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UNC 24, SCAR 20: Positional Grades

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It’s been a long, LONG time since I could make one of these mostly positive

NCAA Football: South Carolina at North Carolina Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

So that was fun! For the first time in over two decades, the UNC Tar Heels have won an opener against a P5 opponent, and the return of Mack Brown is off to a roaring start. UNC’s 24-20 victory over a South Carolina squad expected to be pretty dang good this season couldn’t have happened without a bunch of new moving parts coalescing into a unit, and every single unit contributed to the come-from behind win. Now, let’s take a deeper look at every position group and piece together what happened in that glorious 4 hours.

Quarterback: A-

What a debut for Sam Howell in the first season opener ever played by a UNC true freshman. He clearly wasn’t given all of the keys to the offense, especially early, and had some inexperienced moments, but overall he looked ready for the season, showed poise in the pocket, and put together a seriously impressive game: he finished completing 15/24 passes for 245 yards and two touchdowns, adding 7 rushes for 30 yards and a two-point conversion. He ate three sacks and coughed it up on one of them in probably his only real mistake of the game; it looked like he was trying to push the ball to Michael Carter as he was being tackled, but his momentum didn’t give him a chance, and the ball hit the turf for the Gamecocks to scoop up. He had a couple of beauties going deep, including both touchdowns to the corners of the end zone, and two passes down the sideline to a streaking Dazz Newsome (who caught the second!), and showed off his next-level arm strength with this space-bender:

But perhaps the most impressive thing about this win for Howell was his leadership. UNC’s comeback from 20-9 down required touchdown drives of 98 and 95 yards, and he didn’t flinch. Sure, he had help getting out of there, but he carried his team to contention and eventually to victory. He probably took a few too many shots to be sustainable, but that’s something you can live with, especially if the alternative is a quarterback who’s too tentative. Much easier to teach a guy to calm down than to get him to play right. At the end of the day, winning your first start in neutral territory with a 4th quarter comeback takes both talent and huge cojones. He’s going to be fun.

Running Backs: A

That said, on the offensive side, it was definitely the running backs who carried this team to its eventual victory. The trio of Javonte Williams, Michael Carter, and Antonio Williams toted the ball 38 times for 232 yards for an eye-popping average of 6.1 yards per carry. Carter led the way early and Javonte Williams finished it up, the former finishing with 16 carries for 77 yards and the latter breaking out in the second half to end up with his first 100-yard game: 18 carries for 102. Antonio Williams took a backseat to his running mates, but was crucial on the aforementioned 98-yard drive with runs of 20, 9, and 22 yards in quick succession to get the Heels out of the shadow of their own end zone. All three of them showed off exactly why Mack Brown had been calling them the team’s most talented unit: each broke tackles on seemingly every play their number was called, they were successful going behind the Heels’ experienced left side and the extremely green right, they succeeded in option plays, draws, power runs, and cutbacks, and made numerous defenders look silly. They weren’t extremely involved in the passing game, but they did that well, too: Carter and J. Williams each had one reception and both got first downs in -and long situations. Especially against a defensive front for SCAR that had been touted as the team’s best unit, the UNC running backs were simply outstanding.

Receivers: B

Because the passing game took some time to open up, we didn’t see a ton from the receivers for the better part of the first half. Dyami Brown caught two early slants, Dazz Newsome dropped an over-the shoulder dime, Toe Groves made a couple of nice plays, including a pivot route that looked improvised to convert an early 3rd and 10, and that was about the extent of what we saw from the receivers in the first half. The second half was a different story. The passing game was still pretty limited; receivers only had 13 catches all game, but there was a lot more involvement at all three levels of the field. Brown hauled in a spectacular touchdown from 22 yards out, Newsome hauled in a 31-yarder down the sideline, Beau Corrales used his height and athleticism to win a 17-yard jump ball in the end zone for his only catch of the day, and Antoine Green turned a nice middle-of-the-field catch into a 25-yard catch and run for his sole contribution to the stat sheet. Newsome and Brown led the team with 4 catches apiece. This grade gets dinged a little for wide receivers being called for 3 false starts, which will be unacceptable moving forwards past the first game of the season, as well as for a couple of drops and losses at route stems that hurt drives early. Like Howell, though, they cleaned up their act towards the end and put up both of the Heels’ scores that ended up winning the ballgame. Tight ends weren’t super involved in the passing game, but Carl Tucker did get a target in the red zone on a well-designed play that was unfortunately really well-played by the Gamecock defense.

Offensive Line: A-

There’s not a ton to say about the offensive line that hasn’t been implied through the first three sections, because of course none of that offensive success would have been possible without an offensive line protecting the quarterback and opening holes in the run game. Charlie Heck was a standout, of course, as the unit’s most experienced and best player, clearing most of Carter’s lanes in the first half when the SCAR interior line was still winning, or at least fighting to a draw, against UNC’s interior front. As a bonus, he made a huge hustle play to recover a Sam Howell fumble in the red zone at the tail end of a 7-yard run that allowed the Heels to get back to within one score after facing a 13-3 deficit. Ed Montilus, seeing his first game action as a Heel at left guard, was right there with him, especially in the run game, and he looks to have a bright future if he keeps this kind of performance up. Of the three sacks Howell took, at least 1 was completely his fault, and 2 sacks for the day isn’t a bad performance at all, even if there weren’t a ton of dropbacks. A couple of penalties, including Nick Polino’s late snaps apparently causing a false start or two, stop this performance from being graded perfectly, but this offensive line looks like it’s taken really, really well to new coaching and the new offensive system.

Defensive Line: B

This one’s a little weird. By my memory and by the stats sheet, UNC’s defensive line didn’t really hold up too well: Both Cocks backs averaged over 5 yards a carry on 24 combined attempts, the line got to Jake Bentley twice in a 30-dropback game (the third sack came on a Chazz Surratt blitz), and I recall numerous occasions where Bentley had more than 4 seconds to throw without getting remotely heated up by pressure. But I guess those memories are all from the first 23 of the game, because this is how the Gamecocks’ drives went after they reached 20 points with 5 minutes left in the third quarter:

  1. UNC’s DL draws a holding penalty on the first play that kills the drive before it’s started, and two essentially stuffed runs seal the deal. Punt.
  2. Two solid runs get a first down, followed by two stuffed runs and a screen that UNC’s DL gets to just in time to force fourth down. Will Muschamp elects, on 4th and nothing, to Punt.
  3. Incomplete pass on first, run stuffed on second, sack on third. Punt.
  4. DL doesn’t have much to do with this one, Jake Bentley just decides to float up a pick.
  5. Some pressure gets to Bentley, forcing two incomplete passes before Bentley throws up another pick.
  6. Needing to make a play to seal the game, the defensive line gets a sack. Ballgame.

I mean, what more can I say?

Linebackers: C+

Here’s what I told Garnet and Black Attack about UNC’s linebackers, who we all knew were the team’s biggest weakness headed into Week 1:

[Surratt]’s beefed up enough for it, but he hasn’t initiated contact in a football game since he was in 10th grade, so there will be some adjustment there, too. All in all, it’s a unit that maybe can be serviceable, but probably won’t stand out positively and needs the others to do their jobs really well, especially near the beginning of the season.

Surratt is getting a ton of good press because the stats box is kind to him, giving him credit for non-solo tackles and not counting his whiffs. To be clear, he did way better than I think anybody had a right to expect after just one offseason of mostly not-full-contact practice in a position change from maybe the sport’s least physical position to maybe its most. But especially in the early going, while he filled holes ably, he was simply not able to finish plays when they were there for the making. The most egregious was his miss of Tavien Feaster on the back’s 34-yard touchdown run, but mistakes peppered his game and they’ll have to be ironed out over the last two years of his career. Still, his positioning, sack, and defensed pass showed promise for him as an off-ball player. With the full-game suspension of Dominique Ross, Jeremiah Gemmel saw most of the snaps at the other inside linebacker position, and he acquitted himself pretty well with five tackles (3 solo), half a sack with Tomon Fox, and a hurry. In the end, though, this unit, while clearly a weak point, did their jobs, and like I predicted, with the units ahead of and behind them executing at a high level, that was enough.

Defensive Backs: A

South Carolina wide receiver Bryan Edwards averaged over 4 catches and 65 yards per game last year for the Cocks as the second receiving option after Deebo Samuel, and was expected to break out as one of the nation’s best at the position in his senior year. UNC was missing its #1 cornerback, Patrice Rene, who also has the perfect size to deal with a 6’3, 215-pound guy like Edwards, for the first half, and lost #2 cornerback Trey Morrison to injury not too far into the game. All the ingredients were adding up to a miserable time for UNC and a coming-out party for Edwards. But stunningly, Edwards’ final line for the game was a whopping 1 catch for 7 yards. I’m not sure who drew his responsibility for the first half, but they bracketed him pretty well (a drop in the red zone helped), and when Rene came back in the second, he was all but invisible on offense. The rest of South Carolina’s passing offense was only marginally better. Shi Smith got open a few times, sure, but didn’t do a whole lot of damage: 5 catches for 55 yards from a leading receiver is something you take every day. Did Jake Bentley make corners look better than they were with a couple of choice overthrows? Sure. But all in all, they delivered a lockdown performance.

Starting safeties Myles Dorn and Myles Wolfolk, though, were even better. They consistently filled holes in the run game and, if they weren’t finishing tackles, were at least not letting go. They carried out assignments in the passing game, with one exception that led to South Carolina’s final touchdown. And when UNC needed a couple of big plays to seal the victory, Wolfolk came up with two picks, one where he benefited from a lazy overthrow and one where he successfully baited Bentley into finding him, ending just about any hope for a South Carolina comeback. Safeties are Jay Bateman’s defensive quarterbacks, and based on the amount of times UNC’s defense was in the right spot to stop the Cocks, it’s safe to say they did an outstanding job.

Special Teams: D+

If UNC had lost this game, it would’ve been a reasonable thing to say that the primary culprit was special teams. Mistakes abounded in every aspect of the special teams game, some of which was to be expected with the amount of turnover UNC had at the specialist positions but some of which just came down to sloppy play. The kicking game may have been the least bad; Noah Ruggles nailed three chip-shot field goals and had a 47-yarder blocked by Javon Kinlaw, which isn’t anything to be ashamed of. On kickoffs, Michael Rubino ran hot and cold; sometimes he hit the back of the end zone and other times he line drove it to the 5-yard line for an easy return. Shi Smith returned three of UNC’s 6 kickoffs for 100 yards, including a 60-yarder that led to an easy touchdown, and the Cocks’ worst field position coming off a kickoff was all the way up at their own 24. Ben Kiernan, seeing his first college action, didn’t help the field position game, either. He shanked one punt for 18 yards and line drove another couple, setting up great returns. And both on punts and kickoffs, coverage was abysmal; Bryan Edwards returned 3 punts for 66 yards with a long of 38 which came with UNC trying to hang on to a lead. At least Kiernan showed he’s got the requisite leg. His highlight was a field-flipping 48-yarder from UNC’s 33 that Edwards only ran back 4 yards to the South Carolina 23. But this is a phase that’s going to have to be cleaned up remarkably for a successful season.

Coaching: B

This may seem a smidge harsh on a staff that just took a 2-9 team that hadn’t won an opener in 5 years to an opening day win against an opponent favored by double digits, but so be it. Let’s get the good out of the way first: Defensive Coordinator Jay Bateman called an absolutely stellar game. Even the defense’s miscues seemed designed to show how good his ideas were, because nearly every time, you could see how a play was supposed to be made if the players could have just finished it: a missed tackle in the backfield, or a safety rotation that never materialized, or a whiffed sack that a defensive lineman unnecessarily left the ground to try and make, all totally on players and easily visible marks of great scheming by the DC. Coaching also gets huge marks for the intangibles, because the culture change that Mack came in wanting to instill after two seasons of getting used to losing has taken a firm grip on this team. They didn’t shut down going down 20-9 with three failed trips to the red zone, they didn’t surrender a late lead when in position to do just that, they rebounded from big plays effectively, and generally looked like a team that had forgotten how to quit. Far cry from Tar Heel teams of not so long ago.

But there were bugs aplenty on the sidelines, too. The first of them was a gameplan that simply ignored Sam Howell in the first half despite his making every play he’d been needed for so far. Ignoring the comical run/pass imbalance because of how effective the run game was between the 20’s (only because that’s sustainable in college football; if this were the NFL I’d be furious), UNC’s first 10 red zone touches were all runs up the middle, and while some of them were justified and at least one was a run-pass option that Howell made the wrong read on, that’s just an unacceptable outcome on the whole. Yes, I’d be saying that even if UNC had gotten 21 points out of its first three red-zone possessions instead of 9: you have to call plays differently with a short field. Fortunately, Brown and Phil Longo realized at halftime that they’d chosen Sam Howell to be a quarterback and should treat him like one, opening up the offense and allowing for a much more varied attack. Hopefully, the fact that the slow-roller approach worked doesn’t lead them to try it again; the offense should remain open for bigger leads. The second, of course, was time-management related. With 1:45 left, UNC had the ball against one timeout, and according to some math Mack Brown had done, that’s an equation you can kneel out if your quarterback runs around long enough before each kneel. It seems like Brown forgot how long each second is on the gridiron, and Howell’s delayed kneels both felt too late to be safe and were too early for Brown’s math to work. For some reason, he didn’t burn a timeout on 4th, and let Howell take a fourth knee, stopping the clock and giving the Cocks one last shot at the end zone. It didn’t burn him but easily could have to the point of flipping the game, and Brown absolutely needs to understand game situations better going forwards. But for now, he can enjoy this win. I’m sure it’s one of the sweetest he’s tasted in a while.