Thanks to some pretty last-minute schedule maneuvering, the UNC Tar Heels will play the Western Carolina Catamounts in their penultimate regular season game rather than their last one, giving them hopefully a tune-up before a finale against Miami. This is more in line with the way that football seasons in the before times usually went, with an FCS week ahead of Rivalry Week, so that’s probably for the best for the Heels. Specifically, and my colleague Evan has already pointed this out in his Three Things to Watch article published earlier today, but a game like this is prime development material. Last year’s Mercer game provided us with our first real glimpses of several players who are making serious noise on this year’s team, including Emery Simmons and Tomari Fox, and while we’ve already seen a fair bit of the team’s youth throughout the latter part of the season, this is a chance for them to really make a mark against an overmatched team.
We have seen in the past couple of weeks, especially, exactly what separates the Heels from the elites of college football, and while it seems a little bit reductive to just say it’s line play, it’s also not entirely incorrect. Jay Bateman has no upperclassmen this year that were recruited for his defensive scheme, and especially this year after the departures of Jason Strowbridge and Aaron Crawford, he’s had to make do with tweeners, out-of-position players, and a bunch of blitzes to get any push on the line of scrimmage. Obviously, the results have been... mixed at best. We’ve caught glimpses, however, of what it looks like when he has players that he and his staff recruited on the field, with a few drives here and there that have been manned by Des Evans, Clyde Pinder, Kaimon Rucker, Eugene Asante, Khadry Jackson, and the like — they’ve looked really good! They probably haven’t gotten the strength and conditioning training needed to hold up for entire ACC games, but against FCS competition is the perfect place to get them extended game reps so they know what they’re doing at game speed and are better prepared for next year, when they’ll be expected to take over and really take this defense to the level that was expected with Bateman’s hiring.
On offense, things are a little more complicated. For one thing, UNC doesn’t quite have the stable of backups and youth on the offensive line that it does on the defensive line: there are bodies, but certainly not the talent level that the staff has recruited on the defensive line. And that’s fine! Offensive line play is a lot more about cohesion and experience than individual talent, which leads me to my second point: UNC has some very good players on its offensive line already, significantly more so than on its defensive line! Joshua Ezeudu is a stud, Marcus McKethan is very good, and Jordan Tucker is a mauler. Even Brian Anderson, who was an absolute liability last year, has been much improved this year and is at least a competent starter. But an offensive line, especially in pass protection, is only as good as its weakest link, and UNC’s weakest link this season has unfortunately been at the hardest position to find new talent at: Asim Richards at left tackle, in his first season as a starter, just hasn’t quite found his footing all season. He’s young, athletic, and has quick feet, so I’m not discounting the possibility that he can make an Anderson-like jump, but that’s just the fact right now — and UNC doesn’t really have a backup in waiting for him. Ezeudu is the closest, and he’s entrenched at guard. Behind him... there’s 3-star freshman Cayden Baker, who probably isn’t yet quite at the size he needs to be to play offensive tackle at the college level. Triston Miller might have had a chance, but he opted out of the season due to family reasons. UNC’s depth on the line will rotate in here, of course, but not for as exciting a future as we’ve seen for the defensive line.
And finally, this season is also preparation for the future at the offensive skill positions. Next year is Year 3 of the UNC rebuild under Mack Brown 2.0, which is supposed to be the year that things all come together. The program has probably overachieved in Years 1 and 2 thanks to lucking into a generationally talented quarterback who was able to take advantage of a fairly stacked offensive personnel, but next year is when that’s supposed to intersect with Brown’s staff’s first recruits getting big and experienced enough to make a difference on the field. The thing is, UNC stands to lose a ton of offensive firepower after this season: Dazz Newsome and Michael Carter are graduating and thus certainly gone; Dyami Brown and Javonte Williams’ NFL Draft stock is as high as it’ll ever be so they’re almost certainly gone. Garrett Walston will also graduate - that’s basically the entire starting lineup of ballcarriers, and probably over 8000 yards of offense over the past two years when it’s all said and done. UNC’s got talent on the bench to replace them — Emery Simmons and Khafre Brown have already been making plays on the outside this year and Josh Downs has flashed at slot receiver, while Josh Henderson, British Brooks, and D.J. Jones have all shown some promise at running back — but they need to show they can carry an offensive load and not just supplement it so that they can sustain Sam Howell’s inevitable Heisman bid. This game is the perfect audition for them.
And finally, for the purpose of sustaining programmatic excellence beyond this year, we need to see extended snaps for Jacolby Criswell. Sam Howell, a down day against Notre Dame aside, is a known and elite quantity, but he’s almost certainly gone after the 2021 season. Phil Longo and his offensive coaching staff have done a great job recruiting the position since they arrived, with Jacolby Criswell on deck and Drake Maye coming to Chapel Hill this spring. But once you’re in college, none of that matters — even Howell’s lofty high school rankings wouldn’t have predicted this level of success, and plenty of 4-star quarterbacks underplay expectations. Criswell has come in for a drive or two at the tail end of some of UNC’s blowouts this year, but, frustratingly, has thrown just one pass into the flats while spending the rest of his time either handing it off or running the read-option. Next year, he’s going to be the unquestioned backup, needing to be ready to run actual offense if Howell needs to come out for any reason, and after that, he’ll have a leg up on the starting job thanks to his experience with the offense. But for any of that to mean anything positive for UNC, the staff needs to see him actually make passing reads and throw against defenders that aren’t in practice, whose signs and calls he doesn’t already know, and with stakes that actually matter to his team’s success. We need to know what the team will be after the departure of the best QB it’s ever had, and a big part of that is going to be in who’s replacing him. Make him take some risks and show us what his arm talent and quarterbacking acumen look like, so we know that the success we’ve seen under Mack Brown is a function of program-building and not just of an elite signal-caller with borderline-elite skill players.
That might be a lot of stakes for a game in which the Heels are favored by half a century — but that’s exactly what these games are for. With their loss to Notre Dame, the Heels are no longer playing for this season, chance at the Orange Bowl aside — that should be a consequence of playing this year, not the goal. As far as I’m concerned, especially this week, they’re playing for a continually improved future.