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UNC Football Midseason Review: Biggest Surprise

Tight ends were long neglected under Sam Howell’s tenure. Drake Maye is helping them see a little sunshine.

North Carolina v Duke Photo by Lance King/Getty Images

Tight ends were long neglected under Sam Howell’s tenure, but Drake Maye is helping them see a little sunshine.

Phil Longo and Sam Howell led Carolina’s offense to some truly spectacular heights with a passing attack capable of piling up yards and points with Howell’s accurate deep ball. But while Dyami Brown, Dazz Newsome, and later Josh Downs feasted, the tight ends had to beg for scraps.

No longer.

Drake Maye has been just as, if not more impressive than Howell in certain respects. One thing he’s done more of is hit his tight ends for big plays early and often. Last season, Kamari Morales supplanted super senior Garrett Walston as the primary tight end target, and finished the entire season (with bowl game) with 24 catches, 220 yards, and 5 touchdowns.

Seven games into this season, Morales has nearly matched last year’s totals (16 catches, 202 yards, 4 TDs) and he has at least six games left (seven if UNC can keep up their momentum and play in the ACC championship game). Three of those games are against defenses ranked 64th and below in FBS.

As it stands, Kamari Morales now stands on top of the tight end mountain in UNC football history:

But he might not even be the best tight end on the team.

Sophomore Bryson Nesbit showed brief glimpses of his pass-catching and route-running last season, but has really caught the eye this year. He has more catches (18) and yards (279) than Morales and three touchdowns to boot. He’s been particularly dangerous between the hashes and helped keep Carolina’s air attack humming along when Josh Downs and Antoine Green were nursing injuries.

Nesbit is built like a modern tight end, more of a big wideout than classic end-of-line blocker. But don’t get fooled: as we saw in the Miami game when he was flagged for a nonsense holding call, he can put defensive backs on their ass quick.

Drake Maye’s height (6’4”) makes it easier for him to locate his tight ends in the middle of the field than Sam Howell (a dubious 6’1”) could. Maye was also more comfortable hitting intermediate routes at the beginning of the season, which homed in on Nesbit and Morales. Now with Antoine Green back, he’s going deep more often. Green isn’t at the level that Brown was two seasons ago, but he does have the ability to pop the top off of the defense, which should create even more space in the middle for the tight ends going forward.

North Carolina is spoiled for choice with their current crop of tight ends. Even blocking tight end John Copenhaver has proved to be a competent pass catcher, hauling in six catches for 143 yards, with a long of 47. Seeing a position that was almost an afterthought transform into one of UNC’s most potent weapons has been the most pleasant surprise of the season, and is a cause to be optimistic as the Tar Heels look to capture the Coastal Division, any maybe more!