It’s hard to know how to attribute the blame for the colossal disappointment that was last season; I think if you asked 10 reasonably knowledgeable UNC fans you’d get at least 8 different answers. Was the offensive line, near-worst at pass-protection in the country, most at fault? Was it a defense that constantly seemed confused on what to run and seemed to be breaking down constantly? Was it a quarterback who’d been buoyed to success by NFL-level skill talent the previous year and was showing some warts when asked to make things happen on his own strength, despite an offense that was statistically still quite good? Or maybe it was on the sidelines? Mack Brown’s second tenure has become infamous for bad in-game and time management as much as anything else, and at least 2 of UNC’s losses can be put pretty squarely on Brown’s in-game coaching foibles, so that’s maybe something to think about. Or maybe the issues ran deeper — we as fans don’t have much of a look into the locker room or coaching meetings to diagnose issues there, but Josh Downs’ comments at ACC Media Days earlier this year about some teammates who couldn’t get motivated to play, as well as Brown at the same event recalling lacksadaiscal practices where his players didn’t hustle even when called out, hint at a coaching staff that had lost at least part of the locker room. The Heels were 111th out of 130 FBS teams in penalties per game, so that points to some disconnect between players and staff, at the very least, if not simply a head coach that isn’t doing his job.
What we do have is a pretty good idea of what Mack Brown thinks went wrong. He can maintain his bluster about last year’s high media expectations making his team buy their own hype, but he’s been coaching too long to really believe that, and we’re smart enough to see it for what it is. Instead, let’s look at his actions. The morning after the bowl game loss to South Carolina, he fires defensive coordinator Jay Bateman and outside linebackers’ coach/special teams coordinator Jovan DeWitt, two of the few coaches remaining on staff without any prior connection to Brown, and without holding interviews or doing any self-evaluation on what about the defense made it underperform, reaches out to old friend Gene Chizik within the hour to offer him the new DC job. He publicly defends offensive line coach Stacy Searels and announces that Phil Longo is on thin ice; that he’ll be more involved in the offensive staff meetings to make sure things are the way he wants them — guess which one he’d worked with before and which one he hadn’t. From the outside looking in, it sure looks like Brown saw some sort of schism in the coaching staff that was affecting his players’ buy-in, especially on the defensive side, between his guys and the rest, and opted to fix said schism by just filling the defensive staff with his guys so everybody would be on the same page. That’s just the overview, though. Let’s take a look at exactly what’s changed on the sidelines for UNC, and what it means for the upcoming season.
Defensive Coordinator Bateman and Special Teams coach DeWitt are both gone after their units underperformed. Bateman came to UNC with a lot of hype as an innovator who used defensive fundamentals in new ways to counter modern offenses, but after a first year where his unit looked promising but understaffed, things never really got better for him, culminating in last year’s unit that looked confused and out of sync on the most basic of calls. DeWitt, hired on Bateman’s recommendation after a woeful 2019 in the third phase for UNC, didn’t really make a dent on the unit (though punt returns did improve with Josh Downs doing the job), and his secondary job as outside linebackers’ coach also didn’t really register, as UNC’s young pass rushers haven’t seemed to develop much under his tutelage.
In one of the more surprising bits of news in this college football offseason, offensive line coach Stacy Searels was hired for the same position at Georgia, where he’s coached before. He was probably UNC’s most maligned coach by fans, leading a unit that seemed to regress every year and was almost dead last in sacks allowed in 2021, but clearly has the favor of the people who matter in his profession, judging by both Brown and Georgia’s head coach Kirby Smart.
As I mentioned earlier, Bateman is out and Chizik is in as defensive coordinator, and unlike Bateman, who was safeties coach as well, Chizik doesn’t have any positional responsibilities. He brings with him Charlton Warren as nominal co-defensive coordinator and safeties/defensive backs coach. Warren was at UNC with Chizik in 2015 and ‘16, and comes for his second stint after having been the defensive coordinator for an Indiana team that badly regressed under his oversight from an impressive 2020. It’ll be Chizik’s scheme and Chizik calling plays; it seems Warren’s title is indicative more that he’ll be in communication with Chizik than that he’ll have something major to do with how the defense is run. With DeWitt’s departure, running backs coach Larry Porter has also taken the mantle of special teams coordinator, a position he’s held before.
Replacing Searels is Jack Bicknell, who was at Louisville before and whose unit was one of the more pleasantly surprising ones in the country the past couple of years. Bicknell’s worked with Longo before when the pair was at Ole Miss, and the hope has to be that this familiarity can help shore some things up on the offensive line.
Mack Brown has been treated like just short of royalty since his return to Chapel Hill in 2019 — by UNC media, the majority of fans, and even his bosses, so much so that Brendan Marks at the Athletic is pretty adamant that he just isn’t going to get fired. And it’s easy to see why; he’s a ton more likeable than Larry Fedora was, he turned a 2-win team into a 7-win one immediately and then turned that into a New Year’s Six appearance the year after, and recruiting has been as good as UNC’s ever seen. But last season seems to have burned a lot of that goodwill and left the majority of people following the program asking some pointed questions: Was that immediate success just due to lucking into UNC’s best-ever quarterback from Day 1, a talent he didn’t even manage to take full advantage of? Were all of last year’s problems, even the abundance of penalties, inability to win on the road, and woeful game management, just down to staff communication problems or is something rotten a little deeper? And if it’s the latter, does he have the self-scouting capability to make some changes that might actually hurt (okay, maybe this one’s just me)? And all that is reflected in what feels like a fandom in a holding pattern — all around the internet, it seems like UNC fans just don’t know what we’re going to get. Vegas is projecting the Heels to be just about average, with an over/under at 7.5 nearly everywhere. Ultimately, nobody really knows the answer to the ultimate question: Changes were needed, changes were made. But were they the right ones? Have the things that needed to change been changed?
This season feels like an inflection point for Brown’s second tenure in Chapel Hill, the point where he’s out of excuses for not delivering a team that’s commensurate with, or at least approaching, the top-20 talented roster he’s assembled the last four years. The roster is made just about entirely of his players, the offense was a top-20 one in a down year last year and the staff seems only to have improved, and this is what the defensive staff looks like: DC Gene Chizik (coached with Brown), DL coach Tim Cross (played under Brown), LB coach Tommy Thigpen (played under Brown), CB coach Dre Bly (played under Brown), DB coach Charlton Warren (coached with Chizik). We’ve heard a lot about the coaches being on the same page this offseason; once the action starts, we’ll know if that page is actually the right one or not. If so, the program’s in a good place, with the talent it’s accumulated and the recruiting groundwork it’s laid, to perennially challenge for ACC Championships for the near future, and you’d expect a 9-win season this year. But if not, that’s going to be evident pretty quickly, and it might be time for that throne to start heating up.