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UNC vs. Appalachian State: Position Grades

Coming back down to Earth after Week 1.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 09 Appalachian State at North Carolina Photo by Nicholas Faulkner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Everybody get a good night’s sleep? Hearts functioning okay? Cool, me neither. After looking like a team that could put away mediocre competition last week, the same wasn’t true of the UNC Tar Heels this week, as they for the third time in three games played a game against Appalachian State that came down to the final play. For the second straight time, they managed to come out on top, but a double-overtime home win against a Sun Belt team against whom the Heels were three-touchdown favorites doesn’t feel all that great. Let’s break down the performances by position and see if we can identify the sources of that feeling, shall we?

Quarterback: A-/Incomplete

We start off with what I think has been the focal point of most UNC fans’ thoughts since the game ended; it’s certainly been the main topic of discussion I’ve seen online. Drake Maye did just about everything he was asked to do, and perfectly at that. He had a couple of throws to the flat go a little behind the receiver and I thought he missed Bryson Nesbit going towards the sideline on the two-point conversion that was UNC’s last offensive play. But I guess when you throw like 15 passes to the flat, you can’t be perfect on all of them. Maye’s final passing line read 21/30 for 208 yards with no picks or scores, and looked a lot worse before the offense got into catch-up-or-die mode and actually let him sling it around a little. A play-action bomb to J.J. Jones for 57 yards on the Heels’ last scoring drive in regulation is really the only thing that made Maye’s line look anywhere near acceptable. Maye also made some plays with his legs, including taking in the Heels’ final score of extra time himself from 13 yards out — he finished with 57 yards rushing.

I hesitate to give Maye a real grade because so many of his attempts were functionally handoffs. His arm strength made it so Chip Lindsey could ask him to throw it to the flat either to the boundary or to the field, but either way, until the game’s last 3 drives, he was seldom asked to be a real quarterback, which is pretty frustrating for those of us who have seen what Drake Maye can do. He did everything right; it’s just that “everything” wasn’t what you’d expect for the country’s best passer.

Running Backs: A

Welcome back, Omarion Hampton. Last year, he started the year with some promise as a bellcow back before being benched — I thought it was for his fumbling problem, but UNC’s coaches have maintained that it was because he was running with his head down, so to speak. With the absence of British Brooks due to injury, Hampton simply took over this game, taking 26 carries for a whopping 234 yards and three touchdowns. He announced his presence early when he put his foot in the ground and raced untouched for a 68-yard score, and throughout the game continued to gash the Mountaineer defense for positive gains, showing off his acceleration to the hole and his physicality on contact. I’ll be interested to see how carries are managed if and when Brooks comes back healthy. Behind him, Caleb Hood took a couple of carries and did okay, with the highlight being a walk-in touchdown of his own.

Receivers: B-

The undemanding nature of so many of Drake Maye’s passes both made his receivers’ baseline jobs very easy and asked a lot of them to elevate the gameplan. They accomplished the baseline jobs, mostly, but there wasn’t a lot of elevating. There weren’t a ton of yards after the catch, even on plays that were designed for it, as UNC receivers routinely got run through by App’s secondary when they tried to block on the perimeter. Kobe Paysour had a sneakily effective game, with 8 catches for 73 yards including two consecutive grabs on the last drive of regulation to move the chains and get his team into field goal range. J.J. Jones had the aforementioned long ball and led the team in receiving yards with 91 on 5 catches, but also had a drop — an issue he’s going to have to iron out.

With John Copenhaver wearing a club, Kamari Morales and Bryson Nesbit each missed out on touchdown opportunities — Morales dropped a pass that was slightly behind him with nobody around him and ~15 yards to the end zone, and Nesbit made a catch in the back of the end zone but was ruled to have touched down just too deep.

Offensive Line: B

Well, when the offense runs for over 300 yards, the offensive line is probably doing something right. The line was particularly effective at washing the App defensive front out away from the left tackle, and going over that position was how Hampton got most of his big gainers. On every neutral down that Lindsey decided to run the ball, his line got movement up front and created some positive yards before the runners had to do anything. They didn’t manage as successfully in short yardage, but part of that is on silly playcalling rather than their own foibles — though I did see both William Barnes and Willie Lampkin get straight-up run over by run-pursuing interior D-linemen. In pass protection, they weren’t often tested because the ball was out of Maye’s hands so quickly, but when they did have to hold up for longer than two seconds, it was a mixed bag. Maye was under pressure a handful of times and took two sacks, which is a decent number for 30 attempts but not very good at all for the ~15 that mattered.

Defensive Line: B

This feels weird for a defense that allowed 219 yards on the ground at 5.0 yards per carry, but I thought the job was pretty decently done in the trenches. Jahvaree Ritzie got consistent penetration, Beau Atkinson collapsed the line of scrimmage pretty well on early downs, Des Evans was a force in the run game with 6 tackles and a share of a tackle for loss to go with a batted pass, and App quarterback Joey Aguilar had to navigate quite a few condensed pockets throughout the game, as the UNC defense finished with 9 hurries without recording a sack. On the downside, other than Evans, not a ton of the UNC D-line was finishing plays on Saturday night; nobody else on the line had more than 3 total tackles, let alone solo stops. Executing the bare minimum and getting pressure are an improvement from what we saw last year, so it’s good that we’re continuing to see that, but I’m still waiting on this unit to become a force instead of a cog.

Linebackers: C

That may have been the worst game I’ve seen from a UNC linebacking unit in a while. Cedric Gray’s team-leading 11 tackles feel much much emptier than his stats usually do, as only a couple of times was he really making an impact play rather than finishing up a play that had already gone for too much yardage. His running mate Power Echols had an even worse time, with his weakness in pass coverage being exposed at times and most of his tackles being made well downfield. With App State attacking the tackles on the majority of their runs, it was up to the linebackers to set the edge and funnel their backs inside, and too often, it just didn’t happen, and Nate Noel had a convoy to the sideline for a sizeable gain. This was exemplified in the first overtime, where Noel waltzed through bad angles and poor effort at the second level of the defense for runs of 6, 12, and 7 yards, the last for a score. Kaimon Rucker, after a whale of a game last week, was nearly invisible in this game, putting pressure on Aguilar a couple of times but otherwise not making his presence felt on every snap.

Secondary: B

A real mixed bag here. On the bright side, Marcus Allen and Alijah Huzzie, billed as UNC’s top two cornerbacks who would give the defense’s back end a huge boost this year, mostly lived up to that hype. Allen had three pass breakups and a near-pick, playing fast and physical. He had a couple of slips, but he’s still young. He also was on the wrong end of two circus catches by App receivers, but what can you do? Huzzie had a quieter night, but still with a couple of nice plays, until the second overtime, where on the pivotal 4-down sequence, he broke up and nearly picked a pass on first down, made a strong open-field tackle on second down, and then made sure the receiver felt him in coverage on 4th down, inducing a flop and the game-sealing incompletion.

On the not-so-bright side, they’re only two of a 4-5 man unit, and the rest of that unit struggled mightily. D.J. Jones started the game at Star (nickel corner/third safety) and made a couple of impact plays as a blitzer and force player in the run game, but got victimized in coverage early and played much less as the game went on. Huzzie moved to Star and held up well, but that put youngster Tayon Holloway at outside corner, and the coaches’ lack of trust in him to play press led to a lot of third down conversions that were reminiscent of last year. Huzzie was also clearly a lot more impactful as an outside corner than in the slot. The safety play from a couple of veterans in Don Chapman and Gio Biggers was up and down, too. Chapman did have a savvy pick and the pair did stop a few deep completions from happening, but they also got roasted a fair few times, including for a passing touchdown that gave App a 17-10 lead in the third quarter. Biggers let an over route go past him across the field in a Middle-Of-Field-Open package — that just can’t happen.

Special Teams: C-

We’ll go ahead and address the elephant in the room to start: Ryan Coe, brought in as a grad transfer specifically to address UNC’s problem from last year of missing too many short field goals, missed badly on what would’ve been a game-winning 39-yarder as time expired. I do cut him a little slack, because not only did some shoddy refereeing keep him waiting to kick much longer than even an icing timeout would have, but it also changed where he was expecting to kick from, from the left hash to the middle of the field. But both his practice kick and the real thing were missed so badly that one can’t help but be a little extra skeptical, particularly because your grad transfers are supposed to be the guys on the team who have seen it all. Coe did convert a 47-yarder and a 31-yarder earlier in the game and managed to kick a penalty-advanced kickoff through the uprights, which doesn’t count but is pretty cool. Elsewhere, Ben Kiernan put both his punts inside the 20 for fair catches.

The other stuff was a little strange. App appeared to come into the game with a plan to kickoff short, perhaps hoping to catch UNC off guard and recover the live ball, or perhaps just to induce returns and thus more opportunities to hit. The Heels didn’t have any problems fielding these kicks, but it certainly looked like Caleb Hood had a couple of opportunities to return kicks from the 15-20 yard lines and cover maybe 15 yards before he’d have had to negotiate traffic — he fair caught them instead. He did make a nice catch on his last opportunity, as App’s kicker skied one that landed at the 25 with App players not so far away. Hood slid under it and collected it safely. App tried one kickoff return with the dangerous Milan Tucker, and he took it 41 yards, which is also concerning.

Coaching: C-

For much of the first half, this team was just beating itself. It’s probably been talked about enough, but Chip Lindsey called two running back direct snaps in short-yardage situations that both got stuffed and ended good-looking drives. Personally, I’m of the opinion that unless your running back can throw, he shouldn’t be receiving a snap. The Wildcat worked for, like, a year in 2008 and then defensive coaches realized that it can only be a run over either guard and it’s been a losing play every since. Just because it got 5ish yards against an increasingly hapless-looking South Carolina defensive front last week doesn’t change that.

With the Mountaineers basically on their own goal line facing third and 12 early in the game, they called a white flag play, running into the line just to make sure they wouldn’t get a safety. Kevin Hester, with the running back wrapped up at the line of scrimmage, stuck his hand into Noel’s facemask, gifting App 15 yards, the first down, and the impetus for the drive that gave App the first score of the game. UNC was called for about four high-leverage penalties throughout the game, all directly affecting scoring opportunities, most notably a holding call negating a third-down conversion late on a drive that could have put the Heels up multiple scores.

Then there’s the actual gameplanning side of things. I am already getting tired of this discourse, so let me say this up front: I have absolutely no problem with an offensive coordinator, especially in college football, seeing the run game eat up over 7 yards per carry and deciding to spam it the whole game until it gets stopped. Lindsey saw that his line was overpowering App’s and called a game accordingly, and that’s completely fine. My issue is what he was doing to complement it. The passing game was shackled to an unreasonable and unnecessary degree, consisting mostly of single-read tosses to the flat that let the App defense stifle pass plays for 3 or fewer yards multiple times and completely removed the UNC quarterback’s preternatural field-reading ability from the equation. A good offensive coordinator maximizes his players, and I couldn’t help but think that Chip Lindsey’s scheme was minimizing his best. We’ll see if that trend continues in future weeks.

On defense, Gene Chizik is still Gene Chizik. His defense is full of inconsistently performing parts that don’t mesh together, and while this App game was better than last year’s, a lot of the hallmarks of what we saw throughout last year remained — maddeningly soft cushions to the boundary when quick throws would get first downs, linebackers on islands in coverage who weren’t prepared to cover, and a near-refusal to set the edge in the run game. App State’s offense was just as potent as UNC’s for much of the game, with a quarterback who was completing just over 50% of his passes. That’s just unacceptable.

Add some absolutely maddening clock management of the kind that’s become a UNC hallmark the past 5 years to end both halves, and this was a game to forget from the UNC sidelines — but I guess that’s to be expected when you take two overtimes to beat a 3-score underdog at home.