It is that time of year again. But for just the 10th time in program history, the North Carolina Tar Heels will kick off their season in August.
Carolina is hosting one of the top historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) football programs from the 2021 season in an opener that will celebrate and pay tribute to the history of the HBCU.
Last season, Florida A&M finished the year ranked 25th in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS). Their single-point opening week loss to Jackson State was the only blemish on their conference schedule.
The Rattlers’ debut in the Southwestern Athletic Conference was a success, as they finished with the second-best record in the league and earned a berth to the FCS Playoffs.
The UNC offense will face off against one of FCS’s best defenses in 2021.
Senior linebacker Isaiah Land leads a Florida A&M defense that ranked 10th in the FCS in total defense and scoring defense last season.
Land is looking to build on his big junior year, when he led the FCS in 2021 with 19 sacks and 25.5 tackles for loss, and holds the FAMU single-game sack record after a five-sack performance last year. He actually reported several offers from Power Five programs when he entered the transfer portal after last season, but elected to return to Tallahassee and give it another go, and he’s expected to be one of, maybe the best player in FCS: He was named to the Stats Perform FCS Preseason All-American First Team, an Athlon Sports Preseason All-American, the Preseason SWAC Defensive Player of the Year, and a member of the Preseason All-SWAC First Team Defense.
In the defensive secondary, BJ Bohler is another name to watch tomorrow night. Besides being named to two Preseason All-American lists and the Preseason All-SWAC First Team Defense, Bohler tied for 6th in the nation for total passes defended (12 PBUs, 4 INTs), and tied for 8th in the nation for the most interceptions last year.
There is an interesting dichotomy between an experienced FCS defense and UNC’s relatively young Power Five offense. With returning talent for the Rattlers and new starters in each position group with the Tar Heels, the offense will have a challenge to start the season.
For the FAMU offense, fourth-year head coach Willie Simmons announced this week that Vanderbilt graduate transfer Jeremy Moussa will make his first collegiate start on Saturday.
The previously expected starter, redshirt senior Rasean McKay, is dealing with some “nagging injuries,” according to Simmons. McKay ranked 18th in the FCS last season with 22 passing touchdowns and finished with 2,457 passing yards in 2021. Simmons said that both quarterbacks had great training camps and that both will play.
Returning wide receiver and FCS leader in punt returns Jah’Marae Sheread is questionable for Saturday. He will travel with the team, but it is still undetermined if he will play.
Sheread was first in the FCS in yards per punt return at 19.9 yards and tallied a punt return TD last season. Besides his excellence on special teams, he led the team in receiving touchdowns and was second on the Rattlers in receptions and receiving yards.
Xavier Smith will line up at the number one receiving. The graduate student was named to the Preseason All-SWAC First Team and will seek to lead the team in receptions and receiving yards again this year.
The Tar Heel faithful are cautiously optimistic for an improved defense under returning defensive coordinator Gene Chizik. This will be the first real look at the new defensive scheme, and there will likely be a few hiccups as the players adjust to live action.
If the game goes as planned, head coach Mack Brown’s goal of becoming two-deep at every position will be one step closer to reality.
Some of the talking heads have UNC as a sleeper eight-win team. However, questions persist with each position group.
How will quarterback Drake Maye perform in his new role as the starter? With DJ Jones earning the starting running back job, how much will the running game by executed by committee? Can Josh Downs continue to put up numbers? He will likely become the security blanket for Maye and will undoubtedly be subject to frequent double coverage throughout the season. With two new additions to the program on the offensive line, can the group take a step forward this season in protecting the quarterback?
And on defense: Will the talent and experience on the defensive line and the defensive secondary elevate the performance of the defense? With their impressive training camps, can Power Echols and Cedric Gray keep their momentum going into the season and become impact players at linebacker?
Carolina will start to answer those questions tomorrow night. The team needs to start their season with a decisive and well-executed victory.
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