Big-picture-wise, at least UNC isn’t Texas A&M. Or Notre Dame. Or Nebraska. Or especially Utah State. Despite another troublingly close game against a Sun Belt opponent, the Heels are 3-0 and even showed some progress against Georgia State, and now have two weeks off to prepare for a visit from a Notre Dame team that looks significantly less scary now than they did before the season started. Let’s help their self-scouting out with some grades:
Well, Drake Maye wasn’t going to be perfect forever. The redshirt freshman came to Earth a little after two sterling starts to open his career, and was merely very good against the Panthers. He started the game out on fire, absolutely rifling a 3rd-down ball to Kamari Morales in a window that most college quarterbacks can’t hit for an early touchdown, then threw Kobe Paysour open deep from a condensed pocket for his second en route to going 13/16 for 189 yards and the two scores in the first half. From there, though, he looked a little discomforted, probably by a combination of game narrative (GSU putting up 25 unanswered points) and disjointed offensive possessions, both due to multiple turnovers and offensive playcalling that probably took the ball out of his hands too much. In the second half, he only threw 8 times, completing 6 for 95 yards, but also threw his first interception at an inopportune time, echoing his fumble from last week that allowed App State to begin their comeback. The decision on the pick wasn’t bad, as he was targeting single coverage, but he floated the ball to the inside to a receiver with outside leverage, giving the defensive back an easy play. Maye also looked a little jumpier than he had the previous two weeks, looking to run on numerous occasions much earlier than we’re used to seeing, and not letting blocks develop on draw-option plays as a result. Excluding sack yardage, Maye ran 7 times for just 25 yards, which is a lot worse than he’d done before. Hiccups are inevitable in a young quarterback’s career, and ultimately, going 19/24 for 284 yards and two touchdowns to a turnover, leading the offense to 35 points, is a pretty dang good line for a hiccup.
Running Backs: B-
Omarion Hampton was the savior in the game’s second half, finally finding room against a sturdy GSU defensive front that had stymied the UNC rushing attack for most of the game. Finding holes in split zone that either hadn’t existed or had shut too quickly before, Hampton got downhill in a hurry and strung together several quality carries in a row, including his long touchdown run that equalized the game where he just ran past all three levels of the Panthers’ defense. He also got to cap off UNC’s mini-comeback with a powerful run from two yards out, finishing his day with 16 carries for 110 yards and the brace of touchdowns. He’s already got two 100-yard games in his young career and things are really looking up for him. His running mates didn’t shine quite as brightly, unfortunately. D.J. Jones had his best game this year, turning the corner a couple of times for positive gains and scoring the game’s second touchdown. His final line doesn’t even look that bad, as he had 10 carries for 61 yards. But his last carry, a 21-yard scamper, concluded with a fumble that was entirely his fault for concentrating too hard on trying to make the man in front of him miss and losing ball security. He was fortunate that State wasn’t able to tie the game off his miscue. And George Pettaway, arguably the Heels’ most impressive-looking back the first two games, could not make anything happen with his early snaps, getting tripped up around the line of scrimmage on nearly all of his 5 carries.
I’ll split the difference here between wideouts (C+) and tight ends (A-). Starting with the good, the UNC offense continues to use its three talented tight ends as mismatch creators and easy completion sources. It started with the aforementioned touchdown to Morales, who stepped through a couple of tackles and coasted about 40 yards to the end zone. Bryson Nesbit converted a couple of key first downs, and then John Copenhaver was schemed wide open late in the game and shook off a couple of tackles before rumbling for a 47-yard gain that was the bulk of the yardage on Carolina’s go-ahead drive. The three combined for 7 catches, 151 yards, and Morales’ score. The UNC wideouts weren’t quite as impressive, though they had their moments: Gavin Blackwell kept an early drive alive with a nice toe-tapping catch that the broadcast crew completely disrespected, and Kobe Paysour’s fingertip touchdown grab was a seriously impressive play that punctuated a nice 5-catch, 61-yard day. But it wasn’t all good on their end. Paysour fumbled after minimal contact after making a catch over the middle, which was the biggest black mark. But even speaking more generally, the trio of receivers (Blackwell, Paysour, and J.J. Jones) seemed to struggle to generate consistent separation, laboring for most of their yardage and often forcing their quarterback to look elsewhere. Jones in particular was invisible on Saturday, dropping his only target.
Offensive Line: C+
This group is still definitely better in pass protection than last year’s unit, which is a big relief. Maye found himself under some duress on several snaps, but it was mostly manageable and he made some things worse for him than they should’ve been, as mentioned before. You’d still like to see him have cleaner pockets to work with on a more consistent basis, and there were a couple of plays where the line just got tossed aside. Maye was sacked three times on the day, but one of those was 100% on him, so it wasn’t the worst day of work for this unit, even though they can be a lot better. As run blockers, though, things were pretty dire for most of the game, as they just did not get push against GSU’s defensive front and running backs got stopped short of conversions or even the line of scrimmage multiple times. Things opened up late in the game, thanks particularly to Corey Gaynor, who found another level of play as he helped open up the inside holes that Hampton took advantage of to put the game away. But the inability to run consistently was a big reason that the Heels’ offense felt so disjointed for much of the middle part of the game, and that’s something that has to get better.
Defensive Line: B-
Noah Taylor and Kaimon Rucker absolutely carried this group to success, wreaking havoc in the backfield consistently and coming up with key stops when they seemed impossible. Taylor was in on both of the Heels’ quarterback sacks from the Jack position, executing speed rushes extremely well and causing trouble for the GSU quarterback. From the other side with his hand down, Rucker was credited with a half sack and another tackle for loss, both of which came on big third downs. For the rest of the group, this was pretty much a day to forget. Georgia State seemed to be able to run it up the middle for 4 yards a play pretty much without thinking about it, their backs finding gaps when they could and running through linemen when they couldn’t. They rushed for 235 yards at 4.4 yards per carry with just a couple of carries longer than 10 yards; the line just got consistently overpowered enough to not win at the line of scrimmage. The same was true in the passing game; other than from Taylor, there just wasn’t a lot of pressure on Darren Grainger. The group did shine in the option game, especially late. They fit their lanes well and allowed their linebackers to do their jobs and stop option runs cleanly, relatively neutralizing Grainger’s run threat.
Power Echols and Cedric Gray dragged their defense into competence on Saturday. While Rucker and Taylor made some great individual plays, the two starting linebackers tied the unit together with their outstanding performances. Gray once again led the team in tackles with 14, including two for loss on the kind of outside runs that shredded the Heels last week. Echols wasn’t far behind with 10 tackles of his own, and, as stated in our POtG article, deserves mention for his sideline leadership as well after his defense had given GSU the lead. The two were flying all over the second level of the defense, making sure things didn’t go from bad to worse and finishing plays that their teammates just weren’t able to do. RaRa Dillworth, backing them up, also had his best day as a Heel, chasing Grainger around in the backfield on a couple of occasions and recording 3 tackles including a half-tackle for loss.
Defensive Backs: D
This group just continues to baffle. They’re certainly not being helped by playcalling or scheme, but even still, there is no reason for a group this athletic to be getting torched as often as this one is. Storm Duck looks a step behind on nearly everything he’s doing, and commentators are pointing weekly how he’s being victimized by opposing quarterbacks and coordinators. Cam Kelly seems to be on the wrong end of at least half of UNC’s opponents’ big plays. DeAndre Boykins makes some plays at the second level, but is inconsistent covering from the nickel spot. And Tony Grimes, though he’s easily the secondary’s best player, still leaves a lot to be desired given his pedigree and attitude. Actually, I’ll halfheartedly defend Grimes; he’s not a liability in coverage at all. I think he had just one completion against him to go with a pass interference call on a horrendous underthrow, and he was credited with two pass breakups — one legitimate and one that looked more like a drop, though I’m not convinced he wouldn’t have broken up the latter if the receiver had kept it in his hands; Grimes played it really well. He even forced a fumble early on a hard tackle, though it didn’t amount to much. But the rest of his position room looks confused and slow, and they’re getting torched by average talent as a result.
Special Teams: B+
A very good overall special teams performance was marred by a huge mistake by Omarion Hampton, who fielded a kickoff near the sideline on the bounce and carried himself out of bounds, giving his offense the ball at its own 2-yard line. Hampton has to just let that go, either it’s a touchback out of the end zone or it goes out before the end zone and you get the ball at the 40. Special Teams captain Obi Egbuna also got himself ejected early for targeting after leveling a punt returner with perfect timing but his helmet lowered. But besides that, Ben Kiernan got a couple of great bounces on punts that completely flipped the field on the Panthers, including a 70-yarder and a 63-yarder. Cam Kelly had a nice day returning punts, including a 17-yard return that set his offense up with great field position. Myles Murphy blocked a field goal late in the first half that helped stem Georgia State’s momentum, and we also got some nice comedy out of UNC not knowing what to do with the ball once it had landed, eventually being awarded a strange-looking touchback (for future reference, it is in fact a live ball and can be returned!). Other than Hampton’s misstep, the Heels dominated the third phase of the game and it was a key reason they were able to stave off GSU.
My thoughts on the bigger picture of UNC’s coaching situation are markedly different from my evaluation of their gameday performance against Georgia State on Saturday, for which I don’t have a ton of complaints. Phil Longo called basically perfect games in Weeks 0 and 1, and was a little short of that yesterday, taking the ball out of his best playmaker’s hands too often in the second half when his offense needed a spark. I also think it’s a mistake to eliminate Josh Downs’ manufactured touches from the offense entirely when he’s not playing; a guy like Kobe Paysour or Gavin Blackwell or even Bryson Nesbit could certainly make something happen on Downs’ patented tunnel screen even if they aren’t threats to house every ball they touch, and that kind of play is great for rhythm against a team that’s stopping the run. But he also clearly found what he was looking for in the run game late and used it to ice the victory, and the aforementioned play for Copenhaver was just gorgeous. On defense, while the performance was still overall pretty underwhelming and several playcalls make very little sense given opponent and situation, there were definite signs of progress in the unit’s tackling consistency and discipline in the run game, which didn’t seem likely a week ago, and the defense’s mentality looked completely revamped for the better. I don’t know how much credit Gene Chizik deserves for that, but the answer is probably more than none. And as far as game management, nothing stands out. I liked the call to go for it on fourth down on UNC’s early touchdown drive, which succeeded, as well as the call to go for it on the Heels’ side of the field late in the half, which didn’t work out. The Heels were called for just 4 penalties, a stark improvement from last game.
There’s bound to be a lot of talk about UNC’s immediate coaching future in the coming two weeks, especially with the open week giving us less than usual to talk about. I might even join in. But this game was, in isolation, a coaching performance that this staff can pretty proudly stand on.