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UNC 59, Wake Forest 53: Position Grades

Defense? What’s defense?

NCAA Football: Wake Forest at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Whew! I’ve gotta say, as much as there might be to address with this team, and particularly the defense, over the next two weeks, it feels pretty, pretty good to be saying that after a come-from-behind win rather than another agonizingly close loss. Somehow, more points were scored in this game than in UNC’s barnburner against Virginia Tech, so there’s a lot of praise and criticism to go around and chew on as UNC heads, finally, into its second open weekend of the season. Let’s get into it:

Quarterback: A+

My word, Sam Howell. I think I’ve said that his excellence has been overshadowed at times this season by UNC’s running backs carrying the team on their backs; he’s still been really good but not as flashy as he was last year nor as good as it’s felt like he could be. Well, that certainly isn’t true after yesterday, where he went ahead and claimed the UNC single-game passing records for yards (550) and touchdowns (6) in the program’s largest comeback victory since the early 2000’s. Howell was just about perfect, lacing balls short, intermediate and deep with deadly accuracy, and throwing it away when he needed to as well. Between throwaways, an interception he can’t be blamed for (more on this later), and a few drops, I think only one or two of his 13 incompletions were actual missed throws, which is absolutely insane. Perhaps most illustrative of his mastery is a run-through of Howell’s touchdowns: He hit Dazz Newsome on a deep slant with nobody ahead of him, then hit Dyami Brown shortish in the middle of the field in the red zone, then went deep to Newsome, then hit Brown with a goal-line fade, then hit Michael Carter streaking up the sideline with a dime, then lobbed one to Garrett Walston in the red zone. Each one looked different and was executed perfectly. Oh, and he ran a bit too, including the go-ahead drive where he scrambled for a first down on 3rd and 7 and then took a designed QB draw on 3rd and ten 20 yards for a touchdown. With both star backs likely gone after this season, he’s gotta be the odds-on favorite for 2021 Heisman. He was that good Saturday, and he’s going to be asked to be that good a lot more a year from now.

Running Backs: B

Javonte Williams breaking free towards the end of the game gave him yet another 100-yard game with high efficiency, and he’s at this point starting to get national buzz as a top-3 NFL Draft prospect at his position. A 13-carry, 101-yard day with a late touchdown almost feels ho-hum for him after the past couple of weeks, but it’s worth pointing out how nutty that actually is. It was a kind of boom-bust day, though, with carries of 12, 21, 15 (touchdown), 15, and 17 yards accompanying his getting stopped for 0, 0, 2, and 3 yards — the chain-moving that had characterized his previous explosions was less present this time out. He was, though, also relied on for a couple of key conversions, including a first-quarter 4th down and two 4th-quarter 3rd downs. Michael Carter was also relatively contained, taking 16 carries for 74 yards and getting hit at the line of scrimmage pretty frequently (more on that later). He got over 100 scrimmage yards as well, though, thanks to a 46-yard catch and run touchdown down the sideline that made up the majority of his 55 receiving yards. He also had a nifty catch of an intended throwaway that lost yardage, but is good tape for his future and felt better for the team than an incompletion, probably. Scoring on the next play helps. Both backs were obviously hurt by the loss of the team’s starting center, but the fact is that neither ran wild the way they have been this season.

Receivers: B

Welcome to the season, Dazz Newsome! The slot receiver who’d been much quieter in output if not in chirpage than expected so far this season was not quiet with his play on Saturday, opening proceedings with a 75-yard touchdown and continuing on to post a 10-catch, 189-yard day and another score on a deep ball. Dyami Brown had himself a day as well, with 8 catches for 164 yards and two scores of his own as he filled in as the red zone threat through the air this team was missing with Beau Corrales out. He also made a truly spectacular grab where he one-handedly wrenched a deep ball away from a defender in perfect coverage. It wasn’t all roses for this group, though, as Brown was responsible for the only blemish on Howell’s historic day: an interception on a perfectly thrown deep ball that Brown bobbled, allowing his defender to catch up and take the ball away from him. We didn’t get a good angle of the process, but Brown’s reaction while the play went to the booth told us everything we needed to know. Brown’s brother Khafre also had an up and down day, he caught a few balls but also dropped three passes that could have killed the Heels’ comeback in terrifyingly familiar fashion if Howell hadn’t come back from them as strong as he did. But, you know, things can only have been so bad when, as a group, you catch for over 480 yards and 5 touchdowns, right?

Offensive Line: B+

For a group that has so far this season been much more effective in the run game than in the pass game, the script was completely flipped for this game. Without starting center Brian Anderson and walk-on Quiron Johnson starting in his place, the offensive line struggled for 3 quarters-plus to get a ton of push at the line of scrimmage, resulting in a lot of early hits on run plays that forced Howell to have to use his arm much more than we’re used to seeing him. This started to reverse near the end of the game as the Wake defense got tired of being marched on over and over again, and Javonte Williams wrapped up the game by bursting through a wide open hole and scoring a 15-yard touchdown untouched, just to maintain his national scoring lead. The group was better than usual in the passing game, but they still had some issues; Howell was sacked twice and forced to throw the ball away under duress about 6 times. Notably, for the second straight week, UNC held an opposing star pass rusher sackless. This time, it was Carlos Basham, who’s getting first-round talk in the draft, who made half a tackle for loss in the run game and had a pressure but did not get to the quarterback. Offensive line coordinator Stacy Searles is clearly focusing on taking teams’ biggest pass rushing threats away, and doing it well.

Defensive Line: D

For most of the game, this group just got abused, and if they hadn’t been yanked for some freshmen late in the game for a spark that managed to work and start pushing back on the Demon Deacons, this grade would have been a straight-up F. Tomari Fox, who’s been quite good this season, was absolutely invisible; Wake might have been the first team he’s played all season with the size and strength up front to expose him as a tweener at two-gapping defensive tackle. Tyrone Hopper, who played rush end, lost contain in the run game over and over again, and against Wake’s slow-developing run game and backs who love to hide behind the trenches before bouncing it out, that’s a death knell. And Raymond Vohasek, who looked like he was going to be a star at the end of last year, continued to not be a factor for most of this game, too. Wake’s offensive line didn’t see resistance in the run or passing games for most of the first 50 or so minutes of game time, and it looked dire. We also caught a glimpse of the future, though, when defensive coordinator Jay Bateman put in a bunch of freshmen, including Myles Murphy, Clyde Pinder, Kaimon Rucker, and Kevin Hester, all of whom got in and immediately started pushing the pocket in the pass game and containing the run game better. Murphy even had a sack. From then, the older guys started playing to that level as well, topped off by Vohasek tripping up Wake QB Sam Hartman for a 1-yard gain when he looked like he was about to scramble for about 15. I know it’s tough to trust freshmen who haven’t had a real offseason of weight training and practice, but it looks like it’s time to start playing young talent with the 1’ - players like Pinder, Murphy, and Des Evans have been too good in their snaps to not get on the field.

Linebackers: D+

It’s been kind of shocking to see how much worse UNC’s starting inside linebackers have been this year than last year, especially Chazz Surratt, who we were told might be the best player on the defense after a full year and offseason of prep playing the position. That hasn’t really been the case thus far, as he’s been pretty lackluster, and his partner in crime Jeremiah Gemmel hasn’t been wow-worthy either. There are a few reasons for this, by my count: A defensive line with no players that can two-gap the way that Jason Strowbridge and Aaron Crawford could, leading to more offensive linemen freely getting their hands on the linebackers, Mack Brown’s continued commitment to Surratt rushing the passer at the expense of the rest of the roster (primarily Gemmel, who’s been pressed into covering downfield much more than he should be), and a lack of a true offseason due to COVID-19 halting their development in this defense. Still, they’ve been borderline liabilities at times this season, Gemmel just not fast enough to play in deep coverage and Surratt missing a lot of tackles near the line of scrimmage that turn good defensive plays into positive offensive ones. In short, both of their strengths (Gemmel’s physicality and downhill power, Surratt’s athleticism and range) have been mitigated and their weaknesses amplified due to the positions they’ve been put in and a defensive line they have to overcome. When the line started getting push, they looked like their old selves: Gemmel made a key stop and Surratt sacked Hartman on a blitz that effectively ended the game. Both ended up leading the team in tackles, Surratt with 14 (7 solo) and Gemmel with 10 (6 solo). As far as outside linebackers, Chris Collins had a productive day, with 5 tackles and a sack, while Tomon Fox played like a line player, holding up gap integrity but not recording a single stat.

Secondary: D

If there’s any group on the team that’s thankful for the off week that UNC is getting, it’s the secondary, which seems to have different personnel every week. And while they’d made it work for a while before, maybe that was just a function of not having seen great QBs for a few weeks, because once an even competent one in Sam Hartman showed up, this group got torched. Patrice Rene seemed to make an awful play for every good one through the first three quarters, holding up well in coverage sometimes but allowing several big catches that shouldn’t have been caught. Dae Dae Hollins had his first bad game since being pressed into service due to injury, and Cam’Ron Kelly, who’s been a stalwart at safety, was out of position shockingly often. Even Trey Morrison, who’s been the secondary’s best player so far this season, was off his game, getting called for two pass interferences and finishing the game with just two tackles from the nickel back spot. Here, too, though, Bateman decided to inject some youth into the proceedings to shake things up, and it worked even better here than on the line. Kelly was replaced by Obi Egbuna, Morrison moved to free safety to get Ja’Qurious Conley on the field at nickel, and Tony Grimes replaced Hollins — all true freshmen, all of whom played really well in their snaps, and I think held on to their positions through the end of the game. Theirs aren’t positions where weight training is as essential as it is in the trenches, so with an extra week to prep, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some changes to the starting lineup against Wake Forest.

Special Teams: C+

Grayson Atkins hasn’t been tested much since the Florida State game, but he’s also done everything he’s needed to, and that continued here with 8 extra point makes and a routine 30-yard field goal. Everything else, though, was less than stellar. Ben Kiernan actually had a very good game punting, with 4 punts averaging 44 yards, though he continues to play a dangerous game as close as he comes to getting blocked on half his punts: his pop time needs to get faster. Dazz Newsome continues to not find any room to return thanks to bad coverage, and his one returnable punt turned into an attempt to double reverse field and lost 4 yards. Even the usually reliable Jonathan Kim wasn’t on his game, kicking an early kickoff out of bounds. He did get one right to the goal line, though, giving Wake a 20-yard return and a longer field to deal with. I doubt it was on purpose given how much Mack Brown has praised his touchback kicking, but it was good. But with the game on the line, special teams pulled through, with Javonte Williams securing Wake’s last-ditch onside kick to win the game - routine, but scary. Nothing to be mad at here.

Coaching: B-

If I had to guess, I’d say the staff got overly scared by last year’s Wake Forest game, where Jamie Newman and the forever-long mesh point killed UNC’s contain as the ends thought they could crash fast enough to break the play and routinely got burned. This time, the entire defensive front looked over-cautious and slow to react, not trusting their eyes until it was too late and the back had already run past them. Sam Hartman isn’t the dual-threat that Newman was, but the line played like he is, and the Wake Forest run game flourished as a result of this over-respect. And while that coaching mistake and inability to adjust for 3 quarters nearly killed the Heels on its own, the staff did mostly everything else right. The Demon Deacons were surprisingly effective against the run after having been mediocre against it for the whole season, so Phil Longo let Sam Howell cook more than he has since the two have been in Chapel Hill, easing up his reliance on the run game just enough to keep it as a threat while making the passing game the focus on offense. Bateman’s personnel adjustments were the key in getting 5 straight stops on defense when they needed them most. And Mack Brown’s presence, as we saw several times last season, was such that even down 21 points, this squad believed it could win, then went out and did it. Good stuff.