Amidst a coaching transition, an observer can glean a lot about a team’s new coaching staff: personnel packages, tempo, scheme, etc. More difficult for the observer is figuring out how it is going to incorporate the current roster, what adjustments will be made for less-than-ideal (or, sometimes ideal!) fits, and if the coaches can even do what they want to do.
After four games, I have some theories— but think just the raw numbers tell a larger part of the story.
The Offensive Line
With the notable exception of the first half against Wake Forest, the offense has been at least pretty good. Taking into account the quality of opponents played thus far, ranking a pedestrian 90th in yards per rush and 74th in rushing yards per game doesn’t concern me yet. That ranking may drop a little further this Saturday, then rebound over the final seven games.
Consider this, however: the Heels have accomplished those numbers despite 81.3% of the offensive line snaps going to underclassmen! That’s in italics because that number is insane. With Nick Polino out for the foreseeable future, that number will remain in the 80% range, even assuming a healthy return from Charlie Heck.
What does that mean? There was not a single offensive lineman suited up for the Tar Heels against Appalachian State who was older than a sophomore, eligibility-wise. If anything, the replacement of redshirt freshman Ed Montilus with sophomore Billy Ross was an effort to get MORE experience on the field.
The line should improve by leaps and bounds as the season plays out.
Balance At Skill Positions
There has been some outcry to get Antonio Williams on the field more, and with good reason— the senior has only seen the field for 25 snaps through the first four games.
Beyond that, the balance among the backs and receivers has been excellent, as four games with the outcome in doubt for 60 minutes has led Phil Longo to lean on the guys he trusts.
- Javonte Williams and Michael Carter have split reps and carries almost 50/50. Carter has been on the field for 141 snaps, Williams for 134.
- Williams has actually outpaced Carter in carries, 53-to-48, though the sample size of four games indicates that the Heels are handing off to running backs anywhere from 35-40% of snaps. That number is skewed, again, by four games requiring a fourth-quarter comeback, and I expect it to rise.
- At receiver, Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome have unsurprisingly led the way with 19 and 15 receptions, respectively. Brown has been on the field for 98 percent of Carolina’s offensive snaps, while Newsome has only participated in 67%.
- Beau Corrales and Toe Groves are the second tier, as Groves’ 119 snaps account for most of Newsome’s missing ones. Corrales is second on the team with 208 snaps, and third on the team with 10 catches for 134 yards. It will be interesting to see how his role changes when Antoine Green returns from injury.
- Aside from all of the aforementioned, only freshman Emery Simmons has seen the field— and he has been limited to 11 snaps in two games.
- The Heels have employed a tight end for 291 of 296 snaps— but the triumvirate of Carl Tucker, Garrett Walston, and Jake Bargas has only accounted for five receptions.
Defense: More Experience, More Turnover
Unsurprisingly, seniors Aaron Crawford and Jason Strowbridge have led the way for the defensive line, accounting for 55% of the total snaps among that position group, even with Strowbridge missing the Wake game.
The bigger surprise has been the emergence of freshman Tomari Fox, who has totaled 136 plays, including 112 over the past two weeks. He’s the leader in the clubhouse to take over one of the defensive end slots next year.
To say linebacker has been a confusing mess would be an understatement. It comes as no surprise that Tomon Fox leads the way with 256 snaps and 3.5 sacks from the rush LB spot, but beyond that only Jeremiah Gemmel has been a consistent presence on the field.
Jay Bateman is still trying to find the best combination for the other two linebackers. Chazz Surratt has seen his PT dwindle, from 61 snaps against South Carolina to 15 against App. Allen Cater is in the same boat, going from 50 to 13. The returns of Dominique Ross and Jonathan Smith are the most obvious factors there, as the two seniors have accounted for roughly 73% of Surratt and Cater’s lost snaps— but where’s that other 23 percent?
Enter junior Tyrone Hopper. Hopper more than doubled his playing time for the season last Saturday, playing 49 snaps after seeing the field for 35 total in the first three games.
What does this all mean? As of right now, Fox, Gemmel, Ross, and Hopper are likely the starters. I’d still like to see Jake Lawler, Chris Collins, and Khadry Jackson (10 snaps combined) play more...but there’s probably good reason that they aren’t.
Miscellaneous: Sam Howell and other freshmen
- Two interceptions against App knocked Howell’s quarterback rating from the top 15 range to 35th, and he’s now 5th in that category among freshmen with a 9:2 touchdown-interception ratio. His 159.58 rating puts him ahead of more famous guys such as Ian Book and Trevor Lawrence, and neck-and-neck with Duke’s Quentin Harris (who is percentage points ahead of him.) Besides Harris and Lawrence, no future opponent at QB ranks higher than 60th on this list.
- While Harris has been more efficient overall, his 7.5 yards per attempt pale in comparison to Howell’s 8.8. Miami’s Jarren Williams and Wake’s Jamie Newman are tied with, or ahead of, Carolina’s freshman, but no future opponents are.
- Yes, Trevor Lawrence will likely surpass him in both metrics at some point.
- We harped on how bad Ben Kiernan was through two games, but practice makes perfect! The Irish freshman punted 10 times for a 46-yard average against Wake, and maintained his steady play with 42.5 yards per punt against App.
Howell and Kiernan (and Tomari Fox/longsnapper Drew Little) will exhaust their redshirt eligibility against Clemson because they are starters. Other guys who have seen action, you ask?
Defensive backs Don Chapman, Obi Egbuna, and Cam’Ron Kelly have all played in every game, though only Kelly has seen from-scrimmage snaps (seven against App).
Linebacker Khadry Jackson doesn’t appear to have played against Wake Forest, but did appear in the other three games. Eugene Asante saw special teams time in the first two, but not the most recent two. Both of these will be interesting to track, as both will be needed for larger roles on the defense in 2020.
Emery Simmons has seen the field in two games as a wideout, and Khafre Brown made his debut on special teams against Appalachian State.
Everyone else would appear safe to maintain their redshirts barring disaster. Bring a handy one-page roster with you to the Mercer game.