It is probably time to officially declare 2017 a “rebuilding year” for the Carolina football program, and boy is it ever. Since last week, the injury list has added three more victims in Austin Proehl, Tyler Powell, and Toe Groves. Each was increasingly heartbreaking, given Proehl’s leadership, Powell’s inability to stay healthy throughout his career, and Groves’ serious non-contact injury in his first game action in Carolina Blue.
The game turned on Groves’ injury, as the Heels (and this blogger) were emotionally distraught, and the air came out of what looked like a strong Kenan Stadium crowd.
What can we glean from the 27-17 loss as it pertains to the team that will (hopefully) take the field going forward?
Chazz Surratt: Decidedly still a freshman
Surratt made some great plays and continued to shed light on why the future is bright for the UNC quarterback.
He also made some crippling mistakes. The ‘soccer inbound’ pick-six was a pure inexperience mistake, a young guy getting caught up in trying to make a miracle play and win the game...but his first pick was ugly AND crippling.
Duke came in with one of the top defenses in the country. Given Carolina’s injury situation on the offensive line, Jim Knowles’ unit turned up the heat on Surratt. He never really looked comfortable in the pocket, and his biggest issue from Week 1 is still an issue: if his initial read is not there, he panics. Go back and watch—he locks in on his primary target, then pulls the ball down. Even if his second read is open, he loses it by the time he cocks and reloads to throw.
All of this is evidence of a young guy used to getting by on his athletic ability, and adjusting to live bullets at D-1 speed. With Larry Fedora and Keith Heckendorf in his ear, Surratt will certainly improve and his growth is currently justification numero uno to continue tuning in to watch this team.
John Papuchis made halftime adjustments
The defense was awesome in the second half. The backside reads that Daniel Jones was KILLING them on in the first half were not there after halftime. While the Blue Devils were able to convert seemingly every third down, the Heels more or less limited explosive plays and took away the read option.
Having said that, Duke running back Brittain Brown’s departure may have played a role in that improvement. The Heels were still letting Duke backs fall forward and turn one-yard gains into three, and that proved costly in the fourth quarter as fatigue set in.
This defense isn’t...good. It probably won’t really shine this season. But improved pressure from the front, less busts on the back end (ignoring the miracle catch by T.J. Rahming that the secondary’s two Myleses amazingly failed to make a play on), and largely clean tackling are obvious improvements from Cal and Louisville, and something to build on moving forward.
Anthony Ratliff-Williams: Carolina’s next star?
Much has been made about the guys behind the prolific departed trio of Ryan Switzer, Mack Hollins, and Bug Howard not making an impact. By and large, they just weren’t getting snaps in 2015-16 behind those guys. It has been frustrating waiting for a new explosive weapon to emerge, but #17 appears to be that guy.
His two sideline catches to bring the game to 10-10 before halftime were awesome. He has the speed to get behind the defense, and the strength to abuse smaller DB’s. He doesn’t really fit the mold of anyone who has ever caught passes for Carolina, but has the look of two receivers coached by Gunter Brewer: Dez Bryant and Justin Blackmon.
High praise? Definitely. Unrealistic expectations? Probably. The sophomore is in his second year as a wide receiver, and at six-foot-two, 215 pounds with track speed, he has all the tools. With 125 yards on five catches, Saturday might have been the next step in the maturation of an exciting young weapon.
This season isn’t going to be pretty, but watching this absurdly young team grow (AND FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, STAY HEALTHY) is worth watching.