As 2018 concluded, it became quickly apparent that wholesale change was coming to Chapel Hill. It was to the point that after the lackluster loss to N.C. State, fans were already speculating about who would be leading the team going forward. Most were not expecting the return of Mack Brown.
Speculation swirled for a while on who would join Brown, but eventually an almost entirely new coaching staff was assembled, and from there they attacked the recruiting trail. Their work paid immediate dividends in salvaging the 2019 recruiting class, snagging one of the best quarterback prospects in the state in Sam Howell in the process. The 2020 class is looking like one of the best in the country. But who exactly are these new faces wearing headsets? Today, in our last preview before kickoff on Saturday, we’ll catch you up to speed on the Tar Heel coaching staff.
Lost in the hype about Mack Brown’s return has been the actual pedigree he brings to the sideline, so let’s remind ourselves of his history. Brown is 244-122-1 overall, which includes one national championship at Texas, a 13-8 record in bowl games, and a 69-46-1 at Carolina. Take out his first two seasons, and that record improves to 67-26-1. He’s responsible for bringing the program to a point where renovations were approved for Kenan, joining the two sidelines and building a new football office and locker rooms in front of the Bell Tower.
A common question after Brown was hired was what did he, a 67-year old coach, have left in the tank? It feels like all of his actions so far have done an excellent job in answering that question. For the first time in a couple of seasons, Brown has created a sense of hope around the program. Now, it’s time to see how that translates to the field.
To help with that, Mack has brought in some pretty impressive names.
Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks Coach
Phil Longo comes to UNC from Mississippi and the Air Raid offense. It was clear that Brown had chosen this style of offense for Carolina to move to, and several former head coaches and current coordinators had been named in the press prior to the official announcement of Longo. The stats speak to his success, as his bio lists Ole’ Miss finishing seventh last year in yards per play, ninth in total offense, and multiple All-Americans earned for players in the style.
Akil broke down both the offensive style and what Longo brings to the table back in December, and it’s absolutely worth a read to familiarize yourself on the new look scheme. Akil also broke down the quarterbacks going into the season. With the second title of QB coach, Longo has been a diplomatic as possible as he had three players to try to teach the new offense too. With the naming of Sam Howell and the likely transfer of Cade Fortin, the question becomes just how well did the lessons take.
Tight Ends/Assistant Head Coach
Mack Brown isn’t the only football coach returning to Chapel Hill. Tim Brewster was with Brown from the beginning of his Tar Heel run and his first few years in Texas. Brewster not only brings familiarity with Brown, but familiarity with big programs in Texas, Florida State, and Texas A&M. He’ll be Brown’s right hand man, and has already shown his skill on the recruiting trail. That level of experience is invaluable.
Wide Receivers Coach
Lonnie Galloway jumped on board at Carolina after holding the same position at Louisville, as well as the job as co-offensive coordinator. Having offensive coordinator after your name during the years Lamar Jackson led your offense isn’t a bad feather to have in your cap. With the coaching change in Louisville, Galloway became available.
Galloway leads a strong group as Jacob broke down a couple weeks ago. The questions are going to be how quickly this group takes to the new scheme and how well Galloway is able to teach it. A strong performance this season by this group might make Galloway a hot name for a promotion after the season with his experience.
Running Backs Coach
Robert Gillespie is one of the only returning coaches from the previous staff. Gillespie jumped on board prior to the 2018 season, and as Jake noted last year, Gillespie’s greatest strength was his acumen at recruiting. Clearly Brown agreed by keeping Gillespie on board.
It also helps Gillespie’s cause that what was perhaps the strongest group on offense last year is returning this year, as Brandon pointed out in his preview. Between his recruiting skills and the success of the running backs being one of the few bright spots last year, Gillespie had earned the right to teach the group that already had his year the new scheme.
Offensive Line Coach
Stacy Searels has familiarity with both Brown and the offensive line, having coached the same position for Brown at Texas during Mack’s last three seasons in Austin. He also held the assistant head coach title during that time, but moved to the ACC when Brown left. A new coach at Miami plus Brown’s return gave Searels the chance to get back on familiar ground.
With key losses to the NFL and a new scheme, how well the offensive line plays will perhaps be the biggest key to the season, as Christian broke down in his preview.
Co-Defensive Coordinator/Safeties Coach
Of all of the hires made by Brown, perhaps the most exciting was Jay Bateman, the man who held the same title at Army and turned their defense into one of the best in the country. That he was able to do it with the typical athlete that plays at West Point made the accomplishment even more remarkable.
If you haven't already, Chad took the time to break down the scene Bateman ran at Army and what it might look like at Carolina. The most important part of this is a shift of responsibilities, making the secondary responsible for the defensive play calls instead of the front. That change explains why he’s also the safeties coach, and the pressure will be on that group to adjust to the ton of new responsibilities coming their way. Jacob broke down the players Bateman will be working with.
Co-Defensive Coordinator/Inside Linebackers Coach
The other holdover from the prior coaching staff is Tommy Thigpen. The reason for his retention is similar to Gillespie: his strength as a recruiter. He was also a player under Brown, and has familiarity with the players coming back. Add it all together and it turned into a promotion for Thigpen.
Evan broke down the Linebackers, and it’s apparent Thigpen will have his work cut out for him as that group will be the most inexperienced on the team. Having someone who is familiar with both Brown and the players should help speed the process of acclimation.
The one and only Dre Bly leads the group that he once played under Brown in Chapel Hill. While he’ll also be a part of the secondary that will have increased responsibilities, Bly has been a leading voice in recruiting. The work is already paying off, and if Bly is able to replicate the level of success he had on the field, he should be a fast riser.
Defensive Line Coach
You may be familiar with Tim Cross from this:
Cross is another service academy veteran, coming to Carolina from Air Force. He leads a strong but thin group as Chad outlined in his preview. Hopefully they are ready to get that work.
Outside Linebackers/Special Teams
Scott Boone brings his decades of coaching experience to assist Thigpen with the linebackers, as well as sort out a special teams group that is inexperienced, to say the least. While Boone has been coaching for a long time, the only P5 experience he brings is as a Linebackers coach in Arizona and a offensive analyst at Wake Forest.
Akil looked at the special teams on Friday, and it’s worth paying attention to as there’s a decent change a game is going to be won or lost by this group.
Behind the Scenes
Strength and Conditioning
Brian Hess followed Jay Bateman over from Army, and the hire seemed to be a real coup. After dealing with untold injuries the last few years, the S&C program clearly needed to be refreshed. In Hess, the Tar Heels get a coach who was not only responsible for making sure the athletes at Army could practice and play, but also still perform their West Point tasks at a top level. Word has already come out about the difference he made, and hopefully the results will be visible on the field.
Darrell Moody brings experience of being Mack Brown’s recruiting coordinator during Brown’s first stint, and decades of experience all across college football. He also brings about two decades worth of NFL scouting experience to the table. Sparky Woods also brings decades of experience all across college football and will combine with Moody to help Brown run the day-to-day life behind the scenes.
There is a lot of optimism heading into the new season with this group of coaches, but change can be bumpy and difficult. A difficult beginning to the season will add to the challenges, especially with a group that’s had two straight years go straight downhill. A lot will be learned by how the team responds to the front half of their schedule, but at the very least, they should be better prepared than the last couple of openers.