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UNC Football: Surviving without Josh Downs

You hope to just survive without your best offensive weapon. Drake Maye thrived without Josh Downs due to injury.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Appalachian State Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

You’d forgive Tar Heel fans for feeling a bit ill when news trickled out that Josh Downs was out for the App State game in Boone:

In the Week Zero win over Florida A&M, Drake Maye targeted Downs 12 times for nine completions, 78 yards, and two touchdowns (Downs led the team in all these categories). It looked like Maye was following in Sam Howell’s footsteps, zeroing in on Downs at the expense of his other receivers. Josh Downs had a third of Carolina’s 2021 pass targets. That’s a lot of gravity!

With Downs out injured, redshirt freshman Kobe Paysour made his first start for UNC in the slot, but the thinking between Mack Brown and Phil Longo must have looked something like the scene in Moneyball when the Oakland A’s discuss how they’re going to recreate Jason Giambi in the aggregate:

Last season, Josh Downs played 13 games and averaged 7.8 catches per game, 102.7 yards per game, and 0.6 touchdowns per game. Paysour did an admirable impression of Downs against the Mountaineers, catching 8 passes (from 8 targets) for 92 yards and a touchdown. That’s a close enough facsimile to keep Carolina competitive.

Even more impressive from Drake Maye was how the absence of Downs allowed him to explore the studio space:

Maye competed passes to three wideouts, three running backs, and two tight ends. Kobe Paysour led all receivers with eight targets, with J.J. Jones just behind him with seven. In week zero, Downs had 12 targets, and the next highest was Bryson Nesbit with five. This was a better spread.

It’ll be interesting to see if Maye keeps sharing the ball with all of his weapons when Josh Downs does return. Last season, Sam Howell averaged just under seven different pass catchers per game, with a high of nine in the win over Georgia State, and a low of five in the loss to NC State. So far this season, Carolina has seven players with touchdown catches (including Downs), so they’ve demonstrated threat across their offense. Does spreading the wealth make the Heels more dangerous, or does focusing on Downs and his big-play potential give them a matchup edge?

We’ll have plenty of season to determine the answer, provided Downs has a full recovery. At the very least, UNC demonstrated that they can survive a matchup with a tough Sun Belt team without him. If there’s any doubt, Downs should continue to rest and recover so that he has next weekend and the bye to return healthy for Notre Dame.