College football season has nearly come and gone. Pending the National Championship on Monday, most programs have their eyes set on 2024 and what’s ahead. North Carolina falls amongst that large majority, and the current landscape of collegiate athletics creates more chatter in the offseason than we have ever seen. The transfer portal, NFL Draft, NIL, and conference realignment are just a few examples of what keeps everyone, including some players, on their toes.
I will pass on telling the story of the Tar Heels in 2023. What I will nosh on, however, is what might be in front of Mack Brown and UNC. I want to tie a bow on what was a year of triumphant victories and demoralizing losses. To do that, digesting the good and the bad of North Carolina can hint at what’s ahead, and, more importantly, what should be ahead.
This train has already left the station, as the Tar Heels parted ways with defensive coordinator Gene Chizik and defensive line coach Tim Cross yesterday. Ted Monachino, former defensive analyst, has already been named the replacement for the DL position. Whoever it may be, there will be a new defensive mind for North Carolina in 2024. It feels like this was long overdue, and this hire is arguably the most crucial decision for UNC all offseason.
The seat is undoubtedly hot for other position coaches, but even if no one else is let go, I would love to see some reshuffling of the staff. The special teams room needs to be an extreme emphasis of Mack this offseason, and however he plans to go about it, I recommend he do something completely different than what we saw this past season.
The success that some of the staff continues to have, even while other staffers display the exact opposite, is mind-boggling. It goes without saying, but there should be some focus on keeping particular coaching weapons in-house and not searching elsewhere.
North Carolina has lost seventeen players to the transfer portal and eight to the NFL Draft. As of today, they have only managed to land five commits out of the portal for next season. It’s early in the entirety of the transfer calendar, but the Tar Heels need to be active in a big way if they want to be competitive in 2024.
In my eyes, a successful offseason in this regard doesn’t mean bringing in twenty or more new faces. It’s ensuring that the ones brought in are crucial pieces to the future. UNC already has 26 signees in the incoming freshman class, so bodies aren’t necessarily an issue. Experience and talent, on the other hand, may be.
If Mack Brown can go out and get more guys like Alijah Huzzie, Tez Walker, and others from the transfer portal, there won’t be so much concern over the significant losses from 2023. Proven impact players are scarce in Chapel Hill, and with the way college football rolls, that’s how you get them.
I am not in the locker room, on the field, or anything other than a spectator and analyst when it comes to North Carolina football. That said, I can’t ignore the antics and continuous messages I get from those on the inside. Back-to-back late-season collapses with loads of talent aren’t always about X’s and O’s; it can also be about motivation and culture.
We know by now that the Tar Heels will break our hearts in dramatic fashion. I can live with that. What I can’t swallow is the consistent patterns, issues, and trajectory of a program with lots of pieces to be successful. When Sam Howell and UNC took Clemson down to the last play as four-touchdown underdogs in 2019, something implied the message to ‘watch out’ because North Carolina football was coming.
That vibe seems extinct. You don’t get punked by your rivals three years in a row with that mentality. You don’t apologize in press conferences for comments with that mentality. You don’t settle for eight-win seasons with that mentality. You don’t continue to admit being unprepared in losses with that mentality. You do something about it. Do I need to continue?
There is a lull somewhere in the program, and I’ll let you draw that conclusion yourself regarding what exactly it is. An elite culture doesn’t do the things that UNC football does, and that starts from the top down.
Who will be the Tar Heels starting quarterback? Conner Harrell and Max Johnson are both in the conversation.
Sam Howell and Drake Maye are no longer in Chapel Hill — can the staff adjust? Two generational quarterbacks have come and gone, and unfortunately, we no longer have the luxury of watching them (other than on Sundays). Can a team that’s been used to such firepower under center rescheme to fit a new signal caller? We’ll see.
How will the defense react to the personnel turnover? Can the return of Kaimon Rucker and Alijah Huzzie be a baseline for success?
There’s so much to watch for and expect in what should be an interesting off-season for North Carolina. These questions, and so many more, will guide the direction of a program at a crossroads.