Even if the last two weeks hadn’t torpedoed UNC fans’ hopes for anything substantial to come from this season, this week’s matchup against Campbell would still have been more about the program’s future than its present. There’s a little dramatic irony in calling any game a foregone conclusion when one of the squads in question has lost two straight games as double-digit favorites, but there’s still a difference between conference play and an out-of-conference game against an okay FCS team. Put another way, even the 2017 and 2018 teams, who were way more hopeless than this one, beat Western Carolina by more than 20 points.
So it’s kind of a fool’s errand to try and identify some aspect of this game that will be key in determining the outcome. Rather, the most important thing about this game, besides it being an opportunity to reset from a two-game slide, is going to be what it tells us about the near future of UNC football, specifically from a personnel perspective. The hope with hiring Mack Brown in 2018 was that, even notwithstanding the elite quarterback play he’s gotten, he’d rebuild the floor of a cratered program to one that could consistently be in the running for ACC Championships. “In the running” is about the best way you could describe this season’s team, and UNC is going to lose an awful lot of talent from it come January. As much as anything else, this game needs to be proof of concept for the floor being raised, a showcase for the talent behind the talent that we’ve seen in every game so far this season. I am not so arrogant as to expect that the Heels will cruise the entire game and be able to rest every starter by halftime, but unless something is catastrophically wrong, it should be at least a bit of a bullpen game by at least the fourth quarter.
Personally, the spots I’m most interested in seeing the Heels’ depth are linebacker and wide receiver. Cedric Gray will get drafted in April after manning nearly every snap at one of UNC’s linebacker spots for two seasons for UNC, and Power Echols might follow — either way, it’s been a while since UNC fans have seen names other than Gray and Echols at the defense’s second level. Amare Campbell and Randy “Deuce” Caldwell are their ostensible backups, and both have seen pretty consistent action on special teams and have reputations as big hitters — I’d like to see how well they’ve learned to read their keys, how well they cover ground laterally, and their skills in coverage after an offseason-plus (Campbell) and a full season and a half (Caldwell) of practice. Redshirt freshman Sebastian Cheeks was apparently the heir apparent in the offseason, but he was lost for the season in fall camp — so what we see on Saturday isn’t going to be the whole picture of the linebacking group, but it will give us an indication of how depth is being built. It might also be a good time to see some of Caleb LaVallee, a 4-star recruit from this year’s class who’s only entered one game so far this season and thus could play without risking his redshirt.
At wide receiver, UNC fans already got a glimpse of the future with redshirt freshman Ty’Chaun “Doc” Chapman’s 50-yard touchdown catch against Georgia Tech, which immediately followed a kick return from Chapman that got the offense to midfield in the first place. Minus that minor breakout, the wide receiver rotation has tightened in the past couple of weeks after Gavin Blackwell and Kobe Paysour’s injuries, with Tez Walker, Nate McCollum, and J.J. Jones getting the lion’s share of snaps. This is a room with more known or semi-known talent than the linebacking corps; fans have been waiting on Andre Greene, Jr. in particular to bust onto the scene. The former top-100 recruit redshirted last year before raising some eyebrows against Oregon, but wasn’t able to do much with the few opportunities he got earlier in the season — most memorably just mistiming a layout on a deep ball from Drake Maye against Minnesota. Fellow highly-touted freshman Christian Hamilton was an under-the-radar star from reports on fall camp. That said, UNC’s depth-building at wide receiver has been less good than you’d think for a program that’s produced four NFL draft picks at the position in the past three drafts. Khafre Brown, Emery Simmons, Justin Olson, and Stephen Gosnell were all expected to help carry the mantle left behind by Dyami Brown (before Antoine Green’s return and resurgence) and weren’t able to do so, and even after Paysour had shown he had some juice last season in Josh Downs’ absence, the staff still apparently felt the need to go out and get McCollum in the transfer portal to start at slot receiver this year. Now is the time to see if the staff has prepared some homegrown talent, especially given McCollum’s struggles the past couple of weeks.
Quarterback and defensive line are maybe also on the list, but I feel less confident that there’s anything there to see behind the starters than I do for the position groups I detailed. And I’m not really a believer in rotating in offensive linemen, because so much of the position is chemistry with who’s next to you. We’ll probably see backups at those positions and others as well, but those two are the ones where I think we’ll best be able to see how well this staff has actually rebuilt that floor.