After Bane broke Batman’s back in “The Dark Knight Rises,” he threw the Dark Knight into a giant pit prison. Legend had it that only one person ever escaped the deep pit. For Carolina’s receivers in 2021, that lone escapee was Josh Downs. He returns to Chapel Hill in what will surely be his final season before moving on to the NFL Draft. Mack Brown, Phil Longo, and either Jacolby Criswell or Drake Maye want to know who will be the second person to escape the pit, because the offense cannot thrive with only Josh Downs gaining yards.
There are candidates, but all of them are unproven. Antoine Green has the most experience, but he was a sharp downgrade from Dyami Brown as Sam Howell’s deep threat. Can he make the individual improvement to make that position his own, or will his snap count be cut in order to make room for a newcomer? Let’s dive into what the Tar Heel receiving corps looks like for the 2022 season.
Carolina is actually in pretty good shape here. The only end of season loss of consequence is graduated mega-senior tight end Garrett Walston. He takes with him his 18 catches, 184 yards, and 2 touchdowns to San Francisco, where he is trying to earn a roster spot with the 49ers. Everyone else is back in Chapel Hill!
It all starts and ends with Josh Downs.
Let’s be clear. If Downs was a true freshman last season, there’s a better than good chance that he’d have transferred to a bigger, more established program. The sharks were circling, and with Sam Howell off to Washington DC, there was no reason for him to stick around and see what a rookie quarterback could do at UNC.
Fortunately, he was a rising junior, and there were risks in going somewhere new with only a year to adjust and put out tape. So Downs stays, knowing he’s the man in Phil Longo’s schemes and dreams. So far, so good. We know what we’ve got with Downs, but so do defensive coordinators. Downs is slippery, quick, and can adjust speeds mid-route, so he’ll still get his, but if he’s double and triple teamed all season, don’t expect the same kind of production he showed last season (101 catches, 1335 yards, 8 touchdowns) again. Expect Downs to lead UNC in most (if not all) categories, but his yards will be fewer and harder to come by than last season.
What will help him out is if the rest of the receivers step up, particularly senior Antoine Green. Replacing Dyami Brown is not easy, no one will fault Green for not being a one-for-one replacement. But as a deep threat, UNC’s quarterbacks need him to catch more deep passes. In Brown’s final season, he caught 55 balls for 1099 yards (99.9 yards per game). Green played two extra games and only caught 31 passes for 612 yards (47.1 ypg). If Green can get that average closer to 75 ypg, the Heels will be in business.
I was hard on Justin Olson when he got bullied off the ball at Virginia Tech, and he did not really do anything to make me reconsider my position. Fewer catches (8) than games played (13) and one touchdown on the season? I’d give his snaps to a freshman with a higher ceiling.
Kamari Morales and Bryson Nesbit return as the only tight ends with meaningful snaps. They are both more accomplished receivers than Garrett Walston, with Nesbit in that hybrid-tweener range. He can split out wide and is a threat to catch deep passes over the heads of most defensive backs (he’s 6’5”, 230 pounds). Morales is the beefier goal-line threat (6’3”, 245), with the beef to block, disengage, and flatten out for a quick score. He caught five touchdowns last season, tied with Green for second most scoring receptions on the team.
Tylee Craft remains out as he tackles a rare form of lung cancer.
In Sam Howell’s sophomore season, the offense averaged 301.4 receiving yards per game and he threw 31 touchdowns. In his junior season, those numbers dropped to 255.7 and 26.
All of the freshmen should look at those numbers with eyes wide open. What do they see? Opportunity.
The spring game didn’t drop too many hints, as once again Josh Downs dominated most of the receiving opportunities. But based on a small sample size, 6’2” sophomore J.J. Jones has some deep play potential and 6’1” Kobe Paysour has some post-catch slipperiness that could net first downs. They are joined by talented freshman Tychaun Chapman and redshirt freshman Gavin Blackwell, who are both under six feet tall. The size comes from freshman Andre Greene (6’2.5”, 190), who was not enrolled in time to play in the spring game, but by all accounts is the wildcard in UNC’s receiving plans. If he has the goods and can supplant Antoine Green on the depth chart, he should be able to pile up impressive freshman numbers.
There’s too much turnover with the quarterback position to forecast with confidence. There’s plenty of talent, size, and pedigree, but headwinds include an unnamed starting quarterback, a possible dual-quarterback system (for some portion of the season), and a strong running game. With 2022 UNC’s schedule built to ease in new starters, expect more rushing to start with. If leads grow and the young quarterbacks look up to it, the passing game can dial in. I’d expect Josh Downs to have a strong season (1st Team All-ACC) before heading off to the NFL, but I do expect his overall numbers to drop some.
The receiving corps will not lose games for UNC, but they probably won’t win games either. Expect a heavy dose of the run, and improved pass catching later in the season. If Carolina has better overall stats than last season, we’re going bowling. Any worse? We’ll have a second consecutive losing season and questions to ask Mack Brown.
If you need to get caught up with Tar Heel Blog’s 2022 football coverage, don’t forget to read our previous previews!