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UNC Football Preview: Coaches

Mack Brown and his staff had a successful offseason. Can it translate to on-field victories?

Clemson v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

As the North Carolina Tar Heels continue to face uncertainty just over two weeks from their season opener against Syracuse, there is at least one constant: this coaching staff is ready to get this team to the next level.

When head coach Mack Brown put together his staff after his November 27, 2018 (re)hire, pundits were impressed by the group he assembled.

And by and large, the coaching staff is the same. Below is the coaching staff for the 2020 season:

2020 UNC Football Coaching Staff

NAME TITLE
NAME TITLE
Mack Brown Head Coach
Jay Bateman Co-Defensive Coordinator/Safeties Coach
Tommy Thigpen Co-Defensive Coordinator/Inside Linebackers Coach
Phil Longo Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks Coach
Dre Bly Cornerbacks Coach
Tim Cross Defensive Line Coach
Jovan Dewitt Special Teams Coordinator/Outside Linebackers Coach
Lonnie Galloway Wide Receivers Coach
Robert Gillespie Running Backs Coach
Brian Hess Head Strength & Conditioning Coach - Football
John Lilly Tight Ends Coach
Darrell Moody Senior Advisor to the Head Coach
Stacy Searels Offensive Line Coach
Sparky Woods Senior Advisor to the Head Coach

Staff Changes

There are two changes from 2019. Scott Boone, special teams coordinator, left in early January after the bowl win against Temple. Carolina announced that it was a “mutual decision.”

There were a couple factors for this change. At the end of the 2019 season, UNC was ranked eighth or worse in six of seven ACC special team statistical categories. This includes 13th in the league in punting average. Additionally, the place kicker situation was at best inconsistent and at worse a weak point for last year’s team.

Boone was replaced by Jovan Dewitt last January. Dewitt, who previously was the special teams coordinator and outside linebackers coach for Nebraska, will reprise that role at Carolina.

With the Boone departure, the program announced that there were “philosophical differences” in the change. The Dewitt hire should alleviate any concern in that area. Dewitt served under current co-defensive coordinator Jay Bateman at Army during the 2014-15 seasons.

The other coaching change is the addition of John Lilly as tight ends coach. He replaces Tim Brewster, who took the same job at Florida. Brewster served as recruiting coordinator for UNC, and Lilly will have an active role in recruiting.

Lilly has plenty of experience in that capacity. From 1998 to 2007, Lilly was the recruiting coordinator for Bobby Bowden at Florida State. There were a few good teams and players during that time in Tallahassee, including the 1999 National Champions and 2000 National Runner Up.

This is a great fit for the coaching staff as Lilly is no stranger to North Carolina. He played football at Guilford College and his first coaching job was as an assistant coach at Northwest Guilford High School in Greensboro. Lilly is completely on board with Brown’s priority on North Carolina recruits.

Another offseason addition to the coaching staff was Kevin Donnalley as Director of High School Relations. Donnalley played for Brown at the beginning of his first stint at UNC and is of “Fat Cats” fame for the 2003 Carolina Panthers.

Building relationships with high school coaches is a key component in Brown’s philosophy on recruiting. Early results have proven this is a successful strategy.


Recruiting

The biggest story line for this UNC coaching staff is recruiting. According to 247Sports, Carolina is currently ranked 13th in the nation in their 2020 Football Team Rankings and 11th in the 2021 Football Team Rankings. After the commitment of RaRa Dillworth in April, the Tar Heels were second in the national team rankings for 2021.

One of the biggest changes that has led to recruiting success has been the complete buy-in from the coaches on Brown’s mantra:

“The best in North Carolina play for Carolina.”

The message is resonating with players and recruits. Quarterback Sam Howell, a North Carolina native that flipped his commitment from Florida State to UNC, was quoted on this subject during the spring:

Brown has identified Carolina’s footprint as between Washington, DC and Atlanta, GA. When looking at the 16 commits in the 2021 cycle, all are in this footprint, with 13 of those recruits from North Carolina.

The coaching staff is well-suited for this footprint and have the credentials to back it up.

Tommy Thigpen, while at Tennessee, was named the National Recruiter of the Year by Rivals.com in 2013. Lonnie Galloway was the 2010 Big East Recruiter of the Year by ESPN.com and Tim Cross was the Rivals Big Ten Recruiter of the Year.

Dre’ Bly, a Virginia native of the Tidewater region, is working to make that region a Tar Heel stronghold once again. The commitment of five-star cornerback Tony Grimes proves that Bly has what it takes to be a top recruiter for the Tar Heels.

The similarities between those two are obvious, which is a compelling selling point. And, of course, when one of the best in program history is making the pitch, it is convincing. But Bly is not just a recruiter — he is the position coach, which means long-term tutelage under the Hall of Famer.

Now, the coaches must look at sustaining the success on the recruiting trail. And the most convincing measure will be victories on the field.


2020 Outlook

There is still some uncertainty about the 2020 season. But as of now, Carolina will play Syracuse on September 12.

I have watched nearly every Mack Brown interview in the past couple weeks and the UNC head coach has instilled more confidence in me about the COVID pandemic than nearly every other politician from the federal and state levels.

Brown has emphasized the safety of the players is the top priority for him and the coaching staff. Scholarships will be honored if there are opt-outs, and an opt-out can occur at any time with no repercussions.

He is relying on the medical experts’ latest information and if protocols are followed, it is safe for the student-athletes to play. Brown continuously points out that if new medical evidence suggests that it is unsafe for the players, the team will not play.

Brown, who turned 69 years old yesterday, asked if he was worried about the virus because of his age. He is not. Brown is focusing on following safety procedures for himself and not living in fear. Life is different, but he and the coaches are managing those risks.

The last round of COVID-19 testing this week resulted in zero positive cases on the team. The team has scrimmaged in Kenan and is preparing for the Orange.

Considering all the variables, Brown has done a great job in managing this situation for his team- a sentiment that has been echoed by the players.


As for the season outlook, the goal for the coaching staff is to be one of the two teams at the top of the division-less ACC this season.

Recruitment rankings are great, but on-field rankings are what counts. And with the return of many starters on both sides of the ball, the pundits have Carolina in the preseason Top 25 polls.

The greatest concern exiting the Larry Fedora era was the defense. Last season, Bateman and Thigpen’s defense improved mightedly.

Via UNC Athletics:

...A number of improvements in the Tar Heel defense, which was one of the nation’s top five most improved units in total defense, scoring defense and rushing defense. UNC allowed 373.2 yards per game, which was almost a 75-yard per game improvement over the previous season, and bolstered its ranking by 56 positions. The scoring defense improved by 63 spots after holding opponents to 10.8 points less per game, and the rushing defense jumped 60 spots after allowing 75.3 yards fewer per game. In addition, the defense surged up 60 spots in opponent third-down percentage and tallied seven more INTs than the prior year.

Another year under the same defensive scheme should yield even more improvement for the team.

Heading into this season, expectations are high for Chazz Surratt, who is poised for at least another All-ACC season at linebacker. Thigpen’s work on transforming the quarterback to one of the top defensive players in the conference cannot be understated.

Another tip of the hat must go to Bateman and Bly during the secondary carousel last season. Along with the offensive line, the defensive backs were hit the hardest with injuries in 2019.

Even with the dwindling personnel later in the season, the defensive backs seemed to improve each week. The young guys, like Storm Duck, that needed to step up struggled at first when thrown into the fire, but seemed to get better with each quarter. The coaches certainly played a role in that progression. Look for the coaches to use this depth throughout the season.

On the defensive line, managing the depth of young talent will fall on Tim Cross. The defensive line coach lost two key contributors from last season, but will have fresh, but untested talent that will need to step up this year. How the defensive line performs this season may be the determinant factor for the overall success of the defense.


On offense, the expectations are enormous. Here is the rundown from last season via UNC Athletics:

The Tar Heels’ balanced attack averaged 474 yards per game (285.8p/188.2r), which ranks third on UNC’s single-season list and 12th nationally. The offense’s 33.1 points per game ranked fifth on UNC’s single-season list, 30th nationally and second in the ACC.

For the skill positions on offense, there will be a ton a talent returning. Howell under center, Michael Carter and Javonte Williams in the backfield, and a talented group of receivers led by Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown make this Carolina offense a force to be reckoned with in 2020.

Although there were fewer head scratchers than in years past, some of the play calls in critical moments by Phil Longo in 2019 had UNC fans dumbfounded.

But we on the couch or in the stands can easily criticize those on the sidelines. Brown stood behind those playcalls and has full confidence in the system.

As on the defensive side of the ball, more time in the offense system will produce dividends for the team.

Last season, the first 10 games were decided by seven points or less. In the last three, including on the road against NC State and in the bowl game versus Temple, the offense averaged over 50 points per game with an average margin of victory of over 40 points.

The hope for the coaches, players, students, alumni, and fans is that this was a sign of things to come in 2020.

The only question mark will be the offensive line. Both injuries and a propensity for substitutions and rotations caused many combinations on the o-line last season. The departures of Charlie Heck and Nick Polino hurt, but it seems as though there will be some experience returning.

Even in spite of the experience captured in 2019, the offensive line must simply do a better job this year. The Tar Heels allowed 37 sacks last season, ranking an abysmal 113 of 130 in the NCAA.

If one coach on staff is on the hot seat in 2020, it is Stacy Searels. The offensive line coach has a season under his belt on staff, and with the all the talent in the skill positions, the offensive line must do their part.

As with the defensive line, the offensive line will determine whether or not this unit can be great or elite.


As mentioned previously, the only coaching change made by Brown in the offseason was special teams. Dewitt worked under Bateman, so this seems like a well-thought out addition for the team.

Outside of the kicker and punter, it is hard to gauge what type of special teams unit a team has during the preseason. Punts, punting and kickoff coverage, and touchbacks are not the glamorous pieces covered in training camp.

For now, the addition of First Team FCS All-American Grayson Atkins should alleviate the placekicking concerns for this season. When 10 games last season were decided by seven points or less, the Tar Heels cannot afford to leave any points on the field.

All three phases must be in concert for this team to go to the next level. Offensive play calls can be swayed by confidence in a kicker, while the field position battle can be won or loss off the foot of the punter.

If this area was the only one that necessitated a change by Brown, it will be a part of the game to track throughout the 2020 season.


What are your thoughts on the current coaching staff? Let us know in the comments below.