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Tar Heel Blog Roundtable: Midseason Discussion

Your favorite team of THB writers try to figure out just what the hell happened during the first half of the football season.

Riots at Leipzig demonstration Photo by Sebastian Willnow/picture alliance via Getty Images

We have reached the halfway point of the season, and unprecedented hype and expectation of preseason – a top ten ranking and a Heisman candidate – has given way to the nadir of reality. The Tar Heels are 3-3, losing all three games to teams they were favored to beat. Worse still, the opening stanza of the season was the easiest. Dates against Notre Dame, Wake Forest, Pitt, and a suddenly competent NC State remain.

Where did it all go wrong? Expectations after a truly inspirational performance while undermanned against Texas A&M in the Orange Bowl were off the mark. But this was calamitous, like a five degree miscalculation on a rocket launch that instead of going straight up into the sky, careens into an orphanage in the next town over.

It’s time for the Tar Heel Blog staff to make sense of the carnage with another Roundtable. Join our discussion in the comments section below!

What has been the biggest culprit for Carolina’s disappointing start?

(Al Hood) Trying to pick one culprit is like picking one (expletive) from a pile of (expletive). That said, I think it has to be the offensive line. It hasn’t allowed the running backs to flourish, it hasn’t protected Sam Howell well enough for him to feel comfortable, and it’s the thing that we all expected to be a strength that has just fallen completely flat. Some up and down with the defense was understood, you knew you were losing talent at the skill positions, but the way the O-line has just failed our offense as a whole starts a spiral that exaggerates all the other problems.

(Michael McKay) Defense at Carolina doesn’t need to be the Pittsburgh Steel Curtain, they just have to prevent the other team from scoring as many points. A turnover here and there, and usually you have enough to win games. The defense has been a strange mix of intriguing plays (Myles Murphy jumps off the screen) mixed with a baffling inability to get off the field on third down. Chazz Surratt must have been more valuable than we could’ve known, because the linebacker play looks lackluster. I’m hopeful that with Ja’Qurious Conley getting closer to the line at nickel rather than safety, he’ll be able to make more tackles and big plays. Lord knows we need them.

(Brandon Anderson) I’m going to go with a really simple answer: mistakes. That probably seems like a cop-out, but what was the culprit in the loss to Florida State? Penalties. Georgia Tech? Not preparing well enough for Jeff Sims. Against Florida State, Sam Howell had two fumbles, and that’s before factoring in a weirdly put together offensive line because of injuries, missed tackles, etc etc. We can sit here and discuss how every team makes mistakes during games, but UNC’s have been as egregious as they can get. Remember when Mack Brown didn’t call a timeout in the final drive against the Hokies even though he had three of them in his back pocket? It’s really easy to point to this group not being good or that group not being good, and it’s not wrong to do that, but I think we haven’t talked enough about how this team just seems to lack focus and attention to detail.

(Jake Lawrence) In order:

  • The NFL for taking Dyami and Javonte a year early.
  • The OL for developing tiny hearts.
  • A few position coaches for not being good coaches.
  • An offensive coordinator who, and I cannot stress this enough, has zero feel for the flow of a game.
  • Larry Fedora, because of how little talent was truly on the entire roster.
  • Sparky Anderson for whatever analytics he uses to guide some bizarre in-game decisions.
  • Mack Brown for not recognizing this dysfunction sooner.
  • And COVID, because that just always feels like an excuse people use.

Note, I did not say Jay Bateman.

Do I have some questions? Yes.
Do some changes need to take place within his system? Again, yes.
Is he to blame? With the exception of (maybe) FSU, nope.

(Akil Guruparan) I said this in my Position Grades, but I think this year’s failure is so comprehensive that I can’t point a finger at anybody except for Mack Brown. He seems not to know how to handle a team with any sense that it might be good; every position group has regressed with the exception of special teams; and his in-game management, which has been a sore point with his team’s fans throughout his career, has continued to be woeful: no more visibly than when he first wasted an opportunity to cut a 3-score deficit to a 2-score one, and then, with 8 minutes left to come back from 3 scores down, allowed his team to take the 3rd-longest scoring drive it had all season. The offensive line has been bad, but not so bad that it couldn’t be overcome with the caliber of team we had every right to expect coming off last season.

Who does Mack Brown miss the most from last year’s team?

(AH) The running backs, without a doubt. Michael Carter and Javonte Williams just were such reliable guys who defenses had to honor, not to mention they understood how to block if needed as well. They could bust a big run, bust a defender, and catch a ball out of the backfield to act as a check down option in case the rest were covered. If you kept either one, you get the feeling this offense would have opened up so much more.

NCAA Football: Western Carolina at North Carolina
Sam Howell = sad Wolverine yearning for these guys
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

(MM) Running backs is the correct answer. Also, Dyami Brown, or a deep vertical threat. Josh Downs has been better than I could have imagined, but he’s more like Dazz Newsome if he got a Mario Bros super-star. Khafre Brown should have been the ready-made replacement for his older brother, but offseason surgery and a case of the drops has hampered him and the offense. I think the lack of confidence in Khafre and Antoine Green has caused Howell to fixate on Downs, to the offense’s detriment.

(BA) Javonte Williams. He made the offensive line look better, he made Sam Howell look better, and overall he made Phil Longo look better. Prior to last year I was very critical of Longo’s job with the team. Last year I feel like Williams made Longo look like a genius, and now this year he is gone and Longo is back to looking like...well...Longo. Is that fair? Probably not, because specialty coaches do deserve blame for this stuff as well, but yeah Mack Brown easily misses Javonte Williams the most.

(JL) Javonte is a fun answer, but the real answer is Dyami. Watching Sam Howell regularly overthrow receivers on deep routes and routinely fail to see wide open receivers should make us all at least ask the question, “Who really made the other one look good?”.

If Dyami were still here, he could take the top off defenses and the running game would be better, or at least good enough. I mean, Ty Chandler, Sam Howell, D.J Jones, and Caleb Hood are all averaging over 5.0 ypc as it is. Is the issue really the overall running game?

If Javonte were here, the receiving game would still suck (but at least we could give up this “Sam Howell is a dual threat” fantasy that some people want to live in).

(AG) Dyami is probably the right answer, because Sam Howell has refused to rein in his gunslinger mentality and keeps throwing the balls he would have to Dyami to people like Antoine Green, Justin Olson, and Emery Simmons, none of whom have shown off anything even approaching Dyami’s release package or physicality to stack a defensive back deep. An underrated second place, though, is Chazz Surratt. I feel like he was pretty underwhelming last year, but now that he’s gone, it’s clear that he was really the only sideline-to-sideline linebacker on UNC’s roster, and the hope that Eugene Asante could replicate that hasn’t panned out because UNC’s defense has collectively lost its eye discipline.

Is there a way out? Can a position group or even a single hero rise from the ashes to get UNC’s momentum back where it was at the end of last season?

(AH) Goals for the year now are completely changed. The rest of the season is about the future of the club, getting young guys to shine, and developing talent on both offense and defense to turn around and lift up the new quarterback next year. That’s the scary thing, really. Sam may be inconsistent but six games in, it’s clear the weapons he had just aren’t as reliable now as they were, and a lot of that just has to go with youth. You need these guys to have some confidence to help out the new signal caller next year, whichever one it is. You can’t bench Howell now as the goal is to try and get him into the NFL, so if the receivers start to shop up and another option develops besides Downs, things could turn around.

(MM) If the O-line wakes up one morning and performs like they did against Miami last season, I think we could potentially win out. What would it take for that sort of turnaround? Brian Anderson needs to spend some extensive time in a bacta tank. The line as a whole need to cut out the penalties. And as an added bonus, less breakdowns would likely lead to less flush-outs for Howell to run and take hits. Longer pocket times would give our C+ receivers a chance to become B- receivers and alleviate the burden on Downs. Yeah, it all comes down to the O-line.

(BA) I’ll be blunt: no. This isn’t fixable this season. There’s some deeply-rooted issues with this team, and they need to go into the offseason and make some drastic changes. They’ll win a few more games, but I don’t think there’s any salvaging anything/winning the Coastal or something. Bowl eligibility I guess is possible, but do we really want to see this team play someone outside of the weirdly terrible ACC?

(JL) Mack Brown has just one losing season since 1990, but there are no easy answers here. This team is rudderless without a leader. There are clearly schisms in the locker room and maybe even on the coaching staff. The only way I see a path forward is to legitimately bench guys regardless of their stature or seniority AND Mack needs to have tough conversations with his position coaches and give full throated support to his coordinators.
Will it work? I don’t know, but I think there are too many people —both coaches and players— doing their own thing without any accountability for their actions. It’s probably at least worth trying.

(AG) The momentum of last year’s season feels more or less unattainable, especially because there are aspects of this program that pretty clearly need a reset — I don’t think anybody expects Stacy Searels to hold on to his job after this year, to point out the elephant in the room, but even the coaches with good track records and/or reputations have seen bad results, which points to a lack of clear direction and/or conflicting visions between coordinators and position coaches, which wouldn’t be so unbelievable given that Brown hired coordinators who he didn’t know for their youth and innovation and then filled the rest of the staff with his buddies without much regard for their fit with his intended systems.

All that said, there’s a lot of distance between the Sam Howell we’re seeing this year and the guy we saw a year ago, and if he can manage to not take his offensive line personally, not preemptively throw up deep balls, and start using the middle of the field to players not named Josh Downs, he’s the kind of talent that can elevate a team even as dysfunctional as this one looks.

If Carolina finishes with a losing record, what will be the biggest repercussion?

(AH) This is a serious concern. You need two more wins amongst the group of Miami, Notre Dame, Wake Forest, Pittsburgh, and NC State. That was always going to be the more difficult part of the schedule and now it looks even more daunting. It’s fair to say that after only three seasons, the head coach and coordinators are safe, and you can probably keep special teams because they’ve been really solid, and you aren’t losing Dre Bly because of his recruiting ability, but the rest…good luck and may the odds ever be in your favor.

Virginia Tech v North Carolina Photo by Andy Mead/ISI Photos/Getty Images

(MM) My biggest worry isn’t with the team or recruiting, I think that those aspects of the program are on solid ground. The biggest concern is with the fanbase. Will they continue to pack Kenan and support Mack 2.0 with their checkbooks if they think the project is off-kilter? As a CEO-type head coach, Mack will be very in-tune with this. In a way, he’s a victim of his own success, getting this Tar Heel team to milestones quicker than most expected. Most of that has to do with Sam Howell, but there are pieces in place for bigger and better things, especially with recruiting cruising along. But anyone who has climbed a mountain will tell you that the base climb is the easiest part. It’s near the peak where things get more treacherous. Hopefully we don’t slip and plummet to our death.

(BA) There’s a few things that will take a hit, but I feel like the biggest problem will be recruiting. This was an important season for Mack Brown and his staff, because they needed to find a way to at least win the Coastal in order to keep their chokehold of North Carolina/Virginia recruits. I will say the good news is that nobody else in the conference has done enough to make themselves look any better, but there’s still a danger of prospects maybe even looking outside of the ACC altogether. This is why Brown is going to have to make some drastic changes, because without doing so, I just feel like his ability to recruit is going to take a very unpleasant hit.

(JL) I refuse to answer this while a winning season is mathematically possible.

(AG) I’m with McKay — this program, this year, was hitting a perfect window of opportunity to tweak UNC’s brand into one that represents good football as well as good basketball, and to gain the fanbase to match. The men’s basketball team is at a crossroads with a new coach and a couple of disappointing seasons behind it, the football team came into the season justifiably ranked #10, and there was a chance to further evolve the school’s sports perception from a basketball powerhouse with decent football to just an overall sports powerhouse. I don’t know if the window is gone if this season ends up going completely belly-up, but with the likely departure of the program’s best ever quarterback and a clear mini-reset needed, it gets much, much harder to accomplish.

Looking ahead to next season, who are some youngsters, given a small sample size and assuming they progress over the summer, that you are most intrigued by?

(AH) Kamari Morales has been the tight end that fans have been hoping for in a lot of ways, the more modern catching tight end as opposed to the blocking. If you’re hoping to recruit more talent in that area, he needs to keep showing out and getting more opportunities. I also would like to see what a healthy Caleb Hood can do, it’s a shame his season has been cut short so far and I think there’s a reason he was the backup as a true freshman.

Duke v North Carolina
Kamari Morales
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

(MM) When you talk about small sample sizes impressing, Power Echols really catches the eye. He was one step wrong from having a pick-six, and a helmet just a little too high from the special teams tackle of the year. He clearly has the juice, speed, and star-name to be one of the most recognized linebackers in college football.

(BA) Caleb Hood intrigues me the most. Out of all of the running backs, I feel like he has run with the most poise, patience, and aggressiveness. I think in a world where Ty Chandler isn’t here, he’d probably be the starter. I’m hoping that we get to see him have a breakout season next year, because he definitely has a lot of potential.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 18 Virginia at North Carolina
Caleb Hood
Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

(JL) Every single player recruited in 2020, 2021, and 2022. Just like most fans don’t fully understand how depleted the talent level was when Mack put his first recruiting class together in 5 weeks in 2019, they also don’t appreciate just how talented the underclassmen truly are. Hire some position coaches for their coaching and not just their availability to capitalize on recruiting, and the development issues we see this year are reversed. The program is in good hands. Talent is on the way. Fans can stop whining about the future. The program is on a positive trajectory.

(AG) I’m in agreement with everybody but Jake (I don’t think this team’s active seniors and juniors are bereft of talent, they’ve just been badly coached on the offensive line and and badly position in the defensive backfield), and I’ll also shout out Clyde Pinder, who’s been played out of position more often than not and still manages to two-gap and one-gap really well for a freshman. I’m looking forward to what he does as he grows and hopefully is joined by enough linemen to play a consistent role that he’s suited for.

What do you optimistically and realistically think this season ends up looking like?

(AH) The bye is coming at a good time. If they’ve truly hit the reset button and view this week as a chance to start the “new” season with some momentum, I think a 7-5 record is within reach, maybe even 8-4. You have to think Mack will have the team up for Wake and State, and Notre Dame isn’t the same as they were last year so there’s reason to think they can still be a spoiler and get a Fenway or Pinstripe-level Bowl, which could be a fun trip in late December after a few weeks to process the disappointment. Especially since you’d likely see Howell sit out and one of the backups would get to show out.

(MM) I earlier said (somewhat sarcastically) that if the O-line wakes up and pledges to dominate going forward, Carolina could run the table. In that case, UNC goes 9-3, and depending on how chaotic the Coastal Division gets, we could stumble into Charlotte and a good bowl. Realistically? I think 7-5 sounds about right, with losses to Wake and Pitt. I’m hopeful that the bye before Notre Dame gives us the time needed to heal and scheme to pull off the upset in South Bend!

(BA) We’ll probably beat Miami, Wofford, and NC State. I think we only beat Miami because Mack Brown will find a way to amp them up so much that they will want to humiliate them the same way we humiliated Duke. We will almost certainly lose to Notre Dame, Wake Forest, and Pitt, so that would give us a 6-6 record. If I’m being honest, though, it could easily end up being 5-7. Either Miami or State will find a way to be obnoxious for the next year. I don’t think we’ll lose to both of them, though.

(JL) Beat Miami, Wake, Wofford, and State, because Mack hates Manny Diaz** and in-state opponents. Get to 7-5. Make a bowl for the third consecutive season. Sign a top-15 class. Get optimistic for next season w/ the influx of talent.

**No idea if this true.

(AG) I have no idea — this team has played like it’s supposed to in spurts, so the ability is there, and the stupidly optimistic part of me wants to say that the energy and motivation problems we’re seeing will vastly diminish now that we’ll be underdogs the rest of the way. I think Miami, Wofford, and NC State are wins; Mack’s recent history against those two ACC teams is too good to think otherwise. That gives you 6 wins. Through Wake, Pitt, and Notre Dame, I weirdly think Notre Dame might be the most likely win, but whatever it is, something tells me UNC isn’t going winless through those three. UNC hasn’t yet won a game as a significant underdog under Mack 2.0, and this season has been all about breaking trends — it’s about time one of those breaks goes our way.