The wait for Carolina football is nearly over! Tar Heel fans were justifiably thrilled that the second year of the Mack Brown 2.0 era yielded a berth in the Orange Bowl. The high from blowing the doors off Miami to do so was immediately tempered when Javonte Williams, Michael Carter, Dyami Brown, and Chazz Surratt opted out of the bowl game, but the remaining Heels put up a valiant effort against #5 Texas A&M.
Lessons were learned, recruiting continued its upward trajectory, and players that were solid third/fourth options began to make positions on the first team their own. Heisman Trophy hopeful Sam Howell returns for his (likely) final season in Chapel Hill, and where he goes, the Heels will follow.
We saw what Howell could do when surrounded by an all-time crew of offensive superstars, but how will the team perform when he has to incorporate new talent into the top of Phil Longo’s depth chart? And how will this adaptation play out under the harsh Lane Stadium lights on Friday night? Here are three things to watch as UNC visits Virginia Tech to open the 2021 season.
Go-to receiver or party-planning committee?
Last year’s top four receivers are now in the NFL. Beau Corrales, who had 13 catches in four games before being shut down for the rest of the season with a sports hernia, is out for Virginia Tech:
That’s a lot of arrows missing from Sam Howell’s quiver. Fortunately, there’s plenty more to choose from. Josh Downs, hero of the Orange Bowl, is ready to make a leap into college football’s collective consciousness. Khafre Brown (provided he’s healthy following offseason surgery) is capable of being UNC’s deep out-route threat. Emery Simmons looked like a strong third option with Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome, and he could take another step up the ladder with those two wideouts gone.
Virginia Tech’s guess is as good as anyone else’s as to who will be seeing the majority of Sam Howell’s targets. I would expect the ball to be spread around quite a bit during Week 1 and then later on in the season, a top two receiver tandem (as well as running back Ty Chandler) should emerge and separate from the rest of the group.
Defensive line upgrade
In 2019, Carolina rode Jason Strowbridge and Aaron Crawford into the ground at Blacksburg. Last season, UNC got by the Hokies with Tomari Fox and Jahlil Taylor up front (Ray Vohasek was out for that game). This year, Carolina has a lot more beef up front, even if some of it is cooked pretty rare at the moment. With Myles Murphy, Clyde Pinder, and Des Evans returning more seasoned and newcomers Jahvaree Ritzee and Keeshawn Silver (along with Kedrick Bingley-Jones who was out all last season with injury) able to join Vohasek and Fox on the front line, Jay Bateman can give the Hokies some ribeye, tri-tip, brisket, T-bone, porterhouse, or filet mignon. With A1 sauce and mushrooms!
Virginia Tech should be strong on the left side of the offensive line, but they have lost Doug Nester and Bryan Hudson to transfer over the offseason, so depth will be a concern. Last season, the Hokies limited Carolina to a single sack and only three tackles-for-loss, while simultaneously propelling star tailback Khalil Herbert to 138 yards rushing with two touchdowns. Fortunately for the Tar Heels, Herbert isn’t walking through that door. And whoever knocks at the door is going to be met by a much bigger lineman, along with his friends rotating throughout the game.
If the UNC offense can continue to produce points and force Virginia Tech to throw more, expect the sack and TFL numbers to increase, and some of the rushing production to decrease.
Kicking game on solid footing
In the 2019, six-overtime, 41-43 loss in Blacksburg, the Tar Heels missed a field goal that would have won the game going away, then had a field goal blocked and put the defense in a perilous position (the Hokies missed the resulting game-winning try). The kicker on that night, Noah Ruggles is now at Ohio State.
After an inconsistent start to last season, Furman-transfer Grayson Atkins proved to be quite the reliable field goal/extra point kicker. Coach Mack Brown raved about his high kicks that proved to be unblockable. If Carolina finds itself in a knife fight instead of a route, it will be comforting to have a super-duper senior lining up his shot to win the game.
Also, going up against a team that prides itself on special teams, it’s nice having the duo of Jonathan Kim and Ben Kiernan on kickoff and punting duties, respectively. Better to put the ball over the end zone and force a fair catch than to see whatever tricks the Hokies have up their sleeves.