If asked to describe the 2017 North Carolina football season in seven words, one might say “injuries, inexperience, pain, and fourth quarter collapses.” The Heels had a rough go of it from the jump. One could easily argue they were set up for failure due to the departure of 98% of the 2016 offense—and defensive coordinator Gene Chizik.
There’s no way to sugarcoat 3-9; it was ugly. Looking back on it, however, the Heels were competitive in nine games, the team never (edit: maybe in Blacksburg) quit despite overwhelming circumstances, and the dumpster fire that was the 2017 season just needs a quick hosing to be extinguished.
What went wrong?
Well, a good bit.
Injuries are a good place to start— on offense, the Heels lost Bentley Spain for most of September in the first half of the opener, and then William Sweet for the season in game 3. They never played a game with both of their bookend tackles. Austin Proehl was the only competent receiver when he broke his collarbone vs. Duke, and Thomas Jackson’s non-contact ACL injury in the Old Dominion apocalypse cost the Heels all of their experience in the slot. The next week, Toe Groves debuted, showed a great ability to get open, and...you guessed it. Done.
Okay, so maybe Duke was the apocalypse game after all. Carl Tucker led the team in receiving in the ODU win, and was asserting himself as a weapon. He did not appear after the close loss to Duke. His colleague Brandon Fritts was in and out of the lineup.
In addition to the season-enders, we never saw Tommy Hatton, Jared Cohen, or Stanton Truitt (all projected on the two-deep) for various reasons. In total, the Heels were down an entire starting offensive line for the whole season— and that led to a revolving door of injured quarterbacks, as well.
Oh, the defense was not immune. Andre Smith was on the way to an All-ACC-caliber breakout before he was lost for the season vs. ODU. Getting three games from the leader of your defense is never great. Tyler Powell plans to apply for a sixth year of eligibility after getting rolled up against Duke. The lack of depth on the interior line and at linebacker reared its ugly head on Saturday in Raleigh, did it not (especially without leading tacklers Cayson Collins and Cole Holcomb, in addition to backup Ayden Bonilla)?
Losing Smith’s leadership hurt, but losing four-year starter Donnie Miles after game six was heartbreaking. Myles Wolfolk and J.K. Britt filled in capably, but the secondary missed its enforcer. Corey Bell Jr. started two games as the Nickel, and was lost for the season.
Tl;dr: that could have been the whole post right there.
The Heels were truly competitive into the second half of every game, save Virginia Tech. By my count, the Heels blew a lead in the final 20 minutes of play in five games: Cal, Louisville, Duke, Virginia, and N.C. State. They held the ball in plus-territory with a chance to win against potential playoff team Miami. The Georgia Tech and Notre Dame games were scoreboard-competitive until third quarter collapses.
Consider, if you will:
Cal: Up 17-7, Jalen Dalton gets a targeting penalty on a 3rd and 18 in the second quarter with Cal pinned deep in its own territory. Don’t make that play, and the Heels have a chance to go up three scores from midfield prior to halftime. Probably a win.
Louisville: Lamar Jackson happened, man. Probably never should’ve been up in this one.
Duke: A hapless first half offense was saved by two Surratt-to-ARW bombs, and the Heels held a lead for much of the second half. Two red-zone trips netted the Tar Heels a TOTAL of three points, the defense wore down, and Chazz Surratt threw the worst interception I’ve ever seen to seal it.
Georgia Tech: It was a 7-0 game for the whole second quarter, 10-0 at half, and another Surratt pick broke the Heels’ will.
Virginia: Michael Carter’s breakout was spoiled by heinous tackling on an 80-yard game-TD scamper by the Hoos. Brandon Harris having a positive quarterback rating in this game probably puts it in the W column. (Note: I’m not positive if one can have a negative QB Rating, but if ever there were a game for one...)
Miami: Four second-half turnovers and the nauseating turnover chain. Bleh.
State: If the Heels offense got a first down in the third quarter, I missed it. Without its top five linebackers in Raleigh, the defense was gassed by the time Nyheim Hines broke loose and turned the game in the Pack’s favor.
The law of averages dictates that teams win roughly half of their close games. The Heels...did not do that in 2017.
Questionable Coaching Decisions
Teams who win more than half of their close games are the ones with a little more poise. Poise comes from the coaching staff. Consider:
- Nathan Elliott did not appear until the seventh game of the season. It was abundantly clear that, while he has his limitations, he had the best grasp of the offense of any quarterback on the roster.
- We still don’t know who’s in charge of calling plays for the offense, and that’s a problem. Co-OC Chris Kapilovic, who is in charge of the most scholarship players on the roster, alluded to the fact that he may be stretched too thin. Ya think?
- Twitter friend Michael Felder of Bleacher Report once said, “shotgun is for beers, birds, and home invaders, not touchdowns inside the five.” The Heels left some serious meat on the bone in the red zone, namely in the near-upset of Miami.
- Don’t get me started on the safety against Notre Dame. In the stands, I (seriously) laughed until I cried. Or cried until I laughed. I’m not sure.
- Fully cognizant of the fact that Fedora’s M.O. is tempo, it appears that he got away from helping keep the defense off the field for whole quarters at a time. Too many times we witnessed three-and-outs that not only seemed to lack a plan, but also ran maybe 20 seconds of time off the clock. When it works, the HUNH is thrilling to watch and impossible to defend. When it doesn’t...ease off the pedal and let your defense (which, I’ll remind you, Fedora said would have to carry this year’s team) try to win you football games.
Having said all that, I’m not one to scream “FIRE FEDORA” from the most convenient mountaintop. But after six years, it would be nice to see greater dedication to situational awareness from the head coach.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Again, one 3-9 season when replacing 98% of your calling card unit does not a coaching firing make. The people who would argue with me, please explain in the comments the law of supply and demand, and apply it to the current coaching climate.
The Heels had a run of bad luck, starting with Elijah Hood’s somewhat baffling decision to turn pro. The injuries have been well-documented, the Heels gave up scores after undisciplined play or boneheaded officiating would have turned the opponent over in three separate close games (Cal, Miami, State). According to S&P+, their -6 turnover margin cost them an average of 3.35 points per game. That’s within the margin of error enough to allow you to squint and see this as a team that could’ve been lucky and won 6 or 7.
Moving forward, the first change we HAVE to see is fresh blood at the offensive coordinator position. Only Kapilovic knows how he would take a demotion back to OL coach, but the “OC3” thought experience has been an abject failure for two years. I hit on this in the preseason, but the 2016 offense was disappointing, both from a points-per-game and a yards-per-play perspective. As one expects, it was worse this year, but consider: Seth Littrell inherited a 1-11 North Texas program and has them playing for the C-USA championship on Saturday. Blake Anderson could clinch a share of his third Sun Belt title with a win, and could be in line for a P5 job.
Fedora knows how to identify coaching talent. Helping OC’s get promoted to head roles makes talented guys want to work for you. Go find somebody.
The defense was more attacking and aggressive as promised, but big plays became too commonplace. The Heels slipped from 19th to 90th in explosive plays allowed, as coverage busts, abysmal tackling, and a few Heisman contenders reared their ugly heads all too often. It will continue to be a matter of talent acquisition and development on that side of the ball, but there are plenty of young players (Tomon Fox, Jason Strowbridge, Jonathan Smith, Myles Wolfolk) who showed promise in their first extended looks. The 2018 defense needs about 8 more guys to emerge.
The coaching staff (and hopefully new offensive coordinator) will need spring practice and most of fall camp to figure out what the heck it is they’re going to do at quarterback. To my eye, there’s nobody on the roster that feels like an All-ACC candidate at any point in his career, so...COACH EM UP! It would be lovely if Willie Taggart left Oregon for Florida State and Tyler Shough recommitted to the Heels.
Whomever the signal caller is, he will have immense talent at his disposal. The O-line should stabilize, Anthony Ratliff-Williams blossomed into a star late in the year, Thomas Jackson and Carl Tucker return as safety valves, and newcomers Jordyn Adams and Dyami Brown are the type of recruits at receiver that win teams championships. The backs all return, and we might see a wild Stanton Truitt appear.
With the positives in having the NCAA cloud lifted this fall, one can say that the Heels’ failure to capitalize on the field was endemic of the recruiting restrictions, both sanctioned and speculated. Recruiting has not gone well this fall, with the reasonable decomittment of Shough and the strange one of linebacker Payton Wilson. Recruiting momentum is hard to come by when a team loses nine games, but the staff can go out and build relationships without wasting time explaining their way out of the negative recruiting of rival coaching staffs (cough hi State and Virginia Tech).
If the Heels can find their voices (OC and QB) on offense and continue to build the defense— while supplementing with continued excellence on special teams, next year can be a nice bounceback. A season as fraught with injuries as this one will force me to reconsider my dedication to watching football. I don’t expect everything to go right, because we can’t have nice things.
If they do, think 9-3 as the ceiling. The offense will have been retooled, the defense will continue its improvement. I see 7-5 as a more attainable goal. Getting back to winning will quiet the (very loud) haters, and give the Heels firm footing to push back into ACC contention in 2019 and beyond.