The North Carolina Tar Heels will face a longtime rival in South Carolina when Mack Brown returns to the sidelines Saturday. The border war in Charlotte is a fresh start for a Carolina program that has renewed enthusiasm with the return of the Hall of Fame coach.
But despite all the facility upgrades, press conferences, and social media posts, what matters more than anything else is what happens on the field.
Brown knows this. Before training camp, the head coach said, “Now it’s time to win some ball games. We’ve told our guys that we want to win and win now. We have the talent. Now it’s about building confidence, building depth and winning the fourth quarter.”
There are a ton of questions floating around for the Tar Heels heading into the opener on Saturday. We won’t get complete answers to all of them, but there will be some insight into what has been built in the offense with a new playbook, new defensive schemes, and a new team attitude.
With that in mind, here are three broad areas to watch on Saturday versus the Gamecocks.
How much will the run game be relied upon?
As reported previously, Sam Howell has been named the starter for Week 1’s action by way of an official depth chart. This was confirmed by Brown in the press conference on Monday.
Another important note is that offensive coordinator Phil Longo said that the use of both Howell and Jace Ruder will be “dictated by the game situation.” It will be interesting to see afterwards what plans were in place and what situations had influence on those plans.
At the end of the day, you have two inexperienced quarterbacks leading the offense and a group of running backs that were touted and then confirmed through training camp as the strongest position group on the field.
These factors, combined with the Air Raid offense, begs the question: how much will the run game be relied upon? The potential of a three-headed monster in Michael Carter, Antonio Williams, and Javonte Williams could be very effective in generating some offense especially if the offensive line continues to coalesce.
It is certainly important for Howell and Ruder to get those live-action passing game reps, but if the running backs are moving the chains, will there be dedication to the scheme or will they ride the wave of offensive effectiveness?
In years past, there was seemingly a dedication to the spread scheme and the talents in the backfield were often left underutilized. If the Tar Heels are to have a chance to win, it will be contingent of the coaching staff making good decisions with the available talent, not just sticking to a script.
The New Defense
Unless you followed Army football the past few years, you may not understand Jay Bateman’s defense, much less the details of it.
Coming into the season, there were about five players locked into starting jobs regardless of scheme: Aaron Crawford and Jason Strowbridge on the line and Patrice Rene, Myles Dorn, and Myles Wolfolk in the defensive backfield.
Beyond that, there were question marks about who would fit where in the new system and who would win training camp battles.
With the depth chart released, there is a better idea of how all the pieces fit into place.
A notable takeaway from the depth chart is Chazz Surratt as a starting inside linebacker. Two thoughts come to mind: speed and athleticism remain an attribute of the Bateman system and Surratt was serious about proving the doubters wrong.
Even though Surratt beat out an experienced linebacker like Jonathan Smith for the starting position with Dominique Ross suspended for a half, depth has been a theme throughout training camp. “Building depth” was a common phrase for Brown during his press conferences.
Brown spoke at length about figuring out the number of plays that players can compete at a high level before needing a substitution. It’s important to manage rotations so that your starters aren’t worn down to the point of being a worse option than their backup, and Mack needed to both find depth for good rotations up and down the defense and improve conditioning.
With depth in mind, how much will players rotate during the game, and how many players will ultimately be used? The mixing of coverages and formations in this defense, along with a reliance on speed, necessitates a heavy kind of depth.
It will be interesting to recap next week how many defensive players stepped on the field and the number of plays for each.
What is the immediate, on-the-field influence of Mack Brown?
On the outside, you can discern the differences in the program. Quality assistant coaches and facility upgrades are the most notable, and there have been several smaller tweaks as well.
It’s clear that these have had a serious impact on the players.
Let’s revisit what Charlie Heck said during ACC Media Day:
My first impressions of Coach Brown, when I found out he was coming in, I instantly thought Hall of Fame, legendary coach. He’s exceeded all my expectations, and everybody’s on the team. He brought an excitement to the team that I hadn’t seen before, not just only on the team but in the community. People are talking about Carolina football. That’s been really special to be a part of right now
There was continuous positivity from Brown throughout training camp and the players had that same enthusiasm.
As reported by UNC Athletics on Wednesday, the players are ready for the opener. The most interesting quote from that piece came from Myles Dorn:
Coming in healthy, it shows we’re doing things the right way. It shows we’re being taken care of. I think that will pay off in the long haul. Game 1 feels like Game 1. It doesn’t feel like Week 5. It doesn’t feel like we’ve been playing half a season. I think that’s the biggest part, just durability throughout the season. We’re going to be alright and we’re going to be fresh.
There is undoubtedly a sense of renewal around Kenan Stadium right now. The only question now: can this translate to wins on the field?