Here’s a hot take for the beginning of the college football preseason: Drake Maye is really good.
Okay, now that the dumb joke is out of the way, let’s actually talk about Maye, how lucky we are as UNC fans to have him, and how the rest of the quarterback room looks. The long and short of it is that Maye is already playing the position at the highest level we’ve ever seen in Chapel Hill and that he more or less willed his team to a 9-win season last year, and returns to college football as inarguably a top-3 player at his position in the country — and I don’t think it’s crazy to put him at #1. I’ll discuss him in a little more detail in a bit, but if there’s one thing you take away from this preview, it has to be that pretty much everything being said about Maye right now, from UNC and national sources alike, isn’t hyperbole. He’s that good, and while there’s other stuff to talk about and recap as far as UNC’s quarterback position goes, without Maye, there isn’t anything really worth talking about.
Jacolby Criswell, after backing up the position for three years in Chapel Hill, has transferred to his hometown Arkansas, where he’ll presumably back up another very good quarterback in K.J. Jefferson. Some might wonder why he’d transfer just to play backup again, but I think the combination of being closer to home and the loss of the coach who recruited him are more than enough explanation.
Oh, yeah, speaking of which, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Phil Longo left after the conclusion of last regular season for the same position on Luke Fickell’s new staff at Wisconsin. Longo will be discussed more when we eventually get to the coaching entry in this preview series, but I’ll say a few words about him as a quarterbacks coach. His signal-callers rewrote UNC’s record books during his four-year tenure in Chapel Hill, but it’s also fairly easy to nitpick traits that seem to have been coached into them: drifting to their arm side in clean pockets, lack of consistent focus on trajectory, dropping their eyes a beat or two early. Suffice it to say that my uninformed opinion is that Longo is much less replaceable as a playcaller than as a quarterbacks coach.
Hey, remember when I said Drake Maye willed his team to 9 wins? Check this out:
Just a quick recap of what we've done so far in these rankings re: UNC...— ️♈️ (@ADavidHaleJoint) July 7, 2023
defensive pressure rate: 14th in ACC
RB yds/game: 10th
pressure% allowed: 13th
yd/dropback allowed: 14th
And UNC played for the ACC title.
Drake Maye, man. Dude did some things.
With little help from the running back position, his offensive line, or his defense at any level, Maye was as close to perfect as you could expect from a redshirt freshman. He completed 342/517 (66%) passes for a school-record 4,321 yards, tied Sam Howell’s single-season touchdowns record with 38, only threw 7 interceptions, and led the team in rushing, to the tune of winning ACC Player of the Year, Offensive Player of the Year, and Shaun Alexander Freshman of the Year honors. To the eye, he was even more impressive than that — After just one season, I can pretty confidently say Maye is the best quarterback to even wear Carolina Blue. He might not (yet) be UNC’s greatest because he’s only played for a year, but he’s playing the position at a level that hasn’t really been approached by any of his forebears.
Unfortunately, UNC’s end-of-season collapse didn’t really spare him; in UNC’s last four games, Maye completed just 57% of his passes for four touchdowns and four picks. To my eye, this was a combination of his hitting a rookie wall and opposing defenses spending more energy on keeping him in the pocket and letting him manufacture his own pressure. For his second and likely final season at UNC, he’ll hopefully have worked on his pocket footwork and conditioning as well as his ball security (Seven fumbles last year isn’t great); those are the three things I think kept him furthest from his ceiling last year. He could improve some other things, but those are a lot nitpickier. Ultimately, Drake Maye was already one of the best quarterbacks in college football, and his outlook for next season is basically more of the same. The real question, which we’ll be getting to as this series progresses, is what’s going to change around him to maximize what the program can get out of his singular greatness.
Connor Harrell also returns. The redshirt freshman has been quietly acclaimed in both offseasons he’s been in Chapel Hill and will be Maye’s backup this season. If he gets the opportunity to play in garbage-time situations, I hope he’ll be given the opportunity to throw the ball and let us and the coaches see what he can do in game situations before he’s presumably pressed into service next year — many fans, myself included, weren’t very happy with how similar situations were handled with Jacolby Criswell.
The big name here is Longo’s replacement, Chip Lindsey, who previously held the OC/QB coach title at UCF under Gus Malzahn. I wrote about Lindsey as an offensive coordinator here in January, and like Longo, he’ll get more coverage as a coach when this preview series gets to coaches. As a quarterbacks coach, Lindsey’s resume boasts the developments of Jarrett Stidham and Nick Mullens into NFL backups; Mullens was a two-star recruit out of high school. Both seemed like system quarterbacks to me in college, but there was obviously something right in their schooling to get both to stick in the NFL as they have.
Mack Brown also added Clyde Christensen to his staff as an offensive analyst. Christensen has spent a lot of time on NFL staffs, including 9 years as a quarterbacks coach for the likes of Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning, and late-career Tom Brady, and seems to have brought in expressly for the purpose of tutoring Maye. I have some doubts as to how much influence somebody with the title “Volunteer Offensive Analyst” is really going to have, but the name is big enough to merit a mention here.
I’m a broken record at this point, but this discussion really does begin and end with Drake Maye. With him at the helm, UNC’s outlook at the quarterback position is as positive as anybody else’s in the country. Some things have changed around him, most notably the offensive coordinator he’s playing for, but it’s really hard to see him regressing. I expect Maye to at least maintain his elite level of play and position himself to be one of the top 5 picks in next year’s NFL Draft, and that’s conservative. My only remaining question is how the rest of this team can coalesce around him.