Happy New Year, Tar Heels!
Twelve months ago we were still processing the changes over at Kenan Football Center, and wondering what to expect out of this team after two years of pure futility. Now as we put 2019 in the rear view mirror, by any objective metric the program is in its best shape it's been in for years. There are obvious areas for improvement, but so much stood out that hadn’t in a long time.
Let’s take one last look back at what stood out, both good and bad, for the Tar Heels this season. Fair warning, since this is a year-long look back, we may have a few more in each column than we have this season.
Sam Howell: What else can be said that hasn’t been said of the freshman phenom? I covered some of what stood out about Sam on Tuesday, but it deserves to be mentioned again just how remarkable a season Howell had. Easily the ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year, 3641 passing yards, 38 touchdowns to only seven interceptions. He was so good that the rare moments when he looked like a freshman were a genuine surprise. From the game winning drive he lead to beat South Carolina in Charlotte to the absolute clinic he put on against Temple in Annapolis, Carolina was in every game this season because of Howell. With pretty much every piece of the offense returning next season, plus with Howell having a steady backup, it’s exciting to imagine what can be added to the offense.
Chazz Surratt: Utterly broken by the previous coaching staff, it says a ton about the heart of someone that instead of leaving for a fresh start, he instead decided to just completely flip his position. He wasn’t expected to be a big contributor this year, but injuries to the linebacking corps meant he was playing major snaps from the start, and very quickly the superlatives he got for just making the switch changed to an admiration for the fact he was actually a really good player at the position. The credit goes to both Surratt for putting in the necessary work, and defensive co-coordinators Jay Bateman and Tommy Thigpen, Thigpen being the linebackers coach. Surratt had the most tackles on UNC's defense, and the next closest was 30 behind; he tied Tomon Fox for the team lead in sacks in 6.5, had a crucial interception against Duke, and also led the defense with ten quarterback hurries. As of this writing Surratt is legitimately deciding whether or not he’ll return for 2020, and that alone speaks to the remarkable season he had.
Javonte Williams & Michael Carter: Two thirds of the Law Firm along with Antonio Williams, both Williams and Carter were able to cross 1,000 all purpose yards, with Carter getting there on his rushing alone. The styles of the two were just different enough to provide a great punch and counter punch, and their skill allowed them to be fresh in the second half when defenses were back on their heels. You can argue about which back is better, but neither would have done as well without the other, so it was great news when Carter announced after the Military Bowl that he would return for his senior season. It’ll allow the younger running backs to ease into the offense, and once again run this powerful offense.
Tomon Fox: Lost in the love for Surratt, Fox also had 6.5 sacks, with three of them coming against a Miami squad hungry for a win under their new coach. He was one of the few players who was able to play every game on defense, and his numbers would seem to indicate how he and the rest of the crew started to wear down as the season went on. This was confirmed when he was all over the field against Temple, adding 1.5 sacks to his total and was able to hold the turnover belt thanks to an interception at the end of the game.
Coaching Staff: Let’s be honest, predictions about this team were all over the map, and the starting schedule of South Carolina, Miami, App State, and Clemson was daunting. The majority of the players that suited up were not recruited by this staff, new schemes had to be learned, and all the coaches had to work to gain the trust of these players who were psychologically worn after two rough seasons. Mack Brown dove in right away, “Let’s Get This Work” became the team mantra, and from the moment of kick off in Charlotte, it was clear that a new attitude had taken hold. There didn’t seem to be a better mix of quarterback and offensive coordinator than Howell and Phil Longo, and Jay Bateman, in retrospect, was the perfect person to help lead the defense as someone used to trying to do the most with the talent he had available to him. They also made their mark in recruiting, not only with a top 20 class in 2020, but setting up to be major players in-state for a stacked 2021 class. One only wonders how good they’ll be as they get more of “their” guys on the team.
Gameday atmosphere: Six sellouts in Kenan, alcohol being available for the first time, zero noon starts, and every home game but the last two coming down to the final drive. The crowd shots for almost every home game were magnificent, and after being overrun by opposing fans for so many seasons, it was good to see the home crowd have a reason to make noise for their Tar Heels. This hit a hiccup in the last game of the year against Mercer, but as Mercer was the norm the last couple of years and not the exception, the athletic department has to be thrilled at how things turned out.
What could have been: Six losses by a combined 26 points. Every single loss came down to the end, and every single one of them was winnable in their own way. There wasn’t a single dominant team in the Coastal Division, and the Tar Heels were seemingly given multiple chances to take the division but couldn't power through. The close losses were the reason that Virginia Tech was able to salvage their season, that Clemson will play for the title instead of having to settle for the Orange Bowl, and why Virginia got to go to Miami for the first time in their history. As fun as this season was, and as much of an improvement as it was on the last two years, the domination in the Military Bowl comes with a whiff of “they were too good to play in this game.”
Record against good teams: The season-ending win against Temple was Carolina’s only win against a team with a winning record. The next closest was the win against a Miami squad that finished an uninspired 6-7 and by all metrics heavily underachieved on the season. It does emphasize that the team has several steps it needs to make with a 2020 schedule that features UCF and Auburn.
Injuries: A lot about what could have been boiled down to the sheer number of major injuries the team suffered. The team was already thin going into the season thanks to the poor recruiting by Fedora the last couple of years mixed with the natural attrition that comes with a new staff, but add in the multiple games lost in key positions, and you ended the season with multiple players playing too many snaps and getting exposed as the year went on. The defense just wasn’t able to make the stops needed against Virginia Tech, Virginia, and Pittsburgh, and it’s a minor miracle Sam Howell didn’t end up seriously hurt with the sacks that he took behind the decimated offensive line - his backup was taken out for the season after just a handful of snaps. The good news is that assumed depth players were able to get valuable experience, making the program stronger in the long term. The secondary, especially, will almost have a problem of too much depth in 2020.
Special Teams: If there is one side of the ball that doesn’t have a lot of positives, it’s this third phase of the game. No returns for a touchdown on either kickoffs or punt returns, Ben Kiernan was shaky kicking the ball especially at first, Noah Ruggles couldn’t hit the big kick when it was needed against Virginia Tech (but was very consistent in the back third of the season), and one can only hope that they are able to be less shaky going into the new year.
The State Title: Carolina had a rare chance to beat four in-state schools, but could only go 2-2, with losses to Wake Forest and Appalachian State. They’ll get another chance in 2022, and here's hoping the program is in a much different place to where 4-0 is not only realistic, but expected.
Antonio Williams filled out the Law Firm but had a rough start to the year thanks to injuries. The Ohio State transfer had trouble getting traction by the time he was healthy thanks to the success of Carter and Javonte Williams, but his persistence was rewarded with a 100 yard effort against Pitt, and he was able to score both in his Senior Day game as well as being the final Tar Heel to get a touchdown against Temple. Here’s hoping he’s able to continue his career somehow...the only reason Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown didn’t get mentioned up top is their propensity for untimely drops that would stall the offense. Yet those two have ridiculous catches that constantly appeared the next day on Sportscenter, and both crossed the thousand yard milestone with their effort in the Military Bowl. They should both be back next year, giving Howell a great 1-2 punch down the field...Jeremiah Gemmel may not have been spectacular, but he was a huge anchor of the defense and was second on the team in tackles. He played all thirteen games and was an unsung hero up front...Myles Dorn led the secondary in tackles, and while there were plenty of instances where he let the play go, considering the attrition in the backfield it’s an accomplishment that he was able to play all 13 games.
Who did I leave off, good and bad? Feel free to use the comments to add your own.
We’ll have more year-end awards next week as we wrap up one of the most enjoyable football seasons in a long time.