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UNC Football: Questions and answers from the first two games

With two games done, what do we know and what don’t we know?

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

Yesterday, before launching into the winners, losers, and honorable mentions post, I mentioned that the very nature of football forces us to look at the micro instead of the macro. Even our posts trying to analyze what we saw, including the three things learned and the position grades are meant to focus on what we just saw and not the progression of things.

The fact is, we really should be taking in the first two games as a whole and not just the game against App State. There are things now that we can say we know for sure...and things we still have no clue how it’ll work out. With Georgia State coming up this weekend and then a bye, it’s worth examining what we know and what we don’t as the Tar Heels have two games under their belt.

Known: Drake Maye

I don’t think anyone had any sort of reasonable expectation going into the start of the season that Drake would look this good after two games. All of the intelligence coming out of practices plus what was shown in the spring game had some promise, but we naturally had some concerns about what the offense was going to look like with a different quarterback under center. Every thought was that we would have seen Jacolby Criswell play some significant time by now, because they were just so close.

Drake Maye has completely eradicated the competition. He’s started 53 for 73 on throws, 72.6%, 646 yards, and nine touchdowns with no picks. He also has 131 yards on the ground with another touchdown, and in both games got the offense going by picking up big first downs near the beginning of the game. He’s also doing something that should make other teams fearful of this offense: throwing to multiple receivers. Despite the 646 yards, neither game had a 100 yard pass catch, and he’s been using the receivers, tight ends, and running backs effectively. Going into the year, defenses figured they were going to have to zero in on Josh Downs and take their chances on everyone else, and now it’s going to be really tough to play man with Maye. Even when you send pressure, he’s had the poise to find the open man and turn a negative into a positive.

At some point Maye will struggle, at some point he’s going to have an interception, and at some point if he doesn’t learn how to slide he’s going to get nicked up. We may still see Criswell at some point this season, but Drake Maye has a hammerlock on the position, which is a huge question mark removed for the rest of the year.

Unknown: Running Backs

This isn't a bad thing, mind you, it actually speaks to the depth at the position and the fight that will be ongoing for a feature back. Still, after two games, there’s no “lead” back. You could argue after FAMU that Omarion Hampton was going to be the guy, and then he only ran for 19 yards on eight carries against App State. Caleb Hood was the opposite, only gaining 12 yards on four carries against FAMU, but gained 87 yards against App State with the 71 yard gash up the middle. DJ Jones seems to be the one struggling the most, yet he caught the Maye ball out of the backfield for the last passing score UNC had on Saturday.

On some level you had hoped that one guy would have stood up to be the guy you could always count on by now, but as it is this group has shown that if they struggle, someone else is immediately ready to step up and take the punches. It’s going to be a valuable tool in wearing down defenses, and that Maye has no problem using them as extra receivers means that you’ll likely see a lot more two back sets as the year goes along.

Known: Pass Catchers

That Josh Downs was going to miss Saturday actually swung the line by about four points, as it was around Carolina -2 before word started to leak out, and closed around App -2 before kick off. It spoke to the conventional wisdom that Carolina was thin and inexperienced at the receiver position and without Downs to take attention off the others, the Tar Heels would struggle.

Not so much.

As mentioned above, you have ten players catching passes against FAMU and eight against App State. The tight ends are intricately involved in the offense, multiple sets feature two backs and then one can run to the line to catch a short throw, and Maye is constantly finding the right read to keep the chains moving. The fact that he’s not zeroing in on one guy also will help Maye in the locker room, but more importantly, make defenses scramble because even if you put your best corner on Downs, clearly there will be a mismatch somewhere. It’ll be interesting to see how defenses adjust now that two games are on tape, but any concerns about the ability of pass catchers has been alleviated.

Unknown: Gene Chizik

Based on the comments from my last post, most of y’all are going to want to put this as a “known, he isn’t good,” but I’d argue his affect is still the biggest unknown. It honestly speaks to just how broken the defense was that it’s still struggling at this point, but it hasn’t all been bad.

Let’s look at an alternate reality here: the defense seemingly turned a corner after App State went up 21-7. Take a look at the drive chart after the third touchdown: missed field goal, punt, turnover on downs, interception. There’s also the end of the half in between, and with all of that figured in, Carolina flipped the 21-7 deficit to a 41-21 lead. Despite getting run all over, the defense held for four straight series, then gave up a touchdown drive, then had to immediately get back on the field when Drake Maye fumbled on the 25. The offense atones, and App State is again down 14 with over nine minutes left. Carolina gets to a 3rd and 8, stops them, Mack Brown accepts a ten yard holding call to force 3rd and 18, and the defense stops Chase Brice again for only a four yard gain. It would be 4th and 14, clock running, App down 14 halfway into the fourth.

Except the refs decided that Cam Kelly hit Brice too late, fooled into calling targeting, and couldn’t pull up the flag for unnecessary roughness. First down. What’s not talked about, the defense AGAIN buckled down, and on 3rd and 10 forced a bad throw from Brice...except a pass interference call that at best happened way before the ball was in the air is thrown and App gets another free 15 yards. The defense was effectively off the field twice on that drive, the refs gave App new life, and then they are back in the end zone.

So what if neither of those flags happen? App State is probably out of chances, Carolina likely scores at least one more time to go up 17 or 21 with about five minutes left, and while we’ve seen this team give something like that up before, considering how Carolina handled onside kicks on Saturday, it’s fair to say it would have been over-and we go from screaming about the defense to just scratching our heads.

This isn’t to excuse them, at all. The 21-7 lead App had to start plus the way FAMU was in the game up to the fourth quarter is mind boggling, there’s little defensive pressure getting into the backfield, and the secondary is a mess. That said, Carolina is 2-0, and when the defense needed to make big plays to give the offense a chance to flip the script, they have. Power Echols and Cedric Gray have stepped up to make some highlight-level plays, and sometimes we have to just shrug our shoulders and say that when a defensive player takes 88 snaps, they are going to get worn out.

That’s why Chizik is still an unknown. We are only two games into the season, presumably Georgia State should give them an easier game than App, and then they get a week to study three weeks of tape while Notre Dame plays twice and then has to come to Chapel Hill. We need to at least see if there is going to be improvement from this game to the last, or if we are just in for ten more App State games. That he isn’t a known is concerning, and you'd have hoped to see more by now, but there are snippets to at least provide some hope.

Known: Carolina is 2-0

A winning season is much more likely now, 3-1 in the non conference is likely meaning a 5-3 ACC run gives them 8-4-which, by the way, is roughly what they had in the Orange Bowl season, and with the last year of chaos in the Coastal, they have a legitimate shot to compete for the final Coastal Division title.

This season looks like it’s going to be more fun than it was a couple weeks ago, we’ll see if we’ve learned anything else after Georgia State this weekend.