With all of the football done for the year and 2019 ending in a few hours, it’s time to take a look back on the 2019 UNC Football season. We start this week with some of your favorite post game columns in a yearly form, and then next week we’ll continue with specific awards.
After two years of horrid football, a complete changeover in the coaching staff, and a guaranteed change at quarterback, there were a lot of unanswered questions before the first game kicked off in Charlotte. Over the course of that and the other twelve games that followed, we have a good idea of where the team and program stand going into the future. Let’s look at three things that we learned that we’ll take into 2020.
Mack Is Back
This isn't just a cute slogan that UNC crammed down our throats starting last winter, and it didn’t just mean a return of coach Mack Brown to the sideline. His return ultimately highlighted multiple things severely lacking in the program under previous coach Larry Fedora.
The season opener that included a come back for the win instantly set a new tone for the program. That win created instant buzz, which was only amplified by Mack Brown being engaged on Carolina’s social media, engaging with the students, and getting with the alumni to let them know their voices were being heard and appreciated. The sellout for the Hurricanes led to an incredible atmosphere, another close win, and was the first of six consecutive sellouts.
Ultimately, winning breeds a lot of the good feelings for sure, but there are plenty of schools that go through a 6-6 regular season who are ready to move on when it’s done. The overall feeling of fans to this Tar Heel squad was one of fun and genuine enjoyment of every game knowing that the Tar Heels would be in each one. All along the way there was Mack, sending a letter to the students to thank them for their effort against Clemson, dancing along with the team, and showing up on ESPN in Carolina Blue to represent the school. It turns out, Carolina was missing someone who saw the whole picture and not just cared about the result on the field.
In twelve short months, the spirits in Chapel Hill are as high as they’ve been in years, and it’s all thanks to a coach that seems to be enjoying everything he’s doing, not just being on the sidelines.
Sam Howell is the Real Deal
Chad mentioned this on the postgame podcast we did after the Military Bowl, but at the time Howell flipped his commitment from FSU to UNC it was seen as a win, but really underplayed. A lot of this had to do with the fact that the team had Jace Ruder and Cade Fortin in the locker room as well, and the assumption had been going in that one of the more experienced players would get the call. When Howell won the job it was a mild surprise, and most of us feared the inevitable up and down season.
Well, we got the up part right.
3,641 passing yards and 38 touchdowns later, Howell ends the season as a quarterback with arguably the most buzz headed into the 2020 season. Due to an early injury to Ruder and the decision by Fortin to transfer when he was going to be third on the depth chart, the coaching staff had to handcuff Howell by telling him running was not an option. Despite this added layer to complicate his decisions, he only had seven interceptions on the year. He was a reason for analysts to talk about Carolina during other games, and the ice water in his veins to where he was able to lead Carolina down to game winning and tying drives time after time was remarkable for someone playing his first snaps in college.
As with any freshman, there are things to work on. He had a propensity to hold onto the ball too long and take a sack instead of throwing the ball away, although his orders to not scramble may have been a factor with that. He also seemed to always be looking for the big play rather than the check down that would keep drives going. At the same time, his numbers would have been even better had the Carolina receivers not continued their tendency to drop passes.
The Military Bowl, however, gave fans a glimpse of what's to come next year. Finally able to scramble, Howell showed the ability to make plays with his feet that he hadn’t all season. He saved their opening drive with a 20-yard run on third and long, he ducked out of sacks multiple times to toss the ball away, and started passing short to make his playmakers get big chunks. It’s clear that the bowl practices were used to evolve his game. You can’t help but to salivate at what else he can do now that he’ll have a spring and summer practice knowing he’ll be the starter, with receivers who know what to expect.
The Coordinators Were the Right Hires
Another benefit of having someone like Mack Brown come in is that while he is the final arbiter of decisions, he gives his assistant coaches a lot of autonomy to install their philosophies. It means he’s also going to take great care in determining who will lead each side of the ball.
It’s clear from the performance of the players on campus that Brown did his homework well. A reason that football had been so disappointing the last couple of seasons is that everyone knew there was some talent on the team, but they just couldn’t put it together. A new coach coming in and trying install a system different than what they are used to can create headaches, yet on both sides of the ball, the coaches took what was available and got a great buy in from the players. That’s not exactly easy to do, and was a big reason why the 2-0 start was so unexpected.
There were hiccups, and plenty of them. On offense, the red zone was a glaring issue and probably cost the Tar Heels from going to a higher-tier Bowl, if not the Coastal Division. On defense, too many points were given up, forcing the offense to try and keep up. Tackling is still an issue, and while the story of Chazz Surratt is a great one, it’s also not a great sign when one of your stars on defense is a converted quarterback.
The biggest sign that the right hires were made, though, were in how the Tar Heels looking in both the South Carolina and Temple games. A constant gripe of fans in the Fedora era was how the team would just look unprepared for season opening and bowl games. There seemed to be a stubbornness not to game plan for a particular opponent, but instead just do your thing, and if you didn’t win it was OK cause the game didn’t really matter. Phil Longo and Jay Bateman clearly felt otherwise, as both sides of the ball were ready to attack the weakness of their opponent in both instances. Look no further than Longo opening up the short game against a team that gave up nearly 130 yards a game on the ground, and Bateman sending pressure against a pocket passer.
You’d be right to have a ton of optimism going into next season. How long has it been since we can say that?