North Carolina football: 10 takeaways from the Tar Heels' regular season
The Tar Heels finished the regular season on a sour note in Friday’s 30-27, double-overtime loss to NC State, but Year 4 of Mack Brown’s 2nd tenure arguably has been the best yet.
The No. 18 Tar Heels, led by redshirt freshman quarterback Drake Maye and an offense that is putting up more than 37 points and racking up nearly 500 yards per contest, has won 9 games for the 1st time since 2015 and just the 2nd time since the turn of the century. Now, North Carolina will gear up for a battle with 7th-ranked Clemson in the ACC Championship game next Saturday in Charlotte.
To put a bow on the Tar Heels’ impressive regular season, here are 10 takeaways from the year.
1. Bringing Mack back was the right move
North Carolina was in shambles in 2018, as former coach Larry Fedora’s tenure went off the rails after impressive seasons in 2015 and 2016. Someone new was needed to take advantage of fertile recruiting in the state and an-always up-for-grabs Coastal Division, steering North Carolina back to national relevancy in the process.
That someone was a familiar face, as Brown was tapped to lead the Tar Heels for a 2nd time (his 1st tenure spanned from 1988 to 1997). The then-67-year-old had been out of coaching for 5 years since stepping down at Texas, and his hire was met with criticism. Yes, he had won a national title with the Longhorns and had sustained success during his 1st go-round in Chapel Hill, but was he out of touch with modern college football? Could he still recruit?
Last season’s 6-7 campaign was a step back, but overall, Brown has proven to be an impressive CEO. His assistant coaching hires have been solid, the Tar Heels have brought in blue-chip talent (in the form of 3 straight top-15 classes, according to 247Sports from 2019 to 2021) and they are 4-0 against Duke, 2-2 against NC State and 3-1 against Wake Forest.
The Tar Heels would not be back in the ACC title game if athletics director Bubba Cunningham did not bring Brown back to Chapel Hill. How much longer will he keep coaching? That is unclear, but Brown still has the energy, so why not a few more years?
2. Race for 2nd in ACC behind Clemson is tough, but North Carolina is up to the task
Clemson won its 1st conference title under coach Dabo Swinney during 2011, but the Tigers’ grip on the conference truly began in 2015, after Jameis Winston left Florida State for the NFL. From 2015 to 2020, the Tigers won the ACC every year, disposing of a different Coastal foe each season in Charlotte (North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Miami, Pittsburgh, Virginia and Notre Dame).
Last year featured a blip on the radar, as Clemson went 10-3 and missed out on a 7th straight trip to the ACC title game. But make no mistake, Swinney still has things rolling, as the Tigers are 10-2 and headed for Charlotte again — despite losing coordinators Tony Elliot and Brent Venables to head-coaching gigs during the offseason.
That being said, the race for 2nd-best program in the ACC behind the Tigers is wide open, and ever important considering the conference is eliminating divisions after this year. Florida State is on the upswing, and Duke, Pittsburgh and Louisville appear to have a foundation, but Wake Forest and NC State will have to replace prolific quarterbacks and Miami and Virginia Tech cannot seem to get their acts together.
With Maye in the fold for at least another year, and recruiting still in hyperdrive, North Carolina has an opening to establish itself as 2nd on the ACC food chain.
3. Maye will be a 1st-round pick in the 2024 NFL Draft
He struggled mightily during the final 2 losses, but overall Maye has all the tools, folks. Poise in the pocket? Check. Accuracy and touch? Check. Mobility? Check. Everything pro scouts look for, he has, and with Maye eligible to turn pro after next season, expect him to be at the top of all the big boards.
Where he gets drafted obviously still is unclear, but those traits do not simply go away. If Maye can put together a similar season as a redshirt sophomore, a tough ask considering his 35-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio this year, expect to hear his name called by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell at the 2024 draft.
4. In just a year, Maye surpassed Sam Howell, Mitchell Trubisky and Marquise Williams
The Tar Heels have had an elite crop of quarterbacks roll through the program during recent years, with Williams leading North Carolina to the 2015 ACC Championship game, Trubisky becoming the No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft to the Chicago Bears and Howell helping to drag North Carolina out of the doldrums and into the Orange Bowl in 2020.
But Maye, to his credit, could be the best of them all, executing the wide-open offensive attack to near perfection. There was his debut nonconference stretch against Florida A&M, Appalachian State, Georgia State and Notre Dame during which he threw for a combined 16 touchdowns, just 1 interception and a pair of 1-score victories. Then, ACC play simply was a show, as Maye lit up the scoreboard and filled up the stats sheet. There were the 2nd-half comebacks against Duke, Virginia, Wake Forest and Pittsburgh, with Maye driving the bus each time.
Without him, the Tar Heels do not sniff the division title. That makes Maye the best North Carolina quarterback in recent memory, and perhaps of all time.
5. Josh Downs has all the makings of an elite NFL receiver
North Carolina, trailing 34-33 to Wake Forest with less than 5 minutes to go and in possession at the Wake Forest 48, needed a play. On cue, Downs delivered, taking a deep crosser from Maye all the way to the Demon Deacons 5. A short while later, Noah Burnette knocked home the winning field goal, clinching the Coastal for the Tar Heels.
It was just another example of Downs doing what was required to get the win. In 10 games this season, the junior has racked up 83 catches for 929 yards and 11 touchdowns. His blend of route -running prowess, speed and penchant for taking the top off the defense is exactly what is needed to succeed at the position at the next level, with Downs currently 4th among receivers in the 2023 class, according to ESPN.
In 5 years, Downs could be a fantasy stud and someone who is making an NFL quarterback’s life a whole lot easier.
6. North Carolina is among the most entertaining teams in the country
There is a difference between great and entertaining. Georgia clearly is the most dominant team in America, but if you simply want fireworks, then programs like Southern California, North Carolina and UCLA are for you. The Tar Heels failed to score at least 31 points just 3 times (against Miami, Georgia Tech and NC State).
Maye, Downs, Antoine Green, Elijah Green and company make for a highly exciting offense, and 1 that was a threat to find the zone no matter the down, distance or field position. At a time when almost every college football game is televised, being entertaining is worth a whole lot, and the Tar Heels simply are among the most entertaining teams in the sport.
7. Give Gene Chizik time to turn around the defense
Brown hired his old buddy to replace former defensive coordinator Jay Bateman during the winter, tasking Gene Chizik with turning around a unit that ranked 105th nationally in scoring defense and 121st in total defense in 2021.
This season has featured some steps forward, mainly in stopping the run, but there also were interceptions by Will Hardy and Cam’Ron Kelly against Duke and Wake Forest, respectively, that are among key plays made late in games by the North Carolina defense. But on the whole, the numbers still are not pretty, as the Tar Heels rank outside the top 90 nationally in scoring defense, total defense, pass defense and run defense. But Chizik is a solid defensive mind and deserves more time to implement the nuances of his 4-2-5 system. Graduate student Chris Collins, for instance, had to adjust to playing the standing edge rusher role after suiting up at outside linebacker and defensive end in previous years.
One year simply is not a large enough sample size to judge a new coordinator. Give Chizik time, and see if 2023 features a more cohesive unit.
8. More star power is needed at running back
Elijah Green has come on during the latter stages of the season, rushing for 334 yards over the past month. But Maye remains North Carolina’s leading rusher by more than 100 total yards, on almost 70 more carries than Elijah Green. Freshman Omarion Hampton, on the other hand, had 14 carries for 101 yards against Florida A&M and 16 carries for 110 yards against Georgia State, yet since the Oct. 8 win against Miami win, the Clayton native has received just 3.5 carries per contest.
Balance offensively takes a massive weight off a star quarterback’s shoulders, and luckily for North Carolina, every running back who received a carry this year (Elijah Green, Hampton, Caleb Hood, DJ Jones and George Pettaway) has eligibility remaining.
Can a star emerge from that group? The Tar Heels certainly will need one to do so.
9. Kenan Stadium still has ways to go before it is an intimidating place to play
All of North Carolina’s 3 regular-season losses this year came at home, to Notre Dame, Georgia Tech and NC State. Kenan Stadium is not a vast space (it seats 50,500, 10th-largest in the ACC), but having a relatively smaller stadium does not equate to a lack of venue juice. UCF’s 45,301-seat FBC Mortgage Stadium and Oregon’s 54,000-seat Autzen Stadium, for instance, are raucous atmospheres. For Kenan Stadium to get to that level, the Tar Heels will have to keep winning. Changing a fanbase’s attitude is tough, particularly at a men’s basketball powerhouse, but it can be done — just look at Kentucky’s rise under Mark Stoops, and the accompanying support.
10. 2023 will be similar to 2021 in terms of preseason hype
This is where it gets tricky. Maintaining a high level of hunger, drive and fight is difficult to do from year to year, even for coach Nick Saban and Alabama. But oftentimes, the climb is easier than staying on top of the mountain, and North Carolina still is very much on the climb towards being a true national championship contender.
In hindsight, losing Javonte Williams and Michael Carter at running back and Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome at wide receiver after 2020, always was going to be a major challenge, even for Howell and Brown. Plus, 2020 simply was a wacky year, as the pandemic enveloped the sports world.
Next year, though, the Tar Heels will bring Maye back, and Brown is further along in building a winning culture than he was heading into 2021. The spotlight affects different people in different ways, but all you want is a chance to prove yourself as being among the best. North Carolina will have that chance in 2023.