With so much happening with the men’s basketball program and the necessary length of time between the end of one football season and the start of the next, you’d be forgiven for letting UNC football slip your mind altogether recently. Spring practices are happening this year, which is a step up from last year, but honestly, a fan could read just about nothing about spring practices and not be missing a whole lot once the season rolled around. The exception, of course, is a program’s Spring Game, which doesn’t actually mean a whole lot but is the only taste of football action most of us get from January to September. The ACC is doing us a favor this year, and uploading entire Spring Games to their Youtube channel: Miami, Florida State, Clemson, and NC State have all played theirs, if you’re especially hungry. UNC will have theirs this Saturday, the 24th of April, and tickets reportedly sold out in under two hours, so if you weren’t one of the lucky few, either catching it live on ACC Network at 3 PM Eastern or watching the replay is going to be how you get to see it. Ahead of the game, though, I thought it’d be worth going over some storylines I’m hoping to see resolved, or at least gestured towards, this Saturday. Consider this an unofficial, modified Three Things to Watch, if you will. Anyways, let’s get to it:
Something Mack Brown hasn’t really changed from the Larry Fedora era is that he’s very cagey about injuries, which is his right but also quite annoying from a fan and writer perspective. His policy since he re-took the reins of UNC football has been to not provide any information on a player’s injuries beyond whether it is to the lower or upper body, and he’s been inconsistent about whether or not players are out for the season, as we saw with Storm Duck, for example, being ruled out week by week until the whole season had passed without him playing a snap after his early-season injury. I get why he and some other coaches do this: without regulation, it’s in his interest not to let opposing coaches gameplan based on players’ expected return timelines. But it makes sports a significantly better fan product to have that information, so I hope the NCAA standardizes this particular aspect of the game sometime soon.
That’s all besides the point, and is all to say that we have some, but not a ton, of information about who’s been available this spring. We started spring practice with the knowledge that Joshua Ezeudu, Tomari Fox, and Javon Terry would be out for the entirety of spring ball, and that Wisdom Asaboro, A.J. Beatty, Gavin Blackwell, Beau Corrales, Kendall Karr, Tyrone Hopper, Trey Morrison, Clyde Pinder, and Ethan West would be somehow limited. The only injury we know anything about is that of Beau Corrales, who’s working his way back from hernia surgery. Since then, Khafre Brown has also been ruled out of spring ball and is expected back for the summer, and I doubt he’s the only person who’s been nicked up. Especially on the offensive end, UNC has a lot of production to replace and a lot of unknowns with which to replace it. Ezeudu is possibly the team’s best offensive lineman and Brown is its only at least semi-proven deep threat, so this is a chance to see how much depth the Heels have on offense after the NFL’s raiding of its top personnel. But, much more simply, I want to know who next year’s stars can be, after months of silence. Can the expected sophomore breakouts for Tony Grimes, Des Evans, and Josh Downs start taking shape? And will the underclassmen expected to give the defensive front some real bulk, like Pinder, Myles Murphy, and Kedrick Bingley-Jones (who missed all of last year injured), be healthy and in college shape?
What will the defense look like?
For the past two years, the Tar Heel defense has clearly been hampered by depth and personnel issues attributable to a lack of attention to defensive recruiting towards the end of the previous regime, but Jay Bateman’s innovative coaching has at times promised a lot more — plays that were available but weren’t made, offenses that have been stymied for three quarters before taking advantage of fatigue in the fourth, and some really inventive lineups that have caused havoc on the other side. After two recruiting classes and two years of coaching his preferred schemes, Bateman should be about out of excuses, and this should be the year where all that promise starts to turn into production.
As mentioned in the last section, he now has talent and size on the defensive front that was missing last year, a stable of inside linebackers and pass rushers that he’s recruited and trained, and a deep secondary that, between Tony Grimes, Kyler McMichael, and Storm Duck, might end up leaving a future NFL prospect at cornerback on the bench. So, with all that talent, it’s time for coaching to shine. I don’t expect them to shut down a Phil Longo and Sam Howell-led offense, both because they’re really freaking good and because I don’t expect the defense to be fully formed by April, but I do want to see what Bateman does when he’s not being constrained by personnel — what’s his preferred base alignment? Does he keep using fire zones and disguised blitzes or expect to win with 4-5 rushers? How often is Eugene Asante going to blitz, playing Chazz Surratt’s role next year? I have questions, and a few of them could be answered on Saturday.
Who’s returning kicks?
Dazz Newsome and Michael Carter were excellent punt and kick returners, respectively, for their entire four-year careers. They didn’t find a ton of room to work in their last two years, as UNC special teams went through coaching turnover in both years and couldn’t really consistently get to the right spots in the return game, but they got what they could with the occasional flashes of brilliance. Both are headed to the NFL now, leaving massive holes behind them on offense but also on special teams, and while we have a fair idea of who will be trying to step into their places on offense (Josh Downs for Newsome and some combination of D.J. Jones, Ty Chandler, and Josh Henderson for Carter), the return game seems wide open. Perhaps Downs takes Newsome’s spot as punt returner as well; he’s certainly shifty enough for it. Jovan Dewitt could also try somebody on the defensive end, like Tony Grimes or Storm Duck, who have pretty impressive straight-line speed change-of-direction. At kick returner, where the job mostly requires setting up blockers, good burst, enough bulk to survive the most dangerous play in football, and adequate straight-line speed, we could see another running back, or a receiver like Emery Simmons, who’s a little more thickly built than Downs while still having good speed. But that’s all guesswork and we don’t have any information, and for a coach like Mack Brown who wants special teams to be a weapon, it’s going to be something to watch out for.
Let’s also briefly mention the rest of special teams here — Does Mack Brown still trust super-senior Grayson Atkins, who started the season awfully and ended it near perfect (but still hooking a bunch of kicks left), over 5-star freshman kicker Noah Burnette? It’ll be worth watching both of them kick, because I don’t think Atkins should be guaranteed the job based on his performance last year. Punter seems pretty stable, though, with Ben Kiernan making a huge jump from his freshman to sophomore year. He could be primed to be one of the ACC’s best at his position.
Let me know in the comments what you’re watching for, and let’s get to the 24th already!