After a disappointing first game of the 2021 season where the UNC offense looked neutered and the defense only played well for a half, the Heels, and their fans, needed a get-right game in the worst way to regain any of the excitement they’d been feeling before the season. Fortunately, the team’s home opener against Georgia State of the Sun Belt conference looked to be a chance for exactly that; the Heels were favored against the Panthers by more than three touchdowns and, with no disrespect to Georgia State, that was still probably generous for a team that had just lost to Army by 33. After a half, however, it didn’t seem like things had gotten right at all. The Heels led 24-10, but their offensive line was getting blown off the line of scrimmage in the run game and only sometimes holding up in pass protection, Sam Howell was seemingly the team’s only credible run threat, the defensive front’s gap integrity was nonexistent against an option rushing attack, and special teams continued to look ordinary. Most of those concern areas were at least somewhat settled in the second half, though, and UNC coasted to a 59-17 victory after scoring 28 unanswered points to open the 2nd half. Let’s take a look at how each position group did:
After playing probably the worst game of his career against Virginia Tech (not helped by being constantly under duress), Howell was back to his elite ways against the Panthers — with a few new tricks to boot. He finished with a passing line of 21/29 for 352 yards and 3 touchdowns, which would be impressive enough on its own without talking about how he got those yards — against pretty decent coverage for most of the night by Georgia State’s defensive backs, Howell showed off his elite placement, touch, and chemistry with his receivers, putting the ball where defenders couldn’t challenge the catch and completing at least three picturesque backshoulder throws. After the deep ball was stymied by the Hokies, Howell completed 5 passes over 25 yards, including deep touchdowns to Antoine Green and Emery Simmons. He wasn’t perfect on every ball; he forced difficult adjustments by Green and Josh Downs on two of his completions and underthrew (and/or over-floated) a deep ball down the seam to Simmons that should have been a touchdown but ended up as only a 40-yard completion. He also struggled throwing on the run, as he was forced to do several times. I had hoped that would be one of the main things Howell would have worked on in the offseason, but though he seems more willing to throw on the run, most of his such attempts were overthrown.
Where Howell has clearly elevated his game is as a runner. Howell was his team’s most potent rushing threat on the day, which was nigh unthinkable for the freshman version of Howell and still seemed unlikely to ever happen last year. He scrambled for positive yardage a couple of times, but did his real damage on designed runs and read-options. His first touchdown run, a 22-yarder, looked like a quick scramble where he saw space and took it, but his second one was a read-option keeper where he made the right read, followed a couple of key downfield blocks, and kept it a career-high 62 yards to paydirt to put the game away. He totaled 11 carries for 104 yards and the two scores, which only gets more impressive when you remember that two of those carries were sacks. He’s just the second Heel after Marquise Williams to pass for 300 yards and rush for another 100 in the same game. I don’t expect Phil Longo to ask Howell to pull a Cam Newton and be his team’s primary rushing and passing attack, but it’s clear that Howell will be involved in the run game this year, opening up more possibilities.
Running Backs: C
The running backs in this game combined for 28 carries that went for 96 yards and two touchdowns, which is probably the part of this game to feel worst about if you’re a UNC fan. Fifteen of those carries went to Ty Chandler, who managed 59 yards with them for a 3.9 yards-per-carry clip. Chandler so far looks like a back who’s still learning to run in a zone-heavy scheme but doesn’t have the balance or feel for the game to run man, so he’s getting stuffed early when asked to run inside and getting exactly what’s blocked for him if he strings it to the outside. He regularly missed open cutback lanes in split zone, which is Phil Longo’s bread and butter in the run game, and while he’s clearly got good speed and solid feet, the experience he was brought in and elevated to starter for has so far been lacking. He made a few plays, including a superb second effort to get across the line to gain on a 4th and short, a bit of tough running on a screen to convert a 3rd and long after his blockers missed their blocks, and a 16-yard run off left tackle where he really turned on the jets. As for the rest, presumptive #2 D.J. Jones didn’t play today, leaving his backups to split the secondary back duties. Caleb Hood took one carry for an impressive 11 yards and his other 3 for 3; he’s not consistently hitting holes at this point but looks fearsome when he does. British Brooks had a nice red-zone carry that should’ve been called a touchdown and followed it up with a tough reach into the end zone, but looked less impressive between the 20’s, finishing with 4 carries for 10 yards and the score. Elijah Green and Josh Henderson played mop-up minutes and neither stood out.
Like last week, Josh Downs was one of the stars of the show for the Tar Heel offense, snagging 8 catches for 73 yards and a touchdown. Unlike last week, this time he had support. Antoine Green and Emery Simmons each caught 3 balls, Green going for a whopping 117 yards and a touchdown and Simmons for a more modest 73 yards and a score. Both showed some skill in doing so, too, which bodes really well for their future — Green caught his deep touchdown despite not fully stacking his defender by successfully hand-fighting, keeping his balance and catching over his shoulder, in front of his body, showing his hands as late as possible, then later caught a ball over his inside shoulder despite starting the process looking over his outside shoulder, making a fluid adjustment to a tough situation. Simmons, on the other hand, won a backshoulder pass with excellent stop-start and held on to the aforementioned underthrow after absolutely roasting his defensive back.
The real revelation, though, was Kamari Morales, who I believe out-snapped Garrett Walston after the senior’s awful night in Blacksburg. Morales showed off some nifty moves after the catch and a proficiency at getting the chains moving, with 4 catches on 4 targets for 42 yards. I’d like to see him more going forward, particularly if he can be an adequate blocker when needed. Third-string tight end and true freshman Bryson Nesbit also showed off some stuff on a catch-and run for a touchdown, and you have to be excited about what he’ll do in the future with that kind of athleticism. Meanwhile, Khafre Brown looked better this week than last, but still has some work to do. He was officially targeted once, on a slot fade where he got open and couldn’t hang on to the pass. His more impressive play was a comeback in the red zone where he snared Howell’s pass as he was falling out of bounds and appeared to get one foot in after securing the ball, but it was ruled out of bounds (probably incorrectly, but I digress). He’ll probably have more opportunities against Virginia.
Offensive Line: D+
Georgia State is a decent team with a well-coached defensive line that had 26 sacks last year, and UNC was working without its best offensive lineman and a center who was playing his first game after being injured for most of spring. Even so, there’s not really any excusing the Tar Heel offensive line’s performance against the Panthers. In the run game, though Chandler didn’t make them look any better than they were, they were a step slow far too often in zone and got stonewalled, or even moved backwards, way too often when blocking man. In the passing game, particularly in the first half, Howell was regularly under duress after the first two drives, where a well-scripted drive and a deep bomb hid the issues we’d see for the rest of the half. They only allowed two sacks, but Howell was forced to scramble out of pressure or throw the ball away on the run several other times.
The left side of the line was particularly an issue. Quiron Johnson, who’s previously only played center for UNC, filled in at left guard for Joshua Ezeudu, who was injured late against Virginia Tech. Asim Richards moved back to left tackle, where he started all of last year before moving to guard last week for reasons still unknown. And Brian Anderson saw his first live action since January after being injured through the offseason. The three of them looked, put charitably, unprepared to play together, probably because they haven’t before and also because they’re not good enough to cover for each other’s shortcomings. Johnson’s a decent center because his job is to be the extra lineman, but he shouldn’t be taking on primary blocking assignments right now, and Anderson doesn’t seem well-enough equipped yet to help out on that side of the ball. You have to wonder what happened to Ed Montilus and William Barnes, the former of whom has started at guard for this team and the latter of whom had been raved about during the offseason and is a more natural guard. At tackle, Richards hasn’t really developed since he became a starter and I’m starting to resign myself to his being the weak link on this line all season and hoping Phil Longo can scheme him some help, and also that Ezeudu gets healthy soon so that side of the line has at least some strength. The group as a whole is a real concern heading into next week’s date with Virginia.
Defensive Line: C+
Georgia State had one first-half drive, unfortunately timed around a couple of offensive brain-farts by UNC, that made this game feel much differently than it actually played out. Using almost exclusively a varied option running offense (triple options, speed options, read-options, you name it), the Panthers controlled the line of scrimmage, got UNC defenders to lose their discipline at mesh points, and found either holes or the corners to the tune of 75 yards in 17 plays (4.4 yards per play, just enough to keep the chains moving). They capped it off with a Quad Brown rushing touchdown that felt inevitable after 7:30 of game time, or a full 1/8 of the game. Everything wrong with the UNC defense seemed to show up on this drive, and it’s driven much of the online conversation about the game, not without some reason. For its part, the defensive line, frequently only playing two down linemen (I assume to have more second-level defenders to shoot gaps in the run game), wasn’t really able to two-gap and hold their position to disrupt the initial point of attack, getting washed by double teams and taken out of the play. The rest of the time, they were much better, because all you need to do to beat an option team is get them off-schedule by one play and then dare them to do something to get more than 4-6 yards in a play. Myles Murphy stood out by doing exactly this, with a tackle for loss, a Vita Vea-like sack where he just walked back the Georgia State center, and several plays where he ended up in the backfield and helped bust a play. The other linemen mostly played support, though Chris Collins found himself at the end of a lot of plays. In the passing game, things didn’t look great, though they didn’t need to be, because Georgia State didn’t really present a threat in the passing game. The quarterback, Brown, had time to make a few throws that looked like they could have been dangerous with a better passing attack, but I think some of that was overblown by a broadcaster who did not understand defensive back play - more on that later.
The starting inside linebacker duo of Eugene Asante and Jeremiah Gemmel has struggled pretty mightily to start the year. Asante is a heat-seeking missile, but hasn’t developed the eye discipline he needs to be a three-down linebacker, so he was overrunning plays throughout his snaps and was the most frequently victimized Heel on option plays that went outside, where he lost contain and couldn’t make the play that needed to be made. He also uncharacteristically missed a few tackles after having shown last year on special teams and the Orange Bowl that he could reliably get his man down. His raw ability still allowed him to make a few positive plays, though, and he had four solo tackles and a pass break-up as well as the team’s only QB hurry. Gemmel, meanwhile, was nearly invisible, netting just one tackle. To my eye, it looks like the staff wants him playing more off the ball instead of going downhill, because of Asante’s aforementioned heat-seeking nature, but that’s also Gemmel’s strength, and hanging back has meant he hasn’t had the ability to get involved in a lot of plays. Their backups, meanwhile, looked pretty dang impressive. RaRa Dillworth got involved with 4 tackles on what couldn’t have been more than 20 snaps, Cedric Gray enforced the edge and forced a fumble while finishing a play near the sideline, and Power Echols flashed all game before snagging a pretty sick interception and putting just a toe out of bounds on his way to a house call that wasn’t. It’s fully possible that we see more of them, especially Gray and Echols, as the season continues.
On the outside, pass rushing linebackers were the other main examples of lacking eye discipline against the option. Des Evans was the most obvious example, frequently run blitzing like he thought the running back getting the ball was the only possible out come and letting Quad Brown run free off tackle, (but the two times he guessed right were pretty dang stellar) but he wasn’t the only one. Tomon Fox rarely got involved at all, and Kaimon Rucker had one nice TFL but was otherwise quiet.
Defensive Backs: A-
Let me say this first: the analyst on the broadcast last night is a former offensive lineman, and nowhere was this clearer than in his (lack of) analysis of defensive backs. He correctly picked out a couple of obvious examples of good catches against good coverage, but when it came to anything about the position that wasn’t just getting physical with the receiver across from you, he was utterly lost, and gave an impression of the UNC defensive backs that was a lot less kind than what I think is fair. Tony Grimes had what is quickly becoming his typically excellent day, shutting down his side of the field with a pass break-up just to keep things interesting. Kyler McMichael was also impressive, drawing a lot of targets but not really allowing completions because he was consistently squeezing his receiver out of bounds, while the commentary complained about boundary receivers lining up too close to the sideline instead of praising the technique of the defensive back. At safety, Ja’Qurious Conley was flying around early before an injury to his hand took him out for about half of the game. He came back with a cast on his hand and made a couple of plays, but hopefully will be back to full strength in a week. Trey Morrison probably fared the worst of the defensive backs at the other safety spot, but still didn’t give much up — and some of what he didn’t give up in zone coverage looked like open receivers because the commentary didn’t understand space. The defensive backs weren’t tested against an absolutely anemic passing attack, but they held up well. Only allowing 90 passing yards on 30 attempts is good against anybody.
Special Teams: B
The good: The punt return team was ready for a fake punt-run attempt deep in Georgia State territory and snuffed it out for no gain — regardless of how ill-advised the fake was on 4th and 15, it’s a good sign that they wouldn’t have let much through even in a situation where it would’ve been a decent idea. Kickoff returns also looked decent; Ty Chandler had a 27-yard return on a short kickoff and a 25-yarder on a slightly longer one that both had tangible benefits over touchbacks. And Ben Kiernan’s one punt was a boomer, going 53 yards. Oh, and the Heels blocked a punt! That’s the first one of Mack Brown’s second tenure, and I believe it was credited to British Brooks.
On the not-so-good side, Grayson Atkins continues to hook every single kick he attempts to the left, leading to a miss from 34 yards and continued questions from me as to why he was sought out in the first place over a kicker who was young, improving, and didn’t put English on anything off his foot. C’est la vie, I guess, but it will be interesting to see if Mack Brown treats Atkins’ early misses the same way he did Ruggles’. Punt returns are still proving more or less impossible to set up, which is a shame with Josh Downs having already shown how dangerous he can be with a little space.
And on the neutral side, Jonathan Kim booted every kickoff into the end zone for a touchback, for which he will continue to earn undue praise.
It’s clear that at this point, UNC is a second-half team, which I much prefer to being a first-down team, but is still worse than just playing well for 4 quarters. Both Jay Bateman and Phil Longo have been good at adjusting at halftime to whatever isn’t working, and that was particularly evident in this game — leading to 28 unanswered points after halftime for the Heels. Longo started calling plays like a man who didn’t trust his offensive line, and rightly so: he moved the pocket, called proper read-options to make the defense account for Howell, and then used both of those adjustments to catch the defense off-guard again by building in counters off them, like with Ty Chandler’s rushing touchdown late — a triple-option variation from under center, of all things. We also saw that with the backups in, with Jacolby Criswell running what looked like a run-pass triple option for the touchdown to Nesbit. Bateman, on the other hand, couldn’t just get his team to be more disciplined against the option, so he compensated by sending his safeties downhill more often just to have more options to fill lanes, trusting that his cornerbacks didn’t need the help against a passing attack that was, as we’ve established, bad. The team still looks kind of unprepared to start games and has hit big-time lulls at the end of the second quarter in both games, where you need to win because it’s such an inflection point for the game — control the time around the half and you can spot yourself two unearned possessions.
Mack Brown’s clock management is still a bit of a head-scratcher, most notably seen at the end of the first half where I would have been fine with either a timeout immediately after a Georgia State play or letting the clock run down, but he instead let the clock run 15 seconds before calling timeout. I also thought he left Howell in for a drive longer than necessary, but that’s more of a quibble.
And I do want to give props to the coaching staff and other decision-makers for scheduling this non-conference game against a regional Predominantly Black University (Georgia State is not a Historically Black College or University because of its history, but enrolls mostly people of color and has a governmentally-funded mission of educating a low-income and majority-minority student body), giving shine where it’s needed, rather than against a Liberty or, like, wherever Art Briles inevitably ends up. Hopefully they keep doing that, and maybe even get out of the Liberty games that are already scheduled.