It was about midnight, November 12th, 2022 and the Tar Heels were on cloud nine. They had just completed a 36-34 win at Wake Forest, which clinched the final Coastal Division title, and were 9-1 overall with only loss to Notre Dame on their resume. They also had a dark horse Heisman candidate in Drake Maye. The redshirt freshman had shined in every game so far, and the offense was just humming to the tune of 40 points a game. The loss to Notre Dame had pretty much taken any chance of making the College Football Playoffs out of the equation, but they were still building to a special season.
They wouldn’t win another game.
The offense sputtered over the last four games, combined with the cracks that had been exposed on defense all season created perhaps the most disappointing nine win season you could ask for. The offense crashed to an average of 20.25 points a game over the last four, while the defense couldn’t hold teams under 21 points, and that was against a rebuilding Georgia Tech team.
Almost immediately after the ACC Championship game, Wisconsin made a surprising announcement that they were hiring Phil Longo to be their offensive coordinator. Then a ton of players from the UNC secondary announced they were transferring, which indicated something was up on that side as well. Sure enough Dre Bly announced he was moving on, and for the second season in a row, the UNC coaching staff was facing some pretty major remodeling.
Let’s take a dive into these changes for this preview of the 2023 UNC football season.
For all the talk we’re about to have of the changes, it’s worth noting the vast majority of the coaching staff returns from last season. This starts at the top with Mack Brown, now in his fifth season of second stint coaching the Tar Heels. He’s done what seemed tough back in 2019 — restore the expectations of the Tar Heels and set the bar high. Recruiting has been strong, and he’s had back-to-back star quarterbacks. He’s also not been afraid to shake things up, as you’ll see. It’s an open question about how long he’ll stay, but he doesn’t seem to be slowing down as he recently showed off a svelter figure, courtesy of cutting off the Diet Peach Snapple apparently.
The other main name returning is Gene Chizik, the head coach of the defense. Chizik stepped into a rough situation last year that apparently got worse during the season, and in diagnosing issues after the season it led to changes that we’ll get into. The pressure is on Chizik, arguably way more than Brown, to show the defense isn’t as bad as it showed last season. That’s because Chizik seemed to feel one area of the ball needed a new voice, while all the other defensive coaching staff remained. We’ll see if his diagnosis was correct.
Phil Longo was the first major domino to fall. As noted, a mere four days after the beat down in Charlotte, Wisconsin announced that Longo would be joining their staff under new coach Luke Fickell. It was a bit of a bombshell announcement that Long would essentially take a lateral move for a school that had made it’s name as a hand-in-the-dirt running squad. Eventually, offensive line coach Jack Bicknell also would move with Longo to the Badgers.
Akil Guruparan broke down the loss of Longo in that post, and it’s hard to overstate Longo’s importance in putting UNC Football back on the map immediately. His Air Raid offense has led to the immediate ascension of Sam Howell, who’s now going to be the starting quarterback for the Washington Commanders, as well as building a Heisman candidate and potential top-two NFL draft pick in Drake Maye. He’s also helped the likes of Michael Carter, Javonte Williams, and Josh Downs among others get drafted to play significant roles in the NFL. His offense was a highlight show from day one.
The problem with Longo is that the offense always seemed to sputter at the wrong times. For all of the joy it brought, there were multiple situations each season where the offense just didn’t produce at a time when it was needed. The real cracks started after the 2021 season when Howell, someone who had a ton of NFL buzz during the season, struggled to a 6-7 season. During the draft process, word started to leak out that NFL scouts were not very high on Longo’s offense, and those concerns played out to where Howell bafflingly dropped to a fifth-round pick. That, combined with Longo’s inability to secure a head coaching job indicated he needed to have a near-spotless 2022 season in order to advance. He was on his way after that win at Wake Forest.
The tide soured dramatically over the last three weeks. The offense only managed 17 points against a bad Georgia Tech Squad, and they needed two overtimes to score 27 points against NC State, losing on a missed kick. Almost all of the bad tendencies — predictability, poor red zone play, and running issues — cropped up during that stretch, and when the change was announced it was met with a collective “Good” by the Tar Heel faithful. Longo now tries to show his offense can turn around one of the most boring offensive teams in the Big Ten.
Also lost on the offensive side was John Lilly, who was the run game coordinator and coached the tight ends. While the run game wasn’t great last season, Lilly is bringing his decades of coaching experience to join Frank Reich’s staff on the Carolina Panthers.
On the other side of the ball, new defensive czar Gene Chizik used the 2022 season to try and teach wholesale changes, and clearly there were struggles. Specifically, the secondary could be counted on to let the other team convert a pass when they needed to, and multiple four and five star recruits seemed to stagnate after seasons at the school. The Tar Heels finished 2022 ranked 116th in total defense out of 131 teams, 128th in opposing first down conversions, 96th in 3rd down conversions, 79th in interceptions, and 116th in passing yard allowed. Some of this was due to injuries that ate at the depth, but mostly it was clear the secondary just wasn’t cutting it.
Thus, Dre Bly became the fall guy as the failure to get recruits to improve outweighed his recruiting prowess. I talked about this in the secondary preview as his exit also led to several cornerbacks entering the transfer portal. His departure is the only exit on the defensive side, as apparently Chizik felt that was the sole area of the field that needed to see change to improve. We’ll see.
In comes Chip Lindsey to run the offense. Akil also did a comprehensive breakdown back in January to give us an idea of what to expect from him. Lindsey’s history seems to be a more ground-based attack with screens, which isn’t as fun as the Air Raid but also might be seen as more of a pro-prep style offense. Some are skeptical of the move, as he hasn’t shown a propensity to develop NFL-style QB’s, but the counter argument is that he’s never had a talent quite like Drake Maye. There’s also a thought that Lindsey isn’t going to do wholesale changes so much as add some wrinkles to Maye’s skillset and then start fresh once Maye is in the NFL next year.
Adding to that thought is who Brown brought in to replace Lilly for the tight ends and run game, former NFL head coach Freddie Kitchens. While Kitchens didn’t have a ton of success leading the Browns, he brings a wealth of NFL experience to the Tar Heels and should be able to work with Lindsey to develop what pro teams are looking for in talent. On top of that, Clyde Christensen joins as an offensive analyst. The name may not be familiar, but his last job was the quarterbacks coach of Tampa Bay, basically meaning he was Tom Brady’s hand picked guy to work with. He also spent fourteen seasons in Indianapolis, two of which were being Peyton Manning’s offensive coordinator. With these additions, it’s clear that Brown is focusing on maximizing Maye’s NFL draft stock, so it does seem unlikely we’ll see a complete change in the offense this season.
The coach Chizik brought in to replace Bly is another lifer, Jason Jones. Unlike Bly, who had the NFL playing experience, Jones isn’t seen as an up and coming coach but one who’s grounded in college and consistently produces quality players. As I mentioned in the secondary preview, between this hire and the transfers, it signals a “back to basics” approach to that section of the field, as Jones has experience working with secondary coach Charlton Warren.
There was another addition, this one another analyst. Ted Monachino. He’s another coaching lifer with several years experience in the NFL, most recently of Atlanta and won a Super Bowl with Baltimore. Whether or not these two additions are going to be enough to improve a horrible defense to merely mediocre is to be seen.
Last year, Akil noted that the 2022 season felt like an inflection point based on the talent that had been brought in, and in a weird way it feels like 2023 may be the same. Maye’s ascendance and the hot start quelled any talk of Brown needing to go, but the defensive tire fire from the start made the 0-4 ending sting when the offense dried up. Coaches paid the price for that ending, the question is whether it was enough.
The pressure is on the staff to deliver immediately, with an opening slate of South Carolina, App State, and Minnesota. The hope here is that the “back to basics” approach on both sides of the ball will be able to bring the defense from “horrible” to “mediocre” while the offense can throw in a few wrinkles to both elevate Maye’s profile and be able to succeed in the red zone. There’s momentum from recruiting to show the coaches have made their mark, but can they show it on the field?