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UNC 56, Duke 24: Position Grades

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Just once, I want Mack to not be great friends with the opposing coach

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Duke Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

For the second straight sequence of 2 weeks, UNC came off an embarrassing primetime loss and absolutely whooped on an in-state opponent, this time 8 miles down the road in Durham against the Duke Blue Devils. Again, the Heels actually played like their talent dictated they should, and the game looked pretty much over with 5 minutes left... in the first quarter. It’s the kind of game that you just kind of feel good about and don’t learn too much from, but that doesn’t change that analyzing a near-meaningless win feels way better than doing so for a useless loss. So let’s get started.

Quarterback: A-

Sam Howell has somehow taken a backseat to his backfield so far this season, with the exception of last week’s game, but he’s still been a phenomenal quarterback: . He showed off his decision-making prowess throughout his action through making the right reads over and over again on RPO’s, and routinely beat Duke’s defensive backs, who were often in decent position, with pinpoint accuracy, making needle-threading look easy. He didn’t have any jaw-dropping throws like he has in the past; he just consistently hit his receivers where they needed the ball. He finished 18/27 for 235 yards and 3 touchdowns and a bizarre pick, where he broke the pocket and seemed to think he’d gotten Duke’s Michael Carter to commit to rushing him, tried to flip it over his head to a receiver on the boundary, and Carter, who wasn’t actually rushing, easily snagged the ball. Howell also showed off his legs to the fullest extent that he has so far this season, carrying 7 times for 35 yards and a touchdown - including a nifty 12-yard first down where he juked a couple of defenders and a 14-yarder where he just ran through a collapsing pocket and found open grass thanks to man coverage. Also, I think this is a good time to recap his season stats so far: Through 7 games, he’s 136/203 (67%) for 2081 yards, 17 touchdowns, and 5 picks. Sure, the deep ball we saw over and over again last year hasn’t really materialized in the same way, but those are still elite numbers, and that’s while having the best running back tandem in the nation.

Jacolby Criswell saw some time and mostly ran read-option except for one pass to the flats, and Jace Ruder came in for a drive and ran some more, and both of them showed off some wheels — but I’m waiting for the day Mack Brown lets them play around a little more in a blowout and shows us what Criswell’s arm looks like.

Running Backs: A+

Javonte Williams now leads the country in touchdowns. That’s a real stat (I wrote this before the Bama-LSU game on Saturday). He had yet another stellar game this midseason, taking 12 carries for 151 yards (better than 12 yards per carry!) and 3 touchdowns, and added 4 catches for 24 yards and a goal-line touchdown catch. As usual, he absolutely refused to go down on first contact against a Duke defense that just isn’t as physical as he is, with only a couple of exceptions. His final touchdown, a 33-yarder right through the heart of the defense, was an encapsulation of all this: a defender bounced off him from behind, then one came at him low and from the side and just got trucked as Williams managed to balance his way into the end zone. His running mate, Michael Carter, didn’t do too badly himself. His rushing average was a less impressive 5 yards per carry on 17 totes for 85 yards and a touchdown thanks to a few rushes where he was just swallowed behind the line, but he made a difference through the air on his 3 catches, which went for 46 yards and a touchdown where he punished his Duke name counterpart (see earlier) into the corner of the end zone. He would have had a few more yards and another touchdown if Dyami Brown hadn’t, on the play in question, found himself ball-watching instead of blocking on the edge and letting his man stop Carter inside the 10. Right now, neither of these guys can do any wrong for the Heels, and they’ll ride the duo as long as they can. Backups British Brooks and D.J. Jones didn’t look too bad in mop-up duty, either, combining for 7 rushes and 47 yards.

Receivers: A

Sam Howell only completed 12 passes to non-running backs against Duke because the ground game was humming so well, so nobody in this section stood out inordinately, but there weren’t really mistakes from the group and they did their part to not stall the offense and put up the big point total that we ended up with. Dazz Newsome had his busiest day this season so far, with 6 catches for 57 yards and a juggling touchdown on a slot fade. Emery Simmons might have worked his way into the top of the rotation permanently, and I’m okay with that after his 51-yard catch over a closing Duke defender. Garrett Walston was pretty insignificant; he was held catchless, did some routine blocking on split zone runs, and missed a block on the goal line that would have gotten Sam Howell a rushing score. His backup, Kamari Morales, didn’t have a catch either, but made the block on the subsequent drive that Walston had missed, and Howell found paydirt. It’d be nice to see more of that from him going forward.

Offensive Line: B+

The UNC line continues to be much better at run blocking than pass blocking, but they held up pretty admirably in both phases of the game. Both of the nation’s sacks leaders, Chris Rumphe and Victor Dimukeje, play in Durham, and both were held sackless against this line: Duke’s only sack came courtesy of linebacker Dorian Mausi on a blitz. Sure, there was a little pressure for Howell to escape at times, and a couple of negative runs, but the line won the line of scrimmage way more than it lost it, and that’s about all you can ask for. At times, they looked downright dominant, especially in the run game, with Duke’s stacked boxes looking irrelevant and some of the running backs’ carries looking like the Red Sea had parted. Center Brian Anderson, whose play has been vastly improved from last year to this one, went to the medical tent late in the game, and we hope he’s okay.

Defensive Line: B

Jay Bateman went with a smaller defensive front against the Blue Devils, with players like Tomon Fox and Des Evans frequently lining up as 3-4 ends on the line, replacing players like Raymond Vohasek, rather than their more natural spot as 3-4 outside linebackers. It paid dividends in the passing game, as their pass rushing explosiveness consistently got them in the backfield and caused trouble all day long for Chase Brice and the Duke running game — the Heels finished with 5 sacks, 5 QB hurries, and 10 tackles for loss. Evans had his first sack of his Tar Heel career and looks like he’ll have many more as the years go by; he’s already got a devastating long-arm rush. Fox and his younger brother Tomari at defensive tackle combined for 3 QB hurries, and when Chris Collins came in to spell Tomari, he racked up his first two sacks of the year. On the other hand, the ends’ size did work against them a little in the run game, which was probably what Jay Bateman was banking on given how unimpressive Duke’s run game has been this season. Still, Mataeo Durant ran all over the Tar Heel line to the tune of 11 carries for 132 yards and a touchdown, and that’s not going to fly against better teams.

Linebackers: B+

Chazz Surratt bounced back from having one of his worst games of the season to having one of his best, leading all tacklers with 12, including 5 solo, and forcing and recovering a fumble on Duke’s first play of the second half. His counterpart at inside linebacker, Jeremiah Gemmel, had 9 tackles with 6 of them being solo, playing enforcer in the middle of the field and also coming through on a blitz with one of UNC’s 5 sacks. Replacing the outside linebackers when they moved up to the line of scrimmage were players like Kaimon Rucker and Tyrone Hopper, the former of whom had 3 solo tackles and the latter of whom had a sack working on the edge. Khadry Jackson, in mop-up work, also didn’t look too bad. All of the linebackers had their embarrassing moments when they got washed out on some of Duke’s longer runs, but for the most part, especially when they needed to before the game got completely out of Duke’s hands, they wrapped up and didn’t let the Blue Devils extend drives.

Secondary: A-

Patrice Rene had a pass breakup. Cam’Ron Kelly had a pass breakup. Obi Egbuna had a pass breakup. Trey Morrison had a pass breakup. Dae Dae Hollins had an interception and might have had a touchdown on the return if his teammates hadn’t overlooked a pursuing offensive lineman. Chase Brice went 11/23 for 155 yards and the aforemntioned interception and looked generally hopeless when trying to pass. The secondary, which has taken some justified flack the past few weeks, definitely showed up this time, albeit against easy competition. Brice was eventually either benched or shelved (it’s hard to tell until the future) for backup Gunnar Holmberg, who completed 7/9 passes for 71 yards and engineered a late touchdown drive, but it’s hard to blame a secondary that was sitting on a 52-17 lead for letting a backup have a good drive: It’s what happens when a player is competent and you don’t have tape on them. The group was a smidge soft against the run, but overall, you’ve gotta be happy with what we saw out of them today.

Special Teams: B

It’s hard to have special teams disasters when you don’t really try to do anything, and that’s the way it should be. Grayson Atkins made all 8 of his extra point attempts and never tried a field goal, so disaster averted there. Ben Kiernan got both his punts off (one just barely, though) and averaged 42.5 yards, which is pretty solid. Dazz Newsome had a couple of nifty punt returns, which was nice to see after a season so far of his punt coverage failing him. And Michael Carter had a 5-yard kickoff return on a short kickoff, which is whatever. Everything worked in this phase of the game, which is a borderline miracle for this team, but the game wasn’t changed by anything done here: just quiet efficiency. This should be Mack Brown’s model for special teams going forward.

Coaching: A-

I don’t think Mack Brown and his staff could have scripted this game much better. Their Heels got out to an early lead that was never threatened, they didn’t turtle up after a couple early scores, and subsequently they got to rotate a ton of the team’s youth in against an overmatched opponent. Check out this fact courtesy of Chad Floyd in the Tar Heel Blog Slack: by the fourth quarter there was only one player, Chris Collins, on the field on defense who had been with the Heels pre-Mack 2.0. That’s ideal circumstances for roster development, and it was good to see the staff take advantage. Phil Longo seemed to know exactly where to hit Duke’s defense and Bateman came into the game with an entirely new base lineup style that paid dividends, but we’ve already discussed that. The one mark against the coaching staff this week is that UNC continues to get dinged with dumb penalties, and two of them this weekend, including one on a sack, saved Duke drives. The Heels just can’t keep giving teams free momentum like this, and with an off week, the staff needs to start ironing this problem out. For now, though, let’s just enjoy a basically perfect win.