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UNC 56, Mercer 7: Positional Grades

Expect a lot of positivity.

NCAA Football: Mercer at North Carolina James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t know about you, but I’d forgotten what a comfortable win over a clearly inferior team looked like. I even admit to some nervousness when I saw Chad’s preview with a predicted score of 66-16, because even though last year’s team beat 66-10, this year’s team was so good at playing to an opponent that I genuinely thought they’d find a way to make this hard for themselves. And if you say I’m the only one, you’re lying.

Fortunately, there was no need for that kind of anxiety, as the Heels were able to successfully use this as a “get-right” game ahead of a rivalry tilt in Raleigh, and all the pieces were working together. Let’s break it down.

Also, because I know how much you missed this feature last game, here are my grades with no comment presented for the Pitt game: QB - A; RB - B; WR/TE - A-; OL - B-; DL - C-; LB - C+; DB - B-; ST - A-; COACH - C+. Okay, back to yesterday.

Quarterback: A

I mean, what more can we even say about Sam Howell? He now holds the UNC single-season touchdown record as a true freshman, the NCAA record for most touchdown passes by a true freshman, is top-10 in the nation in both passing yards and passing touchdowns, and has truly been a 4th-quarter wizard all season, pulling the Heels into and through games that they’ve had no right to compete for in the first 45 minutes. He’d been hitting a little bit of a wall lately, though, meaning that he’d been putting up merely B-type performances instead of acing everything like he had for the first half+ of the season. His pocket presence had regressed a little, his deep ball wasn’t as pinpoint as it had been, and he hadn’t been making the right RPO reads every time. Yes, it’s harsh. It’s also the reality when you set as high a standard as Howell did back in September and October. This time, however, he got his mojo back. Howell got basically everything he wanted, whether he was in a totally clean pocket or a kind of clean pocket, playing just a half of football and completing 10/13 passes for 153 yards and three touchdowns of 66, 4, and 33 yards. His best throw might have been one that didn’t count, a dime about 50 yards downfield on the run that was negated by a pretty weak holding penalty, but Mercer defensive backs just had no answer for him as his throws beat coverage all half long. He didn’t have to do a lot, but he reminded us how special his arm really is. Vincent Amendola came in for the second half, completed a tough throw and missed another, and then handed off for the rest of the half. Jace Ruder come back please.

Running Backs: A+

Michael Carter struggled mightily last week against a really good Pittsburgh defensive line, getting hammered repeatedly into the middle of it and not being able to use his breakaway speed, which is easily best in the UNC running backs’ room. It seems like he felt he had to make up for it this week, because he got in space again and again, and Mercer defenders just couldn’t catch him. In a little more than a half of play, he took just 9 carries for 159 yards and his first three rushing touchdowns of the season, including a career-long 60-yarder. That’s right, he averaged more yards per carry than Howell did per completion. Usually, that means your quarterback had a bad day, but a running back doesn’t usually average close to 18 yards per rushing attempt. The Heels will need him to be at his best in Raleigh as a complement to the two Williams’, so this was really great to see. Speaking of the Williams’, Antonio was able to send himself off Kenan Stadium on his terms, taking 9 carries himself for 65 yards and a touchdown (7.2 YPC), and Javonte played sparingly as he recovers from a hamstring injury, taking 6 carries for 27 yards and a 4.5 YPC average.

The second half showed that the future of this group is in good hands. Josh Henderson shouldered most of the offensive load in the second half with Vincent Amendola content to take snaps and hand it off, and he acquitted himself well: his 13 carries went for 98 yards, nearly giving him a 100-yard game in his first real action of the season. Walk-on British Brooks, who people could not stop talking about in spring ball, looked pretty nice as well on a 12-yard touchdown carry.

Wide Receivers and Tight Ends: A

Like Howell, this group had a job to do and went out and did it. Mercer’s defensive backs just could not answer the athleticism and route-running ability that UNC threw at them on the outside, and nearly every time a UNC receiver went deep in the first half, he got a couple of steps on his man. Separation was constant. Dyami Brown and Toe Groves were the only receivers even targeted more than once, and both took in 3 of them. Brown went for 83 yards including the 66-yard score, and Groves moved the chains for 24 yards. Dazz Newsome was suspended for a violation of team rules, meaning that Brown and Newsome are at 817 and 797 yards respectively. The dream of two 1000-yard receivers is pretty much dead, unfortunately, and it’s fairly unlikely that we see even one. We’ve got next year, though.

I want to shout out two players in particular. First is true freshman Emery Simmons, who has seen spot snaps across the season but got extended snaps against the Bears and looked great, including a highlight-reel catch for a touchdown. Equally impressive was his blocking on the edge, which made sure that Brooks got his touchdown and sealed a couple of other big runs. You don’t see that from a lot of young players, and it’s a good sign for his future as he works his way into the regular offensive rotation. Second is Jake Bargas, who caught his first touchdown of the season on a textbook back-of-the-end-zone levels play. More of that in the red zone, please.

Offensive Line: A+

It’s not really a surprise that the Heels’ offensive line was as dominant as it was, given the difference in maintenance between an ACC program and an FCS one. No disrespect to Mercer, but they don’t have the recruiting or training resources that a school like UNC was, meaning that the Heels were able to bully the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. They got running backs to the second level, protected their quarterback superbly, and even handled the rotations that naturally come with a game like this well, with no discernible loss in chemistry. Besides the starters, I saw guys like William Barnes, Asim Richards, and Billy Ross make significant contributions.

Defensive Line: B+

The Heels owned the line of scrimmage on this side of the ball as well, with 9 tackles for loss, two sacks, and all three of Mercer’s backs averaging less than 3 yards per carry. They could have gotten home more often and finished a few more plays, leading to the slightly lower grade, but overall, played a very good game. Ray Vohasek had a huge get-right game from the 3-4 DE spot; he started the season starting before losing his job a few games in. He played about as much as the starters this game and made the most of it, with a sack, two tackles for loss, five tackles, and general disruptiveness whenever he played. Mostly, though, the defensive line just let everybody else make plays, occupying their gaps and blowing up plays but not really recording the big stats.

Linebackers: A

Eugene Asante, welcome to college football. After having made some standout plays on special teams all season, the true freshman who would’ve been the crown jewel of the 2019 class if not for a quarterback from Monroe, NC, led UNC in tackles in his first real defensive game action. He displayed the same heat-seeking missile tendencies that he did in high school, and while he didn’t finish too many plays, he got to the ball and should be turning those assists into tackles with a year of conditioning. Speaking of guys who turned assists into tackles, Chazz Surratt broke the 100-tackle mark with a 5-tackle day and was generally his field-aware, ball-hawking self for the half-ish that he played. Khadry Jackson, also a true freshman, had himself a day as well, with half a tackle for loss to go with his 6 total tackles.

Defensive Backs: B

All of these groups continued to play well with starters out. The defensive backs, however, already down to the last string starting due to a not-completely-gone-yet injury bug, really struggled when the depth, if it could be called that, went in: Mercer’s second-string quarterback out-gained their first stringer’s 28 attempts in just 7, thanks to breakdowns in coverage and inability to compete at the catch point. Those will get ironed out with playing time and a more healthy group, because the guys that will be depth, the guys who have been starting in the back half of the season, balled out: Storm Duck, who’s been genuinely good at times and just inconsistent, had a nice toe-tapping pick, D.J. Ford and DeAndre Hollins each broke up a pass, and the passing game was generally shut down in the first half, as Mercer starter Kaelan Riley was 16-28 for just 69 yards. The starting DBs got some nice experience and hopefully will be able to carry this forward.

Special Teams: A

Nothing much to see here. Noah Ruggles continued his comeback from a midseason benching by being perfect on his 6 point-after attempts, Michael Rubino finished his last home game with two PATs as a backup, and Mercer didn’t get the kickoff return game going for anything, with just 20 yards per return: they were better off taking touchbacks every time. The punting game went well, too: Ben Kiernan skied 5 balls, netting 200 yards, in an incident-free day. UNC didn’t return a punt on the day, and Antonio Williams had one good kickoff return. No mistakes here.

Coaching: A-

Apparently Mack Brown has a policy of never pulling starters before a half of football? I would’ve liked to see guys start rotating in at the team’s deepest spots a little earlier, maybe by the time it was 35-0 with 10 minutes to go in the 2nd quarter, but that’s maybe nitpicking. And if it’s a way to help rehabilitate a culture that had seemed nonexistent at times the past few years, then I won’t harp on it. I’m just glad we didn’t have any serious injuries due to keeping guys in too long. On the more positive side of things, UNC went 4-4 in the red zone, and while it was against competition that wasn’t exactly inspiring, we saw a variety of different actions, plays, and ideas that we haven’t really seen a ton of. If Phil Longo’s taking his red zone failures from the past few weeks to heart and adapting, the NCAA should look out, because he’s been absolute money between the 20’s despite the high-profile miscues.