Blame what you want to blame for North Carolina’s disappointing 6-7 2021 football season, but one thing is statistically certain. It wasn’t the offense’s fault.

North Carolina finished the 2021 campaign ranked 10th nationally in yards per play at 6.4 per snap and 19th nationally in scoring offense at 35.2 per contest. Led by star quarterback Sam Howell, who threw for 3,056 yards and rushed for 828 more while accounting for 35 touchdowns, the Tar Heels had no problem moving the football and scoring points.

That will be a tougher ask in 2022.

Howell is gone, as is star running back Ty Chandler. Both were drafted in the 5th round of the NFL Draft, with Chandler selected by the Minnesota Vikings and Howell taken by the Washington Commanders. Collectively, that leaves UNC without their All-ACC quarterback, top 2 rushers and 5,000 total yards of offense. Put plainly, it’s going to be hard to replace, let alone replicate, that type of elite production.

Offensive coordinator Phil Longo doesn’t have an empty cupboard. There is talent all over the place, including All-American candidate Josh Downs at wide receiver, who figures to be one of the ACC’s best players in 2022. Longo just needs to hope that talent trumps experience, especially if Carolina hopes to avoid another losing season.

Here are 7 way-too-early predictions for the North Carolina offense in 2022.

Josh Downs will be an All-American

It’s easiest to start with what we know. What we know is that Josh Downs is one of the best wide receivers in the country. The redshirt sophomore hauled in 101 passes for 1,335 yards last season and scored 8 touchdowns. Downs has terrific speed, is a strong route runner and showcases the ability to make freakishly athletic catches like the one below.


Downs is going to receive a ton of attention from defenses, but that was happening late last year too, and he still caught 8 passes or more in 3 of North Carolina’s final 4 games. Downs looked like the best player on the team in spring practice, and he’ll be that on the field in the fall.

The Tar Heels will be a less productive scoring offense in 2022 

Chalk this one up to “what we know” as well. A year ago, with NFL bound talents Howell and Ty Chandler and Josh Downs on the edge, the Tar Heels made defenses defend sideline to sideline and tallied over 35 points a game. Those are marvelous numbers, and even if North Carolina had 2 of those 3 players back, not just 1, it would be tough to replicate that.

This won’t be a prolific offensive team in 2022. But it can still be a good one, for the reasons outlined below.

Drake Maye — eventually — wins this quarterback competition

If Downs is the known, the quarterback is the great unknown.

The battle between Jacolby Criswell and Drake Maye (yes, it is Luke Maye’s younger brother) will stretch into fall camp. Both quarterbacks looked sharp in the spring game. Criswell completed all 6 of his passes, including a dart of a touchdown to Downs. Maye also found Downs for 6 points, completing 12 of 15 attempts for a game-high 113 yards passing.

Howell left campus as the Tar Heels’ all-time leader in total offense, passing yards, passing touchdowns and total touchdowns. Longo isn’t expecting either of his quarterback options to be Howell in 2022. But Maye, who flipped from Alabama to North Carolina late in the recruiting process, is the guy with the biggest ceiling, and eventually, his talent will win out. He’ll start by late September, even if both get looks early in the season.

Elijah Green will build on a big spring and become a solid No. 2 at running back

British Brooks, who had 295 yards on a staggering 9.5 per carry in 2021, is the projected starter at running back after spring camp. The question was whether a true second option behind Brooks would emerge.

One has in the form of Elijah Green, who led the team in rushing in the spring game and impressed in scrimmages throughout the spring as well. Green, an Atlanta product with terrific vision and a good burst, comes from NFL bloodlines, as his Dad Victor played in the NFL as a defensive back for over a decade. The younger Green’s future is on offense, and he’ll build on a terrific spring to become the Tar Heels reliable number 2 option this fall.

The offensive line will be the most improved unit on the team

Normally, a coach like Mack Brown might lose sleep at night replacing 3 starters from an offensive line that helped an offense rank in the top 20 in the country in scoring offense and yards per play. Mack Brown, however, will sleep like a baby in Chapel Hill because he knows his offense managed those numbers despite a leaky offensive line that finished 128th of 130 teams in Division I last season in sacks allowed and 126th in pressures allowed.

The Tar Heels allowed a staggering 49 sacks last season, which makes you both grateful that Sam Howell was fast and also curious as to how bad it could have been if he wasn’t.

Wholesale changes have followed. Stacy Searles is gone, replaced by new offensive line coach Jack Bicknell, who brings Super Bowl-experience from the NFL. Bicknell will get the most out of a group that includes two All-Conference transfers.

The first, Miami center Corey Gaynor, started 28 games in Coral Gables before injuries derailed his 2021. Healthy again, he should replicate his All-Conference ability. Spencer Zolland, a First Team All-Ivy League selection at Harvard, adds depth and perfect technique. Brown also landed the nation’s best offensive tackle recruit in Zach Rice, the 5 star left tackle that chose the closer-to-home Tar Heels over Alabama, Notre Dame, and Ohio State.

That’s a solid foundation for an offensive line overhaul, and it will pay dividends.

The Tar Heels will be one of the nation’s best pass protection units in 2022

The trio of Gaynor, Zolland, and Rice will almost certainly all start, helping Carolina’s new-look offensive line gel. Bicknell’s coaching acumen will make a huge difference too. In prior college and pro stops, Bicknell showed the ability to wring the sponge out on every last drop of his talent. In fact, when we last saw him in the ACC, at Boston College, Bicknell coached two offensive lines that led the nation in fewest sacks allowed– helping a young Matt Ryan develop into a 1st Round NFL Draft talent.

This unit won’t be the best in that category, but they’ll improve from 128th to the top 50, which should help an offense stay on schedule and move the sticks.

Antoine Green becomes the steady No. 2 wide receiver behind Downs

Green had a solid spring, showing improvement as a route runner on his way to cementing his status as the team’s number 2 receiver. Green caught 31 passes last year and averaged 19.7 per catch, so it isn’t like he’s an off-the-radar development project.

But the Tar Heels will need closer to 50 catches from Green as Downs’ primary insurance in 2022. The good news is the spring showed he’s capable.