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UNC Football Winners, Losers, and Honorable Mentions: 2020 Season Edition

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Who comes out ahead and who was left behind as we close the book on 2020?

NCAA Football: Orange Bowl-Texas A&M vs North Carolina Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

We just can’t let football season go. One of the best seasons in the history of Carolina football – no that’s not hyperbole – is now in the books, and it’s always helpful to have one last look behind before we look ahead.

Every week, this particular post has been where we can come to celebrate the growth of the team, and also bang our heads on our collective tables at the losses suffered. It provides a good capsule about what we were focusing on each week as we now have the global view of how the season results bore out. With that in mind, let’s see who shined, who stunk, and who needs to be mentioned for standing out at various points.

Winners

Michael Carter & Javonte Williams: Together, they combined for 2385 yards rushing, 300 carries, 572 yards in receptions, 33 touchdowns including 28 on the ground, and saw their stock get to the point where both are expected to have their names called by the end of Day Two of the NFL Draft. They each had a long of 65 yards, but did it in different ways. Carter was great coming out of the backfield and had the speed, where as Williams just absolutely loved trucking people. They showed how important they were by sitting out the Orange Bowl, and their abilities were clearly missing while giving their teammates the chance to shine and get good prep for 2021. Carolina has had several running backs have successful careers in the NFL, but few will be as beloved for what they did as these two. They navigated the transition from Fedora to Brown spectacularly, and their final bow against the Hurricanes was an appropriate end to their careers.

Sam Howell: 3586 yards, 30 touchdowns passing, five touchdowns on the ground, and one touchdown catching. What was impressive was to see the growth of the sophomore as the run game flourished and defenses tried their best to take away the deep passing game. Howell, despite having a “rougher” start, adjusted with more mid-range passes, using his backs out of the back field and the tight end, and even showed the growth of being able to throw the ball away to avoid the sack. He only had seven picks all season, and passed at a 68% accuracy rate. But just in case you forgot he could sling it down the field, the last two games of the season reminded you just how strong his arm was. Multiple times he just slung it down the field with pinpoint accuracy, and one wonders just how much better his stats would have been without the drops that still plague this receiving corps. UNC’s social media team is pushing Howell for Heisman already, and with the Carter/Williams tandem gone next season, there will be more stress on Howell to elevate the Tar Heels one more level. It’s tough to surpass expectations, but Howell did it in year two, so here’s hoping he does it in year three.

Chazz Surratt: Another person who came into the season with massive expectations, Surratt struggled under the weight of being in the spotlight of the defense without the help other linebackers provided for him last year. It looked as though the quarterback-turned-linebacker had hit his wall and would not write the great ending to his book. However, he turned it around to lead the team in tackles at 91 and still holds that mark despite not playing in the Orange Bowl. Six sacks, one interception, and one fumble recovery off a forced fumble completed the story for one of college football’s best stories. While he was missed against the Aggies, it was appropriate that his college career ended against the Hurricanes. The same team was the last one he played against as a quarterback when many felt he would be broken beyond repair and be one of the top people to leave in the coaching change. To complete this turnaround and be someone projected to be drafted on day two is just amazing, and fans should cheer loudly when his name is called in the spring.

Jeremiah Gemmel: Gemmel was overmatched at times, and tended to be the one hung out to dry when opposing defenses wanted to force a linebacker to cover someone as a receiver, but he still got a great chance to shine paired up with Surratt. He was second on the team in tackles with 78, had six sacks, and an interception. He will benefit from the infusion of youth that got some run at the end of the season as well as the class of 2021. The talent should allow Gemmel to be hung out to dry less and he could see some insane numbers with what opens up for him.

Mack Brown: In just his second season back at Carolina they are already being mentioned as part of the future of the ACC. UNC drew ABC’s top broadcasting team twice and was on Saturday Night Football an additional time. Brown navigated the stormy waters of 2020 arguably better than most coaches, both on the social front and the COVID-19 handling, and the program is stronger than it has been since he was at Carolina the last time. His ability to navigate the media plus all the contacts he made while at ESPN put Carolina front and center in a good way a lot. Meanwhile, his last school just hired their third coach since he left. Brown appears happy, the program is more stable than anyone had a right to think, and his coaches are now being openly talked about as candidates for next jobs. The only thing that would have been better would have been fans to be at the games.

Losers

Special Teams: If there’s one section of the squad that still needs work, it’s the third phase of the game. It wasn’t the complete dumpster fire last season was, mostly because the punt team stabilized and the Tar Heels could at least count on kicks from inside the 40 as going in. It took a few games for grad transfer Grayson Atkins to get into a groove, there were barely any good punt or kickoff returns, and their weakness was a big reason the Tar Heels were unable to escape Tallahassee with a win. It doesn’t appear that Mack is going to make another coaching change there as the unit did at least stabilize, but they need to move to being a positive next season for the team to improve over their previous season.

Rontavius Groves: With the emergence of Dyami Brown and the special attention paid to the long game, some receiver was going to get the short end of the stick, and Toe unfortunately was it. He couldn’t carve out a role for himself on special teams, played in all 12 games and only caught four passes for 38 yards, and announced after the season he would enter the transfer portal. Even with the loss of Brown, Groves wasn’t able to get traction in the Orange Bowl, and it’s only going to be tougher with the freshmen coming in next season. How bad was it for Toe? Beau Corrales only played in five games, yet caught 13 passes for 238 yards. Hopefully someone will be able to use his experience next year.

Jace Ruder: Another transfer, the quarterback who stuck it out after the coaching change never seemed to get a great shake at showing what he could do. A lot of that was a result of his injury last season and then being supplanted by Jacolby Criswell this season. Criswell didn’t show a lot in his limited opportunities, so either Ruder struggled to grasp the concepts, or, more likely, Mack was being loyal to the players he recruited and Ruder is going to use his two seasons of eligibility at another place.

Fans: This should go without saying, but one of Carolina’s most fun seasons in our lifetimes and most of us didn’t have a shot to go enjoy seeing them play. COVID-19 severely restricted the fans allowed at Kenan, and while tickets were available for the Orange Bowl, most folks realistically didn’t want to front the money for a tip to a COVID hotspot to watch a game in a mostly empty stadium with no bands and limited ability to enjoy the area. Carolina absolutely earned their Orange Bowl trip, and showed they belonged by giving A&M a real game. Unfortunately the situation surrounding the season kept us from fully enjoying their first major bowl game in decades. Hopefully this is behind us by the time the ball is kicked off in 2021 and they can pull a repeat performance.

Honorable Mentions

Dazz Newsome started the season slow, but with the loss of Corrales during the season, his role increased as a weapon to make plays in the flat. While his stats don’t jump off the page, he ended his career on a high note and should make some noise in the NFL next season

Tomon Fox melded into the background of the defense a lot this season, and hasn’t put up the explosive numbers of his first couple of seasons, but he’s still a bedrock of the team, designing the patch the team wore this season, and being a leader loved enough that he’s going to use his extra season and come back. His leadership will be huge with the influx of talent, and his voice in the locker room will be needed

Storm Duck is a name you’ve likely forgotten about (how could you?) but his injury cut short his season and was a big reason that what was seen as a strength of the team, the secondary, turned into a weakness as no one could seemingly stay healthy. The best name in college football comes back to an even deeper secondary next season and is poised to give defensive coordinator Jay Bateman an embarrassment of riches to play with.

We could keep going, but it’s time to let the 2020 season go. Does anyone else from this past season deserve a shout out? Use the comments to state your case below. Join us in September when football season returns!