UNC’s season is over. This is a literal statement, as the team officially cannot win 6 games and qualify for a bowl game, but it’s also a statement of mindset. Before halftime on Saturday, UNC football might have been beaten down, but they were playing with purpose. Not to go Bart Simpson on you, but if you rewind the tape, there’s a moment where all of that breaks: Cayson Collins’ unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after Virginia Tech’s fifth touchdown to close the half, and just the 2nd score the defense had allowed. There isn’t video of this penalty, but from that point on, the defense, which had been putting up a respectable performance to that point, just collapsed. Plenty has been written already about this concept, both here and elsewhere, but I say this because it makes a film review difficult.
UNC’s offense had already been broken beyond repair by a rash of injuries all along the line of scrimmage. There’s little point evaluating what we already know: Brandon Harris, who was brought in for experience, either has zero control of his arm or no field vision whatsoever, maybe both. Chazz Surratt, since successfully scrambling out of the reach of the Duke defense, has grown to distrust his protection to the point of not being able to execute the offense. He’s not unsalvageable, but any improvement he makes isn’t going to happen this year. The running backs are good and versatile, though they still need to improve in pass protection and Michael Carter needs to be more consistent. Anthony Ratliff-Williams is an incredible athlete but still learning to play receiver, and his hands are extremely inconsistent. He’s certainly got a knack for big plays, though:
A receiving group headlined by him and incoming freshmen Dyami Brown and Jordyn Adams, not to mention Dazz Newsome and Rontavious Groves having developed for a year, has really exciting potential. All three are incredible athletes. While Ratliff-Williams’ previous two receiving touchdowns were on deep balls where he used his surprisingly good ball-tracking and high-pointing skills to beat cornerbacks deep, this touchdown is more in line with his established ability as a kick returner. On a zone-beating dagger concept, Ratliff-Williams slows down his route just enough to give himself a hard plant to beat the linebacker coming across in coverage. From there, he finds the seam through the secondary and runs right through it; nobody on the Virginia Tech defense can catch him. The offensive line does a good job of not being pushed back on this quick pass play, and Jordon Brown sticks his man in blitz pickup. The offensive line doesn’t have to do much here, but they don’t fail. The pocket condenses around Surratt, but he is unfazed here. It helps that this is at most a two-read design and Surratt’s first read is wide open, but you can’t fault a guy for execution. It’s the kind of play that gives you hope for what he can do surrounded by playmakers.
But the defense is where the team was really making noteworthy plays this season. Take this, for example:
While UNC is in man coverage here, watch how the UNC defense, unlike the VT defense in the above play, creatively gives a rusher a free rush at the quarterback, plays tight on the quarterback’s hot read, and converges on the receiver to force the defensive stop. Even if this pass had somehow been completed, it would’ve been at most a 3-yard gain. The key to this play is redshirt freshman Tyrone Hopper. Lined up at right defensive end, he drops back to spy the quarterback, then makes a play in coverage as the ball reaches the receiver. This fake rush allows UNC to rush just four and still get a free rusher. I think it’s Cayson Collins who blitzes from his spot covering the tight end on the short side of the field, putting pressure on Josh Jackson and forcing him to throw into double coverage before hitting the grass. Collins will graduate this year. Hopper, however, will be at Carolina for some time to come, and if he can drop into coverage and not be a liability in the short field, the possibilities for the defense expand that much more. Tomon Fox and Jalen Dalton already look like they will anchor a strong line if it stays healthy, and seeing this kind of potential from Hopper is very encouraging.
We know about the back end of the defense, too. M.J. Stewart has been far and away the Heels’ best player not including the punter, but this will be his last year in a Carolina uniform. Behind him is, most notably, K.J. Sails, who has drawn attention both good and bad for his exuberant nature on the field despite a tumultuous season. He has definite shutdown potential, though. Look at this play:
Sails plays this perfectly. He doesn’t allow the receiver inside, first, and keeps his hips fluid so he can keep up with the receiver’s outside cut. From the snap to the end of the play, he never loses a step on Cam Phillips, one of the best receivers in the ACC. From there, Sails uses Phillips’ eyes to anticipate when the ball will come into reach. He turns with the receiver and gets on top of him, giving him no chance at catching the ball. The ball’s trajectoy isn’t great for a comeback route; it gives the cornerback time to catch up even when they have been beaten. That doesn’t matter here, though, as Sails is a step away from Phillips at all times and beats him over the top for position on the ball. He has taken his lumps this season, but it is plays like this that will transfer to his future seasons as he gains experience and takes on new responsibilities.
Saturday was a horrible day for UNC football. But even the worst performance has something to be taken from it. This season might be lost, but in its remains we see the building blocks for a team that won’t be down for long.