The UNC Tar Heels were able to ride the high of Devontez Walker gaining eligibility in just the right way, turning what could have been a competitive game against a solid Syracuse team into an absolute blowout that wasn’t really even as close as the 40-7 final score. As you can see from the title, we’re here to talk about the offense, but really, this was as complete a game as the Heels have played in a while, with few hiccups even really worth talking about. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to talk — sometimes, it’s nice just to bask in the glory of a job well done. Let’s go ahead and do that.
Well, anybody who was waiting for Drake Maye to have a real coming-out party this year certainly got it with this game. Whether it was the combined emotional high and offensive elevation caused by Walker’s return, having been able to regroup and recuperate during a bye week, an opponent reeling from a tough loss last week, increased comfort between himself and his new offensive coordinator, or some combination thereof, Maye looked like the absolute best version of himself against the Orange. He completed 33/47 of his passes for 442 yards and 3 touchdowns, adding 55 yards and a score on the ground to come just short of 500 yards of offense. Most of the time, he barely looked like he was trying, absolutely dicing up the Cuse secondary at all three levels with strike after strike, and consistently stepping up and finding the sticks with his legs on the occasion he didn’t have anybody to throw to — and given that he found 11 different targets throughout the game, he had a lot of guys to throw to. He was great on third down again but might have actually lowered his numbers in that regard because he’s been such a wizard on money downs this season — but a key conversion on 3rd and 12 in the shadow of his own goalpost was worth more than the numbers.
Were there spots for improvement? Of course. He missed Tez Walker wide open on a deep over route on what would’ve been a touchdown to bring the house down early, and even one of his touchdown passes was a ball thrown well behind Kobe Paysour that the receiver was able to tip with his trailing hand, snatch away from his defender, and then win the ensuing footrace; it was the kind of play that can very easily turn into a turnover but not, I suppose, when you’re having as much success as UNC is right now. There was also a muffed snap exchange between Maye and center Corey Gaynor on an attempted QB sneak late that was officially charged as a lost fumble for Maye to ruin an otherwise turnover-free performance. But unlike in past weeks, even with the warts, Maye looked like the elite quarterback we knew he was rather than simply a very good quarterback with elite moments.
Connor Harrell came in for the last five-ish minutes of the game and didn’t show much, getting tackled for loss a couple of times on option plays before throwing a decent ball over the middle that was dropped.
Running Backs: A-
Omarion Hampton seems to have taken the reins officially as the primary running back at this point, out-touching British Brooks 20-9 last week and 18-8 this week. He’s making good on it, too, taking his 15 carries for 78 yards at a 5.2 yards per carry average after a couple of mediocre weeks running the ball. Some of that can be attributed to the return of interior offensive lineman Willie Lampkin (more on him later), but Hampton also showed a more mature running style than he has in the past, looking for cutback lanes and open space rather than trying to barrel through first contact. Brooks played the part of chain-mover as well, with 25 yards on his 6 carries. Both also caught all 5 of their combined targets, mostly as checkdown options, for 34 yards. The run game took a backseat to Maye’s downfield attack, but the duo kept the chains moving, consistently eating up yardage on first down, and gave the offense the support it needed.
Caleb Hood came in late as the backups were getting action and ripped off a 10-yard run before getting bottled up on his other 6 carries, earning 23 yards on the ground and 9 through the air. Elijah Green, the sole active back UNC has who isn’t in the bruiser mold, had a similar story in mop-up duty, with a 9-yard sprint and a couple of stuffs.
Wide Receivers: A
It says a lot about how unstoppable UNC’s offense was on Saturday when a 7-catch, 135-yard game by Nate McCollum seems to have gone fairly under the radar. For the second time in three real appearances, McCollum led the Tar Heels in receiving, if by a less ridiculous margin than against Minnesota. He caught another deep ball on a post route where he’d cleared his defender by several steps and continued to show how good he is running routes and catching balls from the slot. Of course, he’s not the only option in the slot that UNC has; Kobe Paysour made the most impressive play of his career with the aforementioned touchdown, which required athleticism and explosiveness that we hadn’t really seen from him before. I’d love to see that manifest in more playmaking from Paysour as his Tar Heel tenure continues. J.J. Jones fit in beautifully as a third option at receiver, with the highlight of his game the 3rd-and-12 conversion that he secured on the sideline with great awareness.
The real story though, of course, is Tez Walker. Walker didn’t get the start but played a lot of snaps and immediately had an impact on the offense, forcing safeties to respect the threat of him going deep and opening up the middle of the field for Maye to operate. Walker didn’t have any deep receptions but could’ve had at least two; there was the miss on the over and Walker was also open on McCollum’s 48-yard reception — Maye said later he would’ve liked to get it to him, but thought he saw Walker’s safety closing faster than McCollum’s. What Walker did do was flash his athleticism and strong, safe hands on short and intermediate receptions. The most impressive involved him absolutely skying for a ball after a short curl and somehow getting a foot inbounds, as a tantalizing hint of the kind of things he can do once he’s been integrated into the gameplan and fully in game shape. His 6 catches for 43 yards were good, and even better for the emotion they inspired and the future they portend.
Tight Ends: B+
Tight ends secured two of Maye’s three touchdown passes — Bryson Nesbit hauled in a perfectly thrown ball on a slot fade where he easily stacked a much shorter defensive back from 23 yards out, and John Copenhaver was the beneficiary of a gadget play at the one-yard line where he lined up at H-back and ran across the formation as if to block in split zone before Maye flipped it to him in the end zone. After the tight end room was touted in the offseason as a three-headed monster with no player ahead of the rest, those two seem to have settled in as the first options over Kamari Morales, who has been good but not the ultra-reliable underneath option that he was last year. Nesbit had his best game of the season, reeling in 5 catches for 78 yards and his second score of the year — after a few games where he was around, but didn’t really make his mark, this was a welcome sight. Copenhaver is likely still getting back into the swing of things after his hand injury, but his only other target resulted in a drop, and Morales had an up-and-down game, with a couple of nice grabs for 16 yards on the plus side but a couple of penalties and missed connections with Maye on the minus.
Offensive Line: B+
Willie Lampkin’s return was a welcome one for sure. The guard, who had missed two games with an injury, has been UNC’s best offensive lineman by some distance this season, especially in the run game, and his absence was felt against Minnesota and Pittsburgh. With him back in the lineup, however, the Heels were able to consistently move the line of scrimmage forwards in the run game and give their backs a couple of yards before contact per carry. After averaging 2.8 and 2.0 yards per carry the past couple of games, UNC went up to 4.2 against the Orange, and if we only look at the two primary running backs, that number goes up to 4.9 yards per carry. We’ve seen better UNC running games, but that certainly will get the job done.
Things were better in the passing game, too. Drake Maye took one sack all game, and while it was almost disastrous because it happened almost at UNC’s own goal line, it was more of a coverage sack than the offensive line getting beaten. The stat sheet charges Syracuse with 8 quarterback hurries, which aren’t exactly pressures but are pretty close. That’s a decent-but-not-great number for Maye having dropped back over 50 times, and in return, Maye seemed to trust his line more, not drifting out of clean pockets early or creating pressure with sloppy movement. He had people in his face at times, but overall was free to operate more than enough to make the kind of impact he did. I hope to see more of this symbiosis moving forward.