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UNC 25, FSU 35: Positional Grades

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UNC plays its worst game against its worst conference opponent, and this season looks ugly.

NCAA Football: Florida State at North Carolina
Me too, buddy.
James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

I’m supposed to get these out on the Sunday after the game, usually, but this latest loss to one of the worst Florida State teams in history left me simultaneously too angry and too apathetic to muster up the kind of energy that usually goes into these. This iteration of position grades probably won’t even go into as much depth as I usually do, because what is there even to learn from this loss? In football and in school, there are failures that don’t really deserve reflection; the product so far from what it’s supposed to be that building anything from it guarantees only that you will not get where you want to go. But, as an educator, I also know that’s not an excuse for either not grading or not providing feedback, so here we go, grading the positions for easily UNC’s most inexplicable loss in the new Mack Brown era.

Quarterback: D+

I know Sam Howell can only do so much with one reliable receiver and one consistent offensive lineman (we’ll get there later), but 6 games into the season, he’s just not the same thrower he was last year. I asked early in the season if it was Cam Newton syndrome, where taking on the load of his team’s run game as well as its passing game has taken a toll on his body so he’s not as in control of his arm in-game, and I’m becoming more and more convinced that this is at least in part the case for him. But a lot of his decline this season appears to be mental and personal — he plays scared of his offensive line (fairly justifiably), doesn’t seem to trust his receivers to catch anything that’s not floated to them, losing all the drool-worthy hand skills and trajectory variation that he showed off last year, and has been dropping his eyes to run after one and a half reads now that he knows he can run through ACC defenses with reasonable success, not looking for checkdowns or even checking across the field for safeties that might have bitten on him tucking the ball. He also clearly hasn’t developed any chemistry with his receivers with the possible exception of Josh Downs, though he even had some miscommunications with Downs this game. And despite that being the case, rather than playing safe and looking to the middle of the field, he acts like he still has Dyami Brown on the boundary, throwing up deep balls with the expectation that a defensive back will be stacked when his receiver hasn’t won the route and doesn’t particularly look like they’re going to, leading to overthrows and wasted downs. All of that came to a head this game, where his completion percentage was as low as it’s been all season, he threw an awful interception to the end zone where Khafre Brown hadn’t won his deep route, overthrew or floated several deep balls that landed incomplete, and after a great first quarter where he led the offense to 10 early points including a great post-snap adjustment for a touchdown to Downs, just couldn’t lead the offense to anything until it was too late to matter. While he’s had issues this season, this was probably the worst game of his Tar Heel career, so I do expect him to be better (again) from here on, but if Florida State could do this to him, maybe defenses have just adjusted to the way Howell’s been playing now — and if that’s the case, he’s going to have to make some major adjustments. Howell is already the best quarterback in UNC history, but he’s in danger of an ugly end to his career in Chapel Hill — and one that could irreparably damage his future if he lets his current trends become habits.

Running Backs: C

As should have been expected, UNC’s running backs got some room this game against a Florida State defensive line that’s been extremely porous. Ty Chandler took the lead and didn’t do anything special but got what was blocked for him, taking 14 carries for 61 yards, or a 4.4 yards per carry average. He also scored a late touchdown from two yards out, showing some ability to run power, though that hasn’t consistently been the case. D.J. Jones continues to impress and give some hope for the future of the position. Playing as the second running back, Jones showed off some nifty moves and good speed, earning more carries as the game went on. He took his 11 carries for 60 yards, a 5.5 YPC average, and should see more time moving forward, both because he looks like the best running back on the roster and in the interest of development. Jones also saw some use in the screen game, and caught 3 balls for 15 yards.

Receivers: D

Josh Downs and tight ends not named Garrett Walston save this grade from being an outright F, but as bad as Howell looked on Saturday, the guys on the other end of his balls looked worse. Antoine Green has been outright invisible on the outside whenever he’s asked to do something that isn’t a comeback, which is incredibly frustrating for the talent he has. He’s decent running quick curls, with a sharp stem and hands that pluck balls away from his frame, but on anything else, particularly deep routes, he doesn’t have a release package, doesn’t use his speed to stack defensive backs, has about zero ability to track the ball, doesn’t win with his body, and stems halfheartedly, making him impossible to target in the role that Dyami Brown excelled in last year, which opened up the offense. Emery Simmons has regressed badly; last year he was a player with average separation skills but great catch-point ability and phenomenal hands; now he doesn’t really stand out for anything but some mistimed targets. Walston gets open up the seam occasionally, but his hands are beyond suspect (despite being hailed preseason as the Heel with the best hands) and he’s schemed open more often than he gets open. And even Downs, as electric as he was with 9 catches for 121 yards and a touchdown, had at least three drops, all of which helped kill promising drives. And finally, Khafre Brown, whose biggest contributions this season have been drawing pass interference penalties because he just hasn’t been able to catch. His drop on a deep slant, the kind that he housed several times last year, took any remaining air out of a UNC comeback and deadened the stadium, essentially sealing the loss shut. Drops are one thing, they come and go. But every receiver playing has regressed even from what they could do in limited time last year, and that’s worrying.

Offensive Line: D+

What more can be said about this group that hasn’t already? Position coach Stacy Searels hasn’t lasted more than 3 years anywhere since the turn of the century, and that seems all but assured to continue after this, his third season in Chapel Hill. Sometime, we’ll have a discussion about nepotism in football coaching, but for now, let’s focus on the on-field product. Marcus McKethan and Jordan Tucker looked like future NFL stalwarts as sophomores. Now, they’re overweight, slow, and don’t look like they know what to do with their hands, only sometimes, seemingly accidentally, getting their punches in the right spot to drive a defensive lineman back. Brian Anderson and Quiron Johnson are apparently playing hurt, but Johnson has never been very good (and we shouldn’t expect him to be, as a former walk-on) and Anderson has lost whatever magic he found last year to make him a good center. Joshua Ezeudu is doing his best, and for his part rarely loses a matchup, but Asim Richards at left tackle has been so bad, even regressing from already mediocre 2020 form, that Ezeudu was shuffled to left tackle and Ed Montilus came in to play guard for several snaps on Saturday, which wasn’t any worse than the prior product, but certainly isn’t helping build cohesion. As a group, the Heels were constantly victimized by delayed stunts, sending a guard and tackle to block outside while a pass rusher looped to the B gap and got to Howell or a running back untouched, forcing minimal gains and lost downs even though Howell was sacked only once. That’s a coaching and communication issue, and that’s just inexcusable for a group that’s basically playing its third year together. Whatever’s happening with this position room needs to be burned down. I don’t think firing coaches mid-season in college is productive, but Mack Brown had better have a list of offensive line coordinators that he’s not already familiar with at the ready as soon as the season’s over.

Defensive Line: C+

Of every position group that played Saturday, the defensive line was the only one, I think, that gave the Heels a chance to win, but even then, a combination of bizarre coaching decisions and inabilities to take advantage of a few opportunities leave me saying there’s a lot of room to be better. Still, going back to the earlier point, the defensive line may be the only group where there’s room to grow, rather than a need to rebuild. Myles Murphy is already a star, consistently getting penetration at 1-tech and forcing adjustments from running backs and quarterbacks alike. The problem is that those adjustments are really easy when linebackers aren’t doing their jobs properly (more on that in a second) and you and your linemates aren’t finishing plays. Murphy doesn’t get hands on the quarterback or running back nearly as often as he should given the pressure he provides, giving them opportunities to reset and take him out of plays. Clyde Pinder can help solve this with more reps at 3-tech, but he’s being used more as a two-gapper, which isn’t his game, though he doesn’t do a terrible job of establishing a point of attack. Ray Vohasek is a great cleanup player for runs that get forced back inside, but that hasn’t happened often enough and he’s not really a player to make things happen on their own. And Tomari Fox has been pretty excellent as a 4-tech, his most natural positional fit, chasing down runs to the sideline and getting adequate push. He doesn’t often make it to the pocket, though, again, leaving space for plays to be made — and too often, even a mediocre offense like Florida State’s has been able to make them.

Linebackers: D-

After the loss of Power Echols to an early and questionable targeting call, the inside linebackers just didn’t have a chance, which is a shocking thing to say. I didn’t even think Chazz Surratt played phenomenally last year, but what’s becoming clear is that his athleticism offered the corps a skillset it doesn’t really have now, that is, going side-to-side and handling oneself in coverage. Jeremiah Gemmel, Eugene Asante, and Cedric Gray, who get the majority of inside linebacker snaps, all are at their best going downhill at a runner between the tackles, and frequently get lost in a scheme that asks them to be competent in coverage and have a couple of pass rush moves, in addition to their relative lack of sideline-to-sideline coverage, which any linebacking corps needs. More disappointing, especially for Gemmel, has been their lack of discipline against any semblance of an option — all three are frequently too hesitant and get washed out of the play, or conversely close too quickly and allow runners escape valves, without the athleticism to reverse course and at least try to make something. Jordan Travis was the second quarterback in 3 weeks to set a personal rushing record against UNC, so there’s no reason he should have been, per Gemmel, the slipperiest quarterback the Heels had faced to this point. The defense just wasn’t prepared and wasn’t good enough, particularly at this second level.

The outside linebackers, though, are the primary culprits for Florida State’s run game being as inexplicably successful as it was. No matter how experienced (Tomon Fox) or young (Des Evans), none of them seem to have the eye discipline to wait even a quarter second to identify where the ball is, where it’s going, and make the right play accordingly. Every time, they either chase the tailback or assume they can get to the quarterback before he makes a move to the outside, and in the latter case, they’re nearly never right. In the former case, it makes for some really splashy plays when they’ve guessed right and the running back does have the ball, but also leaves the edge completely vulnerable for any competent quarterback, or even a questionably competent one like Jordan Travis, to take advantage of for chunk plays, which happened over and over again on Saturday. Add to this that their outside pass rush has been lackluster, and that Travis wasn’t sacked a single time (to be fair, he only dropped back about 15 times), and this group needs a hard look at what’s going on during the week, because this has been, again, inexcusable for the level of talent that’s there.

Secondary: D-

This one’s the most baffling to me, even more so than what’s happened at quarterback. The secondary is the one unit on defense that’s played consistently well this season. Tony Grimes in particular has been superb outside of one awful quarter against Georgia Tech, Kyler McMichael has been fine but never threatens to make plays, Cam Kelly has been quite good, and Trey Morrison has been mediocre, still playing out of position at safety, but not bad enough to bring the unit down with him, until Saturday. I don’t know if the unit just didn’t respect Travis enough to think he could make plays down the field, or if they were too focused on the run game, or if they got the same dirty-eyes virus that affected the outside linebackers, but besides Kelly, who continued a recent run of really good play with 9 total tackles, Travis might as well have been throwing against air. He completed 11/13 passes, easily a career best, and whether he was improvising or throwing within structure, defensive backs were just nowhere to be found. Morrison abandoned his area of the field too early multiple times, McMichael consistently just got beat, and Grimes put up a fight and wasn’t targeted too often (though he also abandoned his assignment close to the line of scrimmage a couple times), but when the rest of the unit is that bad, it doesn’t really matter. Dre Bly has so far been excellent both at identifying and developing talent, so this may have just been an off day, or a case of not respecting the opponent, but it was awful. Also, Trey Morrison should move back to nickel back and Ja’Qurious Conley can play strong safety — neither is suited to playing where they are now.

Special Teams: B

Grayson Atkins hit a 51-yard field goal! Hoorah! Hooray! Calloo! Callay!

Okay, now that I’m done snarking, I’ll say this: Atkins did his job and even did more than expected, Ben Kiernan netted 81 yards on two punts and didn’t allow a return, and Josh Downs was able to return two punts for 22 yards including a nifty 18-yarder. A good day’s work for a special teams unit. The only lacking area was kickoff/coverage — Jonathan Kim short-legged two kickoffs, one of which UNC’s coverage team snuffed out for a 13-yard return and the other of which made it all the way to midfield. Atkins was brought in to try the end-of-game onside kick, and made a decent effort, getting it to squirt through a Seminole and be available for UNC recovery before Florida State jumped back on it. I’ve been vocal here about touchbacks not mattering and Kim getting outsized praise for putting kickoffs in the end zone, and I stand by that, but coverage does still need to be prepared for returns. Every return is a weapon for the kicking team if you’re even average, and they didn’t play with that mentality.

Coaching: F

Usually, I take this section to talk about the two coordinators’ gameplanning and Mack Brown’s game management, but that all seems mostly moot for this game, because this was all the way up and down an effort loss, and that falls squarely on the head man’s shoulders. The Heels looked disinterested, undisciplined, unmotivated, at times confused, and barely looked like a team rather than a bunch of individuals, and an uncharacteristic 12 penalties for 110 yards was only the tip of the iceberg. Ja’Qurious Conley’s father noted that offensive linemen seemed to be pointedly not helping Sam Howell off the ground, which seems new. There’s no camaraderie and no holding each other accountable constructively, it seems, and while I’m not in the locker room, what I see is a lot of players who have practiced well and are looking for somebody to blame for losses that they know shouldn’t be happening. You can’t just blame the media or inflated betting odds (as Mack Brown, hopefully tongue-in-cheek, attempted to); UNC has been more talented than every opponent they’ve faced and yet sit at 3-3, 2-3 in the league — it would take idiocy not to recognize that even with no knowledge of the para-sports world, which is impossible to ignore. Brown keeps telling us that it’s a bad thing for the team to believe they’re good, or better than their opponents — why? Why can’t that be harnessed into a positive confidence, rather than lackadaisical disinterest? Why is Brown not able to lead a team if they don’t think they’re underdogs? And why do he and his staff seem so confident that the Heels have more execution problems than anything under the surface, which is so clearly the case after half a season? This team simply isn’t being coached right. Every position group on the squad has regressed, which points not to a wholly incompetent staff but a fundamentally wrong approach to building this team. Mack Brown has a lot of justifiable goodwill for his rebuilding of UNC Football as a brand, fan attraction, and recruiting powerhouse, but the only possible conclusion to draw from this season so far is that there is something wrong with the way he’s approaching this team. I hope that he’s smart and self-reflective enough to realize it.