UNC opened its college football season with a comfortable, but perhaps not quite as comfortable as it should have been, victory against the Rattlers of Florida A&M, who put up a very respectable fight regardless of the circumstances surrounding their readiness for the game, and a near-Herculean one considering they were ready to not play just more than 24 hours before the game started. Still, the Tar Heels managed to overwhelm the Rattlers by the end of the game and come away with a 56-24 victory that gives fans a lot of things to be happy about and a fair few things to worry about. Let’s take a deeper look at all of those in the following grades:
You couldn’t ask for much more from Drake Maye in his first career start. After some initial jitters — and it’s hard to tell if they were jitters or just the pouring rain affecting him — and a J.J. Jones drop on a deep dime on his first passing attempt that cannot have helped his confidence starting out, Maye was in complete command of the game from start to finish, completing 29/38 passes for 296 yards and five touchdowns. He spread the ball around, hitting 6 receivers with his first seven passes and completing those five touchdowns to four different receivers. He impressed with his legs, recording a 42-yard scamper on a quarterback draw early that kick-started the whole offense after an initial three-and-out. He negotiated relationships with his receivers, going right back to them when they’d made mistakes and making sure to find Josh Downs after a couple of missed connections that were probably on the quarterback. And he made things happen out of structure, directing traffic on roll-outs and finding receivers who relocated when things broke down. There were some minor issues — he ran himself into pressure a couple of times when he had a clean pocket; his ball placement, especially early, was good enough to get completions but frequently forced his receivers to make some tough adjustments, including bad placement on a swing pass to D.J. Jones on third down that made a conversion impossible as well as a pass to Downs that forced the receiver to put an elbow on the ground to reel it in, ruining what should have been a touchdown; and he’s still got some work to do on RPO reads. But for a first start, he was nothing short of spectacular, and the future looks bright for UNC at the sport’s most important position.
Running Backs: A-
D.J. Jones showed some promise last year as a guy who could make the right read in split zone and get consistent, positive yardage, and as the oldest guy in the room after British Brooks’ injury, it made sense that he’d be the starter. Unfortunately, he was unable to get anything going on the ground in this game, taking one carry for 6 yards and his other 5 for a combined 4 as he just wasn’t able to keep his legs moving through initial contact or find any space to work with. His peers, on the other hand, were outstanding. Omarion Hampton took over the bulk of the work for the rest of the game and announced his arrival with a 14-carry, 101-yard performance with 2 scores to boot, looking every bit the part as a college athlete despite being just a few months removed from high school. His classmate George Pettaway, not to be forgotten, added 4 carries for 51 yards, including a 29-yard touchdown run where he put at least a third of the FAMU defense on ice skates, showing off his agility and strength to run through a couple of arm tackles. Caleb Hood had a 9-yard carry and a 12-yard reception that showed off his strength and speed, though you’d like to see him be a little stronger at the line. And Elijah Green, coming in to kill clock in the last two minutes, showed off pretty incredible speed in doing so, including a 46-yarder to start things out. He finished with 8 carries that went for 69 yards and looked pretty impressive doing it, but this position pretty clearly belongs to the two freshmen right now.
It was an inauspicious start to the game for this group, as J.J. Jones dropped Maye’s first pass, a deep bomb, by mistiming when he should get his hands up, and then on the next play, stepped out of bounds before the ball got to him on a quick out (illegal touching should have been called but wasn’t) and then stepped out of bounds a yard before the first down line on third down. After that, though, the group did their jobs. They weren’t breaking the defense apart like we see sometimes with UNC playing against non-P5 competition, but they took advantage of a scheme that got them open, made catches, and consistently moved the chains.
Josh Downs picked up more or less where he left off with 9 catches for 78 yards and 2 touchdowns; you’d like to see the yardage number go up a little more as he only got one or two opportunities to really make things happen in space. Gavin Blackwell, seeing his first serious time at wide receiver, looked pretty good, making a couple of nice grabs on the sideline and absolutely roasting his defensive back on a broken play to score a touchdown. And special mention has to go the tight ends — all three of Kamari Morales, Bryson Nesbit, and John Copenhaver played, and they combined for 8 catches, 130 yards, and two touchdowns. With the receivers’ group as thin as it is, that’s a really welcome sight.
Offensive Line: B-
This group definitely looks better than last season’s edition, particularly in pass protection, where they kept Maye upright all game. Maye felt pressure on a couple of occasions, but I think that was on the offensive line no more than twice; they handled the FAMU pass rush pretty completely over the course of the game. Things were a little dicier in the run game, where the old story about UNC’s offense continued to ring true — they’d open up holes off guard and off tackle as zone blockers, and they were particularly excellent on delayed handoffs, which Phil Longo used to great effect throughout the game, but in power situations where they just had to move the line of scrimmage for a couple of tough yards, they just weren’t able to do it. Still, the communication looked pretty solid for a unit with 4 new starters, with a couple of stunts handled well, a few line shifts that did what they were supposed to, and a few examples of well-executed double teams. Hopefully as the season continues we see a bit more ability to win one-on-one.
Defensive Line: C
I’m going to go ahead and define this now — pass rushing linebackers, or “Jacks,” as they’re listed on UNC’s roster, are linebackers, not defensive linemen. They line up standing up and have coverage responsibilities. So this section will focus on the UNC defense’s 3 down lineman positions.
This was the position group that was supposed to be UNC’s biggest strength coming into the season, with several blue-chip players with multiple years in the program, and if UNC was going to physically dominate an FCS team at any position, you’d have thought it’d be in the trenches when UNC was on defense. That didn’t really happen, though, as FAMU’s backs consistently found holes through the line of scrimmage for most of the game before offensive line fatigue set in and any potential advantage was neutralized in the passing game with quick throws. Kaimon Rucker stood out as a rush end, leading the unit with four tackles, including two for loss, and forcing a fumble that ended the Rattler’s hopes of keeping the game tight. A couple of the big names, though, weren’t really noticeable, including Des Evans, Myles Murphy, and Jahvaree Ritzie. And Raymond Vohasek’s most notable moment was jumping offsides on 4th and short, giving the Rattlers a free first down that they’d use to score a touchdown. There’s a lot to figure out here, I think. This performance would’ve looked okay against conference opponents, but it’s fairly worrying to see this unit look good-not-great, at best, against this level of competition.
Starting with the pass rushers — Noah Taylor opened things up with UNC’s first sack of the season, putting the Rattlers behind the sticks on their second drive and snuffing out what looked like a decent drive for them, and then continued to play well, fitting outside runs and creating what pressure he could against a quick pass game. His opposite, Chris Collins, struggled to make an impact, and his most memorable action from the game was getting burned by a running back on a wheel route for FAMU’s first touchdown.
Moving to off-ball linebackers, it was mostly good here. Power Echols was the absolute motor of the defense, finding himself near the ball and making plays almost every time the UNC defense had a positive result. He led the team with 10 tackles and 9 of them were solo, proving how effective he was at getting to the ball first from the middle of the field. He added a sack for good measure on a nice blitz. His counterpart, Cedric Gray, was also pretty good, stopping a lot of runs that got past the first level and finishing with 6 tackles and a pass breakup where he looked badly out of position before making an impressive recovery. RaRa Dillworth, backing them up, made a nice tackle and had a good pass rush, but unfortunately finished it with a shot to the quarterback’s head that drew a 15-yard penalty — that can’t happen.
One of the most eyebrow-raising takeaways from UNC’s first official depth chart was the Heels listing redshirt freshman Donte Balfour as an alternate starter at cornerback to Storm Duck. Duck did start the game alongside Tony Grimes, but Balfour was pressed into action after Grimes’ early injury, and immediately was victimized for most of the rest of the game by Jeremy Moussa, who did most of his considerable damage looking Balfour’s way. He wasn’t helped by playcalling that planted him and Duck well off the line of scrimmage on nearly all obvious passing downs, but even so, Balfour was late matching receivers’ breaks, allowed himself to get stacked way too easily, and getting outrun to the first-down marker when his primary job was to keep things in front of him. He’s got a lot to fix if he’s to play significant snaps for the Heels. On the other side, Duck did a much better job keeping things in front of him as the scheme demanded, but that still resulted in allowing a fair number of first downs to underneath throws as he missed a few tackles early. He eventually made up for it, however, baiting Moussa into an interception near the end of the first half that allowed the Heels to walk into the locker room with a double-digit lead. At nickel back, DeAndre Boykins made some good things happen, recording a pass breakup, a tackle for loss on an outside run, and recovering the fumble Rucker forced after the ball had bounced around for a while. And safety play was as unremarkable as you’d expect from a team that stayed in Cover 2 most of the game — they didn’t get beaten deep, and Cam Kelly had 5 tackles, mostly on runs that got to the second level.
Phil Longo coached a fine game for his new starting quarterback, giving him some easy reads and adjusting to FAMU’s defensive tendencies to scheme receivers open on several plays, and also getting a lot of playmakers involved in the action as the game went on. UNC’s second touchdown drive in particular was an excellent script from Longo, culminating in a scissors combination that left Bryson Jennings wide open in front of the end zone. He also showed some variety in his red-zone playcalling, with Hampton’s first rushing touchdown coming from a shotgun spread formation instead of the predictable jumbo packages he usually likes. There was some of that as well in this game, but after a couple of failed attempts, he used that formation to set up a successful play-action pass, and while everybody should know by now that you don’t need to run to set up play action, at least it’s a level of creativity in the red zone we aren’t really used to seeing.
The problems were everywhere else. Gene Chizik, advertised as somebody who was going to simplify the defense into one with an aggressive, see-ball-get-ball mentality, came out with an incredibly soft gameplan, sitting back in a spot-dropping Cover 2 for most of the game and asking his corners to play well off the line of scrimmage, inviting Moussa to hit quick ins and outs all game long, which he proceeded to do. This wasn’t changed at all at halftime and a lot of plays were just inches from breaking and didn’t because of pressure against a clearly tired offensive line, and that’s just not going to cut it against Power 5 competition that isn’t missing several depth pieces. The best case scenario is that Chizik didn’t want to put his defense on tape for future opponents against a team he could afford to play vanilla against, but Mack Brown’s postgame comments about the staff working together for the first time and Chizik not having called plays in 5 years suggest to me that this is what it was supposed to look like, just a little tweaked. And that’s a problem.
Additionally, Mack Brown’s game management continues to hurt his team. With Florida A&M behind the sticks facing a 3rd and 22 with a little over 3 minutes left in the first half, they completed a deep pass to make it 4th and 9, and immediately went no-huddle to keep the UNC defense on the field and off guard, and it worked — Moussa completed a 15-yard pass against a defense that plainly needed a timeout. Brown didn’t call one and it cost his team a touchdown. At the end of the game, with Jacolby Criswell in mop-up duty, the backup quarterback wasn’t allowed to pass it a single time, which is bad both for developing your backup and for player welfare — let the guy put something on tape in case he needs to transfer for a starting job. It’s smaller stuff, but small stuff is the difference between winning and losing close games, and while this one wasn’t, this team could be seeing smaller margins very soon.