After back-to-back disappointing nine-loss seasons, one could argue that individual talent was never the issue for the Carolina football team. Well, outside of the quarterback position, at least.
While a lot of players failed to live up to their high school reputations in Chapel Hill under the previous coaching staff, injuries and attrition played a major role. Left tackle William Sweet missed most of the 2017 season with an ACL tear. Defensive tackle Aaron Crawford played, like, 20 snaps in 2018 with various ailments. Carl Tucker and Brandon Fritts both missed entire seasons at tight end. The Heels were a walking MASH unit for much of the past two seasons.
Given the injuries and on-field malaise for the Heels, its not totally surprising that major breakout performances were few and far between. There were glimpses from Sweet, Anthony Ratliff-Williams, K.J. Sails, Jay-Jay McCargo, and C.J. Cotman, but all are no longer Tar Heels due to NFL aspirations, transfers, or medical retirement.
The Tar Heels are under new management in 2019, with Mack Brown and his impressively-assembled coaching staff. With a new coaching staff comes new opportunity to re-set the depth chart. With a refreshed depth chart comes opportunity for players who haven’t yet reached the general public’s consciousness.
And with new opportunities for players to emerge comes a chance for me to guess who the breakout stars of the 2019 North Carolina football team will be.
As a guideline, I eliminated players who showed up on Athlon’s All-ACC teams. Thus, you will not see:
- Charlie Heck (1st team)
- Jason Strowbridge & Dazz Newsome (2nd team, Newsome as a punt returner)
- Michael Carter & Carl Tucker (3rd team)
That leaves plenty of options!
Yeah, I’m burying the lede by putting the quarterback at the bottom. Patrice Rene, Trey Morrison, and Myles Dorn all acquitted themselves nicely last year, and a ‘breakout’ would be from solid performer to all-conference talent. My pick is Storm Duck. Duck enrolled early, and had a fumble return for a touchdown in the spring game. He possesses possibly the best speed on the team, has the size to capably handle corner or safety, and is not afraid of contact.
Linebacker was a little difficult to identify. as there will be so many moving parts in Jay Bateman’s scheme. And of course, a ton of injuries keeping guys out for the spring.
Everywhere I look, I see Dominique Ross listed as an inside ‘backer, which is interesting because his size and speed screams weakside edge rusher in a 3-4. He was the Heels’ best defender outside of Strowbridge and Holcomb last year, so he’s eliminated.
My choice is another freshman with great speed— Matthew Flint. He totaled just three tackles in two games last year, but acquitted himself nicely in the spring while Jonathan Smith was sitting out due to academic issues. Like Duck, Flint will help mask some talent defencies on this defense with his sideline-to-sideline speed.
With Ross sliding inside, my pick is easy: freshman Eugene Asante. Same logic applies as with the first two picks: elite speed for his position. Asante may be the gem of the 2019 recruiting class, and I expect him to start as soon as he understands what’s expected him at the Will linebacker position.
Strowbridge, Crawford, and Tomon Fox are entrenched with their hands in the dirt, if they stay healthy. Not many teams win football games with three capable defensive linemen, though.
With his imposing 6’4, 290 lb. frame, Xach Gill is the pick here. A third-year sophomore, Gill was a 4-star talent on Rivals coming out of high school— but behind a lot of veterans, including the aforementioned names. He got his first extended playing time against Western Carolina last season, and generated a sack and another half tackle for loss. Outside of Gill, the Heels will be relying on new faces such as redshirt freshman Jahlil Taylor and JuCo transfer Raymond Vohasek to step up, and beyond that is a laundry list of question marks.
There are actually a lot of good picks here. With Nick Polino sliding to center in the retired McCargo’s stead, both guard spots and right tackle will see new faces. Jordan Tucker, William Barnes, Joshua Ezeudu, Billy Ross, and Brian Anderson and Marcus McKeithan are all names from Fedora’s last two recruiting classes who have shown some promise early in their careers.
My pick, however, is the guy from those classes I failed to mention: Ed Montilus. Montilus was the lesser-heralded recruit between himself and fellow guard Barnes out of Florida, but he turned the most heads during spring camp. Barnes could very well win the right guard spot, but Montilus appears entrenched at left guard.
Wide Receiver/Tight End
Another spot with a litany of choices, because the talent was not given ample opportunity to emerge with the previous two years’ quarterbacks. I want to hedge and say that Beau Corrales, Dyami Brown, Corey Bell, Toe Groves, and Antoine Green— not to mention four true freshmen coming in— could all ‘break out’ from previous career norms.
My ‘safe’ bet is Dyami Brown, who emerged late in the 2018 season as an explosive weapon with enough size to play outside or in the slot. My wildcard bet is Antoine Green. If he proves himself healthy after a gross ankle injury at Syracuse, his size and speed make him the team’s go-to deep threat.
Javonte Williams. I think he ends up leading the backs in touches as Phil Longo attempts to coax a power running system from mostly finesse personnel.
You scrolled here first, didn’t you? Well, I’m going to make you feel bad about that decision. Whomever wins the job will either break out— or lose the job. Same goes for the second guy.
(I think Jace Ruder starts against South Carolina and gives way to Sam Howell some time in October.)
Who are your picks to break out for the 2019 Tar Heels?