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UNC vs Minnesota: Position Grades, Part One: Offense

A key player’s return from injury makes things look a lot better for the Heels

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 16 Minnesota at North Carolina Photo by Lee Coleman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I’m not going to say that watching UNC’s game against Minnesota was altogether comfortable, but it was certainly an improvement over the cardiac event that was the App game. Things got a little dicey in the third quarter, but ultimately, the Heels led for the last 57 minutes of the game, most of the time by multiple scores, and weren’t ever seriously threatened by a Minnesota team that at times looked imposing but just didn’t have the juice. Let’s run through the position groups, offense first, and see how the Heels did en route to 3-0.

Quarterback: B+

Last week, I said I thought Drake Maye wasn’t being given enough responsibility for this team to be at its best. That certainly wasn’t the case this week, as with the run game being mostly bottled up, Maye threw all over the Golden Gophers, going 29/40 for 414 yards and 2 touchdown passes. That 10.4 yards per attempt mark absolutely clears the respectable 8.4 Maye hit against South Carolina and his pedestrian 6.9 against App, and the difference was clear on the field as well, with Maye looking early and often to make multiple reads and go downfield even when it wasn’t the intention of the play. The difference in Maye as a passer from the first two games of the season was stark and welcome to see. I could complain about over half of his targets going to Nate McCollum, but the results of those targets were positive so often that I’m not going to, and besides, Maye ended up hitting 8 receivers on the day anyways, including 4 different receivers for passes of at least 38 yards.

There were some blemishes on his stat sheet, though, none more prominent than his two interceptions in quick succession in the second quarter. The first was a mistake of youthful arrogance; Maye thought he could zip a pass past an undercutting defensive back and got punished. The second looked a lot uglier, as Maye sailed it to where there was only a Minnesota defender waiting as he was getting hit — according to Mack Brown’s postgame comments, he was trying to get it out of bounds but couldn’t get enough on it, probably because he was getting hit. Those are the kind of inexperienced mistakes you expect to see from even elite young quarterbacks but that we didn’t see a lot of from Maye last year — I’m not really sure what to do with that juxtaposition. More worrying to me is that quite a few of the things that Maye was doing at an elite level last year he’s only doing very well this year. His ball placement has been good enough, but we’ve seen it be better, especially deep down the field. On multiple occasions, he broke out of clean pockets and forced plays off-script when they didn’t seem to need to be; even if most of those plays ended up with positive results, the process isn’t ideal. Maybe he’s just still getting used to a new scheme, system, and quarterback coach, but it’s worth keeping an eye on. Meanwhile, when your guy’s hitting a 101 NFL passer rating and going for over 400 yards at 10 yards an attempt and 73% accuracy and you’re complaining that he’s been better, you know you have something special.

Running Backs: C+

With Omarion Hampton and British Brooks both fully available, they were deployed pretty interchangeably against Minnesota. Hampton slightly out-carried Brooks 13 to 11 and received 2 targets to Brooks’ 1 in the passing game, and both were readily used in pass protection. That’s a change from what we saw last time both were available, when Brooks was clearly the first- and third-down back and Hampton came in on rushing downs. Both backs were fairly well bottled up by the Gophers, with Hampton rushing for 46 yards and a touchdown and Brooks earning just 25 yards and a score as well. Hampton’s yardage also was inflated by a 17-yard play created by a backwards swing pass that represented UNC’s only real attempt to take the run game outside against a stacked box, so the difference between the two wasn’t as stark as the numbers make it look. I’m not dinging them too harshly because there wasn’t really any room to run and they did at least consistently go forward and avoid wasting downs. Both also held up admirably in pass protection, giving Maye space and time to roll away from any pressure he felt.

Receivers: A

Welcome to Chapel Hill, Nate McCollum! In his first game unrestricted by a groin injury that kept him out of Game 1 altogether and off the field in Game 2 save for about 4 snaps, McCollum was the target of Drake Maye’s first 8 passes on a combination of every type of target imaginable: manufactured touches at and behind the line of scrimmage, clearouts where he burned the defender, intermediate routes where he got open in the middle of the field and on the sidelines, quick-hitters for an easy 5-6 yards, you name it. While Maye invited others to the party as the game went on, McCollum was the star of the show throughout, finishing with 15 catches for 165 yards and a touchdown, which put him second in UNC history for catches in a single game (the record 16 is jointly held by Ryan Switzer, Quinshad Davis, and Charlie Carr). He was impressive on tape, too, showing a level of polish to his catching technique and route-running that I didn’t expect given his reputation as a yards-after-catch merchant. His 46-yard touchdown catch through contact after a filthy double move and a toe-dragging snag for a first down were the highlights, but the traits were evident on basically every catch.

His supporting cast played the part ably. Targeting guys not named Nate McCollum, Maye was 14/15 for 249 yards and a score. Most notable was probably Bryson Nesbit, who I was glad to see get a little more usage than in the past couple of weeks, and who secured Maye’s other touchdown reception on a nifty fake-screen playcall. He caught all 4 of his targets for 46 yards, reliably moving the chains. Fellow tight end Kamari Morales took advantage of a coverage bust to reel in a 55-yard bomb from Maye en route to a 1-yard touchdown run by Hampton. J.J Jones and Gavin Blackwell were also on the receiving end of deep balls from Maye, for 39 and 38 yards respectively. Kobe Paysour, whom I called on as one of the receivers who needed to continue to make plays, was pretty quiet with McCollum mainly receiving from his position in the slot. His only catch went for four yards, and he was the only non-McCollum receiver to not catch one of his targets.

Offensive Line: B-

A week after steamrolling an App State that seemed to have gameplanned to make somebody other than Drake Maye beat them, the UNC offensive line had its hands full with a physical Minnesota front that looked committed to stopping the run. Even so, Minnesota allowed 4.9 yards per carry to Nebraska and 3.7 to Eastern Michigan, both teams with anemic passing attacks, so the Heels’ 2.8 mark against a team that was getting diced through the air is at least a bit of a red flag. I won’t go completely down on the OL, though, because they were able to get short, positive yardage when it mattered. Two QB sneaks on leverage downs were successful, both touchdown runs came from a yard out, and the Heels killed the last four minutes of the game with rushes of 3,5,4,1,7, and 2 yards. That’s a refreshing change from last year. It’s also worth noting that Willie Lampkin was a late injury scratch from the lineup, and he’s been UNC’s best lineman so far this year although I’ve found that his missteps have been a little more catastrophic than those of the guys next to him. Ed Montilus filled in for him and was notably the weakest link on the line, but obviously wasn’t a disaster.

In pass protection, the line was probably the best it’s been so far this year. Maye was rarely under duress and had room to run if he felt the pocket was condensing beyond his liking. The Minnesota defense officially was given 4 hurries and 2 sacks, and one of those sacks was just down to Maye getting into space and not seeing the lineman close in on him. There were a couple of hiccups, including the pressure that led to Maye’s second pick, but this is the kind of performance you’re happy with every week from an offensive line.