference record, if both losses are to Atlantic division opponents, is good enough to win the league.

There is a long way to go. The Coastal Chaos is a real phenomenon. The likelihood of this scenario even happening is low. It could all blow up in Blacksburg. All caveats apply. But, with the toughest part of their schedule behind them, a little optimism is well-founded. (And FWIW, ESPN now has UNC favored to win their final six games).

Secondary Concerns

Patrice Rene. Bryson Richardson. Trey Morrison. Cam’Ron Kelly. Myles Wolfolk. All five were expected to be part of UNC’s secondary. Three of them began the season in the starting lineup. Three (and possibly four) of those five are out for the season. Wolkfolk is expected back at some point in the season, and the program is hopeful for Morrison as well.

Truthfully, the amount of injuries UNC has suffered this season isn’t abnormal. The amount lost in the defensive secondary, however, is almost tragically comical. Rene and Kelly’s injuries, for example, actually came courtesy of hitting their knees on teammate’s helmets. After two years of crippling injuries in the program, it all just feels like Groundhog Day.

How will teams attack the depleted secondary? How does Jay Bateman keep them fresh and hide their weaknesses? As the defense grows into Bateman’s schemes, can they get more pressure up front or disguise coverage with linebackers? Do Don Chapman, Greg Ross, and Storm Duck develop into consistently reliable defenders? There isn’t a world-beating QB left on UNC’s schedule, but that may not matter.

Expanding passing game

The passing game thus far has largely been the Dazz and Dyami show. The duo has combined for 8 touchdowns and 791 yards. North Carolina has passed for 15 touchdowns and 1569 yards. In other words, those two receivers have accounted for over half of UNC’s production. Yet, even with Beau Corrales’ effectiveness in the red zone, there’s still clearly another level (or three) that this offense can reach. The answers likely start with Antoine Green and end with Michael Carter.

At 6’2, Green has the size and speed to stretch the defense on the opposite side of Brown. That’s a key attribute that’s been missing this season, as UNC hasn’t had a symmetrical threat that required additional defensive attention. Unfortunately, a lower body injury against Miami (likely a pulled muscle) has limited his production. Before that, Green caught two receptions for 64 yards. His presence would open the field.

Meanwhile, Michael Carter would be the exact opposite option. A quick, explosive receiver out of the backfield to exploit openings in the defense. That talent has been on display multiple times this year, most recently in the waning minutes of the first half against Georgia Tech. He has 13 receptions for 107 yards and 2 TDs, but caught 5 passes for 52 yards against the Yellow Jackets. Most of those were not dump offs or check downs, but designed screens, swings, or routes.

With the best defenses on UNC’s schedule in the rearview mirror, and Javonte Williams emerging as UNC’s best running back, expanding Carter’s role in the passing game would give the Heels an additional weapon in all yardage situations.

Recruiting Bump

Most of UNC’s 2020 class is complete. With 22 players committed for next season, the Heels are just trying to tie up their final major targets, like in-state five-star defensive end Des Evans. A few other needs will arise, but UNC is ready to get a jump on the 2021 class.

Recruiting, though, is weird. Current rosters will face attrition both voluntarily and involuntarily. Coaches are fired. Other teams build momentum with surprising success. Decommitments, flips, and transfers happen. Late bloomers use strong senior seasons to change their collegiate prospects.

Will UNC go fishing in that lake again? Maybe. Maybe not. But with some regional programs stumbling combined with UNC’s resurgence on the field and the recruiting trail, don’t be surprised if there are some last-minute commitments (or transfers) to UNC. As we pointed out earlier this year, Mack Brown flipped nine players in the 2019 class that were committed to other schools before he took the job.

Penalties

We touched on this in today’s Tar Heel Hangover. In five of Larry Fedora’s seven seasons, North Carolina finished 100th or worse in penalty yards per game. They finished in the top 50 just once – in 2015 when they finished 34th. Last season they finished 73rd in the country. This year’s team has not had that problem.

UNC has committed just 32 penalties for an average of 43.2 penalty yards per game. After this weekend’s games, that’s good for 18th fewest yards per game in the nation. Cutting down on personal fouls, pass interference, and late hits have helped curb those problems. Development of the offensive line has also decreased those frustrating false starts. Not giving opponents free yards will be vital if they hope to make a run at the Coastal.

Coach of the Year

Like with UNC’s rising odds of winning the Coastal, this chatter will heat up if North Carolina remains relevant into early November. For all of the snickering that came with Mack Brown’s hire, especially from national media, even finishing in the top-3 of their division will give Mack a strong case for ACC Coach of the Year. Exceeding expectations after being predicted to finish last in the division seems like solid criteria. It worked for Josh Pastner in basketball didn’t it?

If UNC does win the Coastal and gets a rematch with Clemson? His name will also pop up in national conversations. That’s what happens when your team doubles (or triples) their win total from the previous season.

I’m not going to make the case for any accolades quite yet. The season must play out. UNC might stumble down the stretch. A few more wins though, and Mack will find himself squarely in the conversation on both the conference and national stage.