The North Carolina Tar Heels open the 2023 season in primetime Saturday against their long-time rivals, South Carolina.
UNC comes into the game ranked and as a slight favorite over USC. The oddsmakers have this as one of the most competitive and intriguing matchups of Week 1.
On offense, the Gamecocks have some dangerous weapons. Antwane “Juice” Wells returns after a season he was recognized as a First-Team All-SEC player by the SEC Coaches, PFF, and Phil Steele.
Wells was the recipient of the Steve Spurrier Offensive MVP Award and stood out as the Gamecocks’ primary receiver, amassing 68 catches for 928 yards and six touchdowns. His performance eclipsed that of the next two receivers combined. He was third in the SEC with an average of 5.23 receptions per game and ranked fourth with an average of 71.38 receiving yards per game.
Junior quarterback Spencer Rattler had a great debut season with the Gamecocks, starting all 13 games and achieving an 8-5 record. He completed 264 out of 399 passes, a 66.2 percent completion rate, amassing 3,026 yards with 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He also showcased his versatility, rushing 73 times for 46 yards and scoring three times.
Rattler’s performance last season put him in the top-10 of the school’s all-time single-season record book in several categories: passing yards (6th), pass attempts (5th), pass completions (2nd), completion percentage (4th), and passing touchdowns (tied for 8th).
Rattler achieved this while Wells amassed less than 1,000 receiving yards as the top wideout. Rattler spread the ball around last season, but who will be the early season targets?
On the yards receiving list from 2022, South Carolina lost their next two receivers to the NFL and the next two to the transfer portal.
Junior Juju McDowell, who caught 24 passes for 205 yards last season, returns and is currently listed as the backup running back.
UNC fans will remember Dakereon Joyner, the MVP of the 2021 Mayo Bowl. Recruited as a dual-threat quarterback, Joyner was a wide receiver during the 2021 season until the bowl game. To that point, he came into the game having attempted only one pass that season and 31 in his college career.
In the spring, Joyner made a successful transition to the running back position, a move that saw him co-recipient of the spring Most Improved Award for offense. He has now earned the RB1 spot on the South Carolina depth chart.
Needless to say, the Tar Heels have to know that Joyner will be used in each of his three positions on Saturday night. The trickery is coming, and the Carolina defense must find ways to keep those efforts from becoming those back-breaking defensive miscues that have demoralized the team over the years.
The Gamecocks maintained a balanced attack last season, with nearly an equal number of average rushing and passing attempts each game.
However, the strength of the South Carolina offense is the passing game. Look for Rattler to rely on Wells, but the Tar Heels must be ready for any eligible receiver to be a target a some point during the game.
The UNC defensive backfield has a new look, and there is confidence in these players. The current squad did not have the recruiting acclaim as those that departed in the offseason, but these are hard-working players who have something to prove.
The most anticipated newcomer on defense is Alijah Huzzie. Huzzie is a seasoned defensive player with four years of experience at East Tennessee State. In 2022, as a redshirt sophomore, he started all 11 games. He earned first-team FCS All-America and All-SoCon honors and ranked 12th in the Buck Buchanan Award voting for the best defensive player in the FCS. His season stats included 59 tackles, 2.5 TFL, six interceptions, and 16 pass breakups. Notably, his 22 defended passes placed him at the top among all FCS players.
The Tar Heels will have some veteran leadership along with some young talent. Huzzie earned the starting corner spot, while senior Don Chapman and graduate student Gio Biggers were named as starting safeties. The star position will have junior DeAndre Boykins and running back turned safety DJ Jones as his backup.
The other corner spot may be where South Carolina will target the passing attack. Sophomore Marcus Allen and redshirt freshman Tayon Holloway are both listed in the starting position. Keep an eye on rotations and any substitutions on the near side corner.
South Carolina ranked 98th in total defense last season despite ranking 47th in passing defense. The Gamecocks struggled to stop the run last season, and this will be one of the most interesting storylines of the game.
UNC has a veteran offensive line with three graduate students, a redshirt senior, and a senior starting up front.
Quarterback Drake Maye was the leading rusher last season, and the Tar Heels return four of five running backs who carried the ball in 2022.
Graduate student British Brooks returns to the backfield after missing the entire 2022 season due to injury.
South Carolina head coach Shane Beamer agrees with slowing down the run. Via BigSpur in 24/7 Sports:
First of all for us, it always starts with stopping the run. If they can go out Saturday night and run the football, it is going to be a long night for us. If they are able to run the ball effectively and you have Drake Maye at quarterback. Every game, whether we are playing North Carolina or Furman, for us, it starts with stopping the run. There is no question that we will have to be able to corral him. I know it is cliché, but everybody just doing their job. We have to do a great job of tackling in space. That is another thing that shows up in game one of college football. The tackling because you are limited in how much you can do it in practice. We have to tackle well in space and stop the run. When he does throws, certainly, we have to be able to get pressure on him and our defensive backs have to do a great job against their talented receivers.
One of the hurdles for an effective run game Saturday will be senior defensive tackle Tonka Hemingway. Last season, Hemingway participated in all 13 games, starting nine of them. He was recognized as a second-team All-SEC player by Phil Steele and secured a place on the PFF Third Team All-SEC squad.
Hemingway amassed a total of 33 tackles and ranked second on the team with 8.0 tackles for loss and led the team with 4.0 sacks.
South Carolina has a mix of veterans and youngsters on defense, so it will be interesting to see where the UNC offense focuses its attention.
Preseason ranked. Kicking off the season against an SEC opponent in primetime.
Will it be the same ol’ song and dance for the Tar Heels, or can they kick off this season on a high note? Here’s to hoping for a promising start to the season.