Okay, everybody still alive? A four-point win in a game where UNC was favored by 14 means that a lot of us experienced some unexpected heart palpitations yesterday, but fortunately, the Heels are 2-0 in the standings and finally can get back into the swing of things after a 21-day hiatus. A win where UNC didn’t play up to standard also means, for better and for worse, a lot of teaching opportunities. Without being too harsh on the team, given that we have to extend them at least some first-game weirdness sympathy for coming into this game the way they did, let’s go ahead and get into them:
1. The UNC running backs are bona fide monsters
So remember when we were doing position previews and and I said that it wasn’t as clear-cut anymore that UNC’s best position group was its running backs? Yeah, after two games I’m eating my words. UNC’s wide receivers are very good. Michael Carter and Javonte Williams are great. I have bemoaned, elsewhere if not here, that parts of the Carolina fandom have had an annoying trend lately of acting like Williams is clearly the best back on the roster and should have gotten the ball way more than he did last season, which feels to me like one part people falling in love with the mythos of an underranked North Carolina guy, and one part the kind of football fandom that prefers a 4-yard run that involves running over a linebacker to an 8-yard pass that goes out of bounds (in other words, the dumb kind for which football is a substitute for masculinity rather than a sport, an actual exhibition of skill and talent). But consider this: Michael Carter, if/when he leaves UNC after this year, is very likely going to end up as UNC’s career leader in yards per carry for players with more than 60 career carries. And right now, he’s playing better than ever, averaging a staggering 8.7 yards per attempt through two conference games, notably stronger, thicker, and running through more tackles. He absolutely starred against a pretty weak BC run defense, with 16 rushes for 121 yards. And let’s not take away from Williams, either, who was pretty deadly himself with 11 carries for 57 yards and a one-yard touchdown, which at this point he’s making look easy. He’s also been working on his hands and run-after-catch ability, as shown by his 41-yard catch and run touchdown and Sam Howell’s willingness to target him on a 40-yard wheel route that he was interfered on. Both backs shouldered most of the offensive responsibility for the game, with 30 touches to Howell’s 26 passes, and while it’s debatable if that was the best coaching strategy (more on this later), they absolutely delivered, and gave the Heels the win.
2. The offensive line is an issue
There were always going to be some early pains with this offensive line, with Charlie Heck having left with no clear left tackle replacement on the roster, the center position not upgrading from being a clear problem spot last year, and a late switch at left guard last year meaning there might not have been a ton of cohesion to work with. That was only exacerbated after Joshua Ezeudu, who had apparently blossomed into being UNC’s best offensive line player, was injured in practice and not ready to go for either the Syracuse or the Boston College game, and then further during yesterday’s game when Marcus McKethan was kicked out of the game. So with all that said, yesterday’s pass protection was not good. Sam Howell was sacked four times, and I’ll put one and a half of those on him for holding on to the ball too long, but the two and a half that weren’t were just egregious misses - and there were at least two QB hurries besides that. Brian Anderson in particular continues to be a liability, neither able to stand his ground or get in the way of skilled interior rushers:
Please watch the nose tackle get in so clean that he thought it was a screen pass. That's good coaching. pic.twitter.com/ip9UzDtTiN— seth galina (@pff_seth) October 4, 2020
Ed Montilus, filling in at left guard, has also seriously regressed from his good form early last year, and that weak area was attacked consistently by the BC pass rush. Kudos to Jeff Hafley’s staff for identifying weaknesses early, but if this UNC offense wants to be what its skill players are promising, the offensive line has to get healthy and gel quickly.
3. Last year’s problems aren’t all the way gone yet
I think we’re allowed to declare the honeymoon period with Mack Brown officially over. After taking a 2-win roster and getting them to a bowl game in one year, flipping the guy who might already be the Heels’ best quarterback in history from Florida State, and both getting and giving a freak-ton of good PR in the state of North Carolina and on the ESPN networks where he used to work, Mack’s gotten a ton of mostly deserved mileage from the fandom, to the point where I’ve seen fans identify coaching issues on this team and them blame assistants and assume Mack will fix it, because he can do no wrong.
After a season and two games, I think we’re starting to see some things that can probably be attributed to the head man. I’ve spoken before about his baffling special teams philosophy, which reared its head again with Grayson Atkins missing another kick from inside 50 that could have put the game out of reach (you are not building a program by starting a 24-year old over a junior who didn’t miss an extra point last year and ended the season going 9/11 on field goals). But generally, he’s starting to look like a man who falls in love with good ideas without seeing the bigger picture. Chazz Surratt’s a good blitzer? Okay, let’s play him a bunch at outside linebacker to bolster the pass rush and leave our weaker coverage linebacker on an All-American tight end! (This one’s particularly egregious because Gemmel’s also a fairly gifted blitzer) Running backs are running through the BC line? Okay, let’s run a majority of the time on first and second down, making third downs predictable, not giving an All-ACC quarterback the ability to get into rhythm in the second half and resulting in unfinished drives! And, relatedly but not the same, we saw player management become an issue here as well: Because it was a close game, particularly on defense, he didn’t trust his second string enough to rotate them in even when the first string was clearly gassed, just as we saw last year with Jason Strowbridge and Aaron Crawford. Last year, the excuse was that the roster didn’t have players who could do what they, as well as the linebackers, did. This year, Mack has bragged multiple times that he feels the roster goes two-deep at every position on defense. That’s definitely not actually true, but even if it’s close, why not sub in fresh legs when your defense is getting beaten?
Put your players where they are best, don’t prioritize some players over others. Let Sam cook, because that’s what got you here. And always be building for the future, don’t mortgage it for a couple more expected points per season now. These shouldn’t be difficult concepts, but Mack had to learn them over the course of last season. This season, it looks like he’s starting from square one. For the Heels’ sake, I hope he’s learning quicker this time, because even though Boston College is better than anybody thought they’d be, the Virginia Techs and Miamis of the world are not going to let you get away with mistakes like this.