The 2016 football regular season has come to an end, and the Tar Heels are not where they want to be as Bowl Season approaches. Four losses may look like a step in the wrong direction after their impressive run in 2015, but it’s important to remember that a lot of things went right for North Carolina this year. Some of it might have been expected, however, there were plenty of surprises that made this an exciting year for UNC football. Here are the three most important developments of the season:
Mitch Trubisky makes a name for himself
Heading into his first season as the starting quarterback, people expected good things from Trubisky. He had shown off an impressive arm in limited play last year, but this was his chance to take control, become the leader of the offense, and make the Tar Heels his team. As high as expectations were, though, I don’t think anyone saw coming the type of performance he ended up turning in.
It was a relatively smooth transition, despite some hiccups along the way. You can easily tell how well he did just by taking a look through the ACC stat leaders for the season. Feeding off his inherent arm strength, Trubisky proved to be one of the most pass-happy QBs in college football, finishing with 3,468 total passing yards on 281 completions, ranking second in both categories. Perhaps most impressive, though, was his efficiency, leading the conference with a completion percentage of 68.9% and 8.5 yards per attempt for fourth place on the season. It all came together to make him arguably the best quarterback in the ACC with a QB Rating of 161.
The incredible success he saw on the season turned into an absurd amount of hype that no one saw coming. Not only was he outperforming the competition inside his own conference, but he was actually holding his own on a national level. For a brief period of time, Trubisky found his way into the Heisman conversation after a particularly impressive run. The excitement soon died down as a longer sample size and some bad luck tossed him from consideration, but for a brief amount of time, Trubisky and UNC football was on top of the world. That’s something that went very right for the Tar Heels.
The receiver corps lives up to their billing
Heading into the season, everyone knew that North Carolina had some of the best receivers in college football assembled on one team. It was why many expected big things from Trubisky this year. As talented as he was, he had the teammates around him who could work well off of his strengths. We knew that Ryan Switzer would be front and center for much of the team’s offensive attack, but there were others who stepped up to turn the offense into a multi-dimensional strength.
Speaking of Switzer, the senior broke all sorts of career and single-season records in 2016. He managed to put together a career-high of 1,027 yards, ranking third overall in the ACC. He also finished out his final season with five touchdowns and 11.3 yards per carry on nearly 100 receptions. It might have looked even better if Mack Hollins’ injury hadn’t left Switzer at the mercy of double coverage in the second half of the season.
Thankfully, he wasn’t the only one putting up big numbers for the Tar Heels. Bug Howard had an impressive season where he stepped out from Switzer’s shadow to double his receiving yards from the previous year for a career-high 768 yards. Trubisky seemed to find him a lot, but he also did his part to earn an increasing number of touches as the season went on. He averaged 16 yards per carry and actually led to team with seven receiving touchdowns as the team’s trusted receiver who could bring the ball home.
Aside from big contributions from Switzer and Howard, there were some impressive performances to be seen elsewhere. Austin Proehl had a bit of a breakout junior season thanks to an increasing number of touches as the season went on. He took advantage of his 36 receptions by averaging 14.1 yards per carry while accumulating an impressive 506 yards with three touchdowns on the season. As a hybrid receiver and back, T.J. Logan also managed to contribute his fair share by reaching a career-high in receiving yards with three touchdowns added.
The defense steps up in a big way
The defense went into the season as the team’s clear weakness. Everyone knew that the offense had the potential to outscore any opponent, but they needed the defense to step up against the run and keep the team in the game. In the early goings of the season, the defense looked helpless against the run, however, in a surprise twist, they seemed to improve as the season went on. It wasn’t always perfect and it was definitely never sexy, but UNC’s defensive line actually managed to get the job done to some degree.
North Carolina saw big seasons from Andre Smith and Cole Holcomb, helping to soften the blow of losing Shakeel Rashad and Jeff Schoettmer from 2015. The team actually finished with three players with over 100 tackles after only two accomplished that feat the year before. Guys like Malik Carney and Mikey Bart also managed to play big roles in games almost on a regular basis.
While the offense was off getting the accolades, the defense was there making the stops that helped position the team for the impressive comeback wins against FSU and Pitt. They kept Miami, Virginia, and Georgia Tech fairly quiet in their matchups, and held off Duke to give the offense a fighting chance before Trubisky’s decisive interception. As it became clear just how much of a liability the offensive line had become, the defense did its job to keep UNC in the game on a regular basis (we’ll ignore the hurricane game for obvious reasons).
Regardless of where the Tar Heels finish out the year, there was a lot of good to come out of the 2016 season. Both players and fans should be proud of what this team did, and hopefully those who return for 2017 can build upon the success they saw this year. Whether that includes Trubisky or not.