Everybody, we’re here. It’s game week. All the preseason excitement that this team has generated is nearing a head as we prepare for UNC Football to open a season whose expectations are as high as those for any Tar Heel squad this decade, maybe this millennium. We’ve been previewing the Heels’ position groups to get an idea of what we’ll be seeing on the field that might have deserved the hype, but there’s an argument to be made that the reason we’re all here, awaiting this season with sky-high expectations, is not going to be on the field but patrolling the sidelines: one William “Mack” Brown. Since Brown’s re-entry into Chapel Hill, UNC has improved at an absolutely blistering pace, going from a 2-win team into a 7-win one in his first year and then becoming a New Year’s Six bowl game participant in his second, and now opening his third season as an AP Top 10 team with conference championship aspirations and maybe even bigger. What have been the keys to this turnaround? What’s Brown working with this year that could help make these dreams a reality? Let’s discuss:
The Head Man
Mack Brown hates the “CEO” label because he thinks it makes him sound like somebody who only needs to understand his team from a distance, somebody who isn’t invested in the granular workings of his team and the specific aspects of his team members’ performance. Fair’s fair, I suppose, but what he is, and why I suspect he ever earned the label, is a coach whose teams reflect his coordinators’ styles more than his own, who has a philosophy about football and a general identity but not a particular style he could be identified by. Well, that and that he’s an incredible people person, which makes him an effective recruiter and a willing face for whatever program he’s leading. That has served him immensely well in Chapel Hill, thanks to two coordinators near the top of the game who have just needed the requisite pieces and permission to run their stuff. On offense, Brown came to Chapel Hill wanting to mimic Lincoln Riley in Oklahoma — an Air Raid offense with a physical run game to complement it (there’s some coincidence to Riley and Brown’s starting quarterbacks being the two probable favorites for the Heisman Trophy this year). On defense, he wanted speed and unpredictability, the kind of defense that could stop his dream offense. I’ll get into the coordinator’s he’s chosen to do just that, but the point here is that he’s got a clear general vision and has gotten his staff and team to fully buy in both to the kind of team he wants them to be and the lofty expectations he has for them — not an easy task for a program that hasn’t really done more than sniff national relevance in living memory. Multiple players are now saying that not only do they want to win championships (who doesn’t?), but that they believe they’ve got a reasonable shot to do it this year. Jeremiah Gemmel even said that one of the reasons the team was against the 12-team playoff announcement was that he thought 12 games watered down the sport’s apex to a point where making the CFP wouldn’t be the kind of achievement the team was gunning for.
Brown’s gotten nearly every kind of result you could ask for in two seasons back in Chapel Hill: he’s 6-1 in FBS in-state matchups (including undefeated in conference), 2-0 in openers, has helmed a couple of absolutely nutso comebacks, and boasts a handful of dominating wins as well. His tenure thus far is missing only a true win against expectation: Every game UNC has played against a clearly better opponent the past two seasons, UNC has lost: against Clemson in 2019, and then against Notre Dame and Texas A&M in 2020. The Heels have made those games close, especially the Clemson game, but haven’t been able to complete those games, and that’s the main hurdle Brown’s going to have to find a way to clear to get the Heels to national prominence. Maybe that happens with increased depth, especially on defense, or maybe some game philosophy things need to be tweaked. Either way, that’s what to look for when the Heels take on Notre Dame this season, and possibly also Miami and Florida State.
Mack Brown gets most of the media attention, both because he’s the head coach and that’s his job and because he’s an absolute media darling thanks to personality and having worked at ESPN for the time that he did. But his coordinators are quickly getting noticed, too — Phil Longo for architecting possibly UNC’s best ever offensive season, which ranked 9th in the country in scoring, 4th in the country in yards per play, and 7th in first downs per game; and Jay Bateman for taking a very bad, severely undermanned defense and turning it into a unit approaching respectability — and also for apparently absolutely wowing other coaches at coaches’ clinics and such. Both have significant challenges ahead of them this season; Longo will have to figure out how to replace over 4000 yards of production from 4 skill-position players now in the NFL, while Bateman will be pressured into turning the recruiting results of the past two years into the on-field dominance that he was expected to bring to Chapel Hill as soon as he had the bodies.
Longo isn’t a hard coach to figure out. He runs variations on approximately 27 plays with a philosophy of simplifying the quarterback’s job by placing some of the responsibility for reading defenses on his receivers. He likes a steady dose of split zone in the run game with a few power concepts to keep it unpredictable. He’ll make the first read a deep shot whenever possible, making it imperative to have a polished deep-ball threat on his offense, nearly always on the left boundary so his quarterback can get his body behind the throw more easily. He’s an incredible script-writer, nearly always opening games and/or halves with perfect offensive sequences, but he’s also quite adaptive when things aren’t working — though he defines “not working” differently than some (he’s not going to stop calling deep shots because an open receiver dropped a pass on 3rd down). And he struggles at times in condensed areas — attacking the middle of the field, finishing in the red zone, that kind of thing. He improved at both in 2020, making the red zone an outright strength (having final-form Javonte Williams helped) and at least sometimes attacking the short-intermediate middle of the field. This year, pretty much all he has to do is prove that last year was at least half a function of coaching and not entirely down to personnel — tangibly, he has to find a credible deep threat to replace Dyami Brown and find a way to replicate last year’s red zone success so drives don’t sputter like we saw often in 2019. Sam Howell and a returning offensive line should take care of the rest.
Bateman, meanwhile, is just about the opposite. Known for his propensity to play multiple fronts in the space of a single drive, his frequent and varied blitz packages, and the way he attacks opposing offenses with their weaknesses week-to-week so his defense never really looks the same, he’s already shown his ability to confuse opposing offenses with personnel deficiencies, even if the results haven’t really borne out anything better than average. More troubling is that the UNC defense actually regressed from 2019 to 2020, going from a unit ranked in the mid-40s nationally in scoring and yards per play to one that ranked in the 65-70 range. Part of this is attributable to the loss of Jason Strowbridge and Aaron Crawford, defensive line stalwarts in 2019 that UNC just couldn’t replace with adequate size or strength. Another part is incredibly bad turnover luck — UNC forced way fewer interceptions than they should have for a team that held opponents to 58% completion. Combine that with incredibly few fumbles (which are pretty much random) and the Heels just didn’t get the benefit of turnovers to complement decent defense.
But yet another part is that Bateman started overcompensating for those losses, over-blitzing his best coverage linebacker while not having consistency in the defensive backfield to hold up in coverage, and also leaving his worse pass-game linebacker out to dry too often. He didn’t trust a defensive line that didn’t need as much help as he gave them, gave his off-ball linebackers too much responsibility that they could only sometimes handle, and he over-trusted a backfield that frequently let him down, and never really adjusted even when it was clear this way of doing things wasn’t sustainable. This year, he shouldn’t have that problem, with the maturation of several defensive line players and pass rushing linebackers meaning he should have less trouble getting pressure rushing four or five, giving him the freedom to do what he got hired for. By all accounts, UNC now has the pieces for an elite defense. Bateman now has to manifest those pieces into reality to fully justify the excitement that followed his hire.
I’ll spend fewer words on special teams. I’ve made it clear over the past couple of years that I don’t think Mack Brown’s philosophy for the third phase of the game is a particularly smart one, and the results on special teams have been predictably poor the past couple of years (Brown agrees that they’ve been bad, but for the wrong reasons). I do think he’s got a smart special teams coordinator in Jovan Dewitt, who improved the team somewhat in the kickoff and punt games but also saw Grayson Atkins, who’d been nearly perfect as a senior at Furman, struggle mightily as a grad transfer at UNC, so the Heels aren’t doomed to be average by their head coach. Brown also named Larry Porter, the new running backs coach, as an Assistant Special Teams Coordinator, giving the group more experience to work with. Most special teams coaches don’t really mess with specialists, encouraging them to coach each other and/or seek external coaches like Chris Sailer, so I don’t really know what to expect from Dewitt as far as Atkins and Kiernan’s improvement — but it’s worth noting he’s got a pretty good record with punters. Where he’s really got a job to do is in the return games, with a new kickoff and punt returner needed. He’s going to have to get both returners comfortable receiving and get more speed and discipline on the return teams, which hasn’t been all the way there so far in Brown’s tenure, to make sure the Heels avoid disaster throughout the season.
There’s more continuity on the staff this year than after 2019, when tight ends coach/assistant head coach Tim Brewster unexpectedly left for Gainesville and special teams coordinator Scott Boone was fired. The only change to the staff was Porter coming in to replace Robert Gillespie, who left Chapel Hill to be the running backs coach at Alabama — the community and the staff seem to have taken this much better than Brewster’s departure, leading to a much more settled feel coming out of Chapel Hill this time around. Nearly all of UNC’s position groups have shown improvement and solid-to-great recruiting pipelines, so as far as position coaches, there’s not much to say other than that nearly everybody seems to be doing their jobs right, and first-time college coach Dre Bly is truly thriving as defensive backs coach. There is one possible exception, and that’s offensive line coach Stacy Searels, whose unit regressed last year despite only replacing one starter, whose entrenched starters underperformed and looked out of shape and underprepared for the season, and who just hasn’t recruited at the level of his colleagues thus far. Offensive line recruiting is probably the least reliant on star rankings out of all positions and the restrictions in place due to Covid-19 last year could have made it hard to really manage his position room the way he should have, so I’m happy giving Searels a pass for last year. This year, though, with a returning unit that’s expected to be great if not elite, his seat could warm up very quickly if the line is only around average again, even if it’s not stopping the Heels from winning. And all that said, Searels hasn’t spent more than 3 years anywhere since 2000, and has only made lateral moves — he’s been better than expected given that history, but his unit is one to keep an eye on.
UNC fans justifiably feel better about their coaching staff than they have since the days of Butch Davis, and the figurehead is a dang sight more likeable this time to boot. They’ve got lofty expectations for their team and the pedigree to achieve them. All we’ve got left to do is watch and see.