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UNC Football: X-Factor vs. Syracuse

Can Sam Howell lead the team with potential Week 1 jitters?

Military Bowl Presented by Northrop Grumman - North Carolina v Temple Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

There is always a learning curve during Week 1. Each team faces a new set of challenges, and no matter how well training camp and scrimmages are before season, nothing can replicate live action against an opponent.

This season, the pandemic and subsequent schedule changes have created challenges for all teams competing this fall.

For the North Carolina Tar Heels, gone are the non-conference games against UCF, Auburn, and James Madison. From the start of the season, UNC will be in conference play and competing for one of the two spots in the ACC Championship.

Simply put, Carolina cannot afford a slow start if they wish to play for the league title in December.

In one of the most influential factors in the optimism heading into the 2020 season, the offense returns nearly all of its production from last season.

However, the greatest concern on that side of the ball is the offensive line.

On Monday, head coach Mack Brown addressed the o-line first when looking at the weaknesses of the team:

We don’t have a lot of depth on our offensive line and that is something we are concerned about. We’ve talked about depth and cross training ad nauseam since we started this season.

UNC Athletics identified a “core of six offensive linemen.” Brown said there are “fewer players ready to play on the offensive line on a hot day” than he’d like. This lack of depth with undoubtedly be a storyline throughout the season.

Offensive lines need reps and time on the field together to coalesce into a high-performing group. Is this group of six at that level? Where do the other depth lineman fit into this puzzle?

On Saturday, Carolina will face a new Syracuse offense. Besides the fact that the Orange defense only returns four starters, new defensive coordinator Tony White implemented a new 3-3-5 defense.

Generally with the 3-5-5, there are more blitzing from the linebackers and defensive backs. Brown said in his press conference that he is “most nervous about the offensive line picking up multiple blitzes.”

There is no video of the Orange in this new scheme. Brown references the “protection issues” from the first two weeks of the season last year and emphasized protecting the quarterback.

Will the offensive line step up to these challenges on Saturday?

That remains to be seen, but there will likely be some miscues and mistakes against the Orange. And that is why Sam Howell will be the X-factor this weekend.

If there are breakdowns in the offensive line, how will he react? The talented wide receiver corps can make plays, and if linebackers and defensive backs are in on the rush, there will be extra space for the playmakers. Quick decision making will become Howell’s most valuable asset if the walls start closing in too quickly.

Additionally, if the offensive line is not providing the push needed for Michael Carter and Javonte Williams, there will be more pressure of Howell to create offense with his arm.

Lastly, if Howell needs to scramble, will he do enough to make the extra yardage? Or is this something that is too risky for Week 1?

Howell is no longer the unsuspecting freshman in a Week 1 game. He is now a rising star, looking to build on a recording setting first year. Now is his chance to be the unquestioned leader of the team.

Like last year’s Week 1 victory, look for Howell to be the deciding factor for the kickoff of the 2020 season.