North Carolina football: 10 burning questions heading into the offseason
Well, Year 4 of the (2nd) Mack Brown era has come and gone in Chapel Hill, and it was a microcosm of North Carolina’s ability to produce thrilling highs and stunning lows. With redshirt freshman Drake Maye at the helm under center, and superstar receiver Josh Downs reeling in passes on the outside, the Tar Heels shot out to a 9-1 start.
However, a magical season it was not, as North Carolina proceeded to lose its final 4 contests — including a 29-point defeat Dec. 3 to then-No. 10 Clemson in the ACC Championship Game, and a heartbreaking 28-27 defeat (and blown 10-point 4th-quarter lead) against No. 15 Oregon in the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 28. The Tar Heels, at 9-5, reached the highest win total of Brown’s 2nd tenure but still left much to be desired come the postseason.
Now that the season is over, it’s time to look back on the year that was for North Carolina, and sneak a peek at what’s to come. Here are 10 questions on the Tar Heels heading into the offseason.
1. How much longer will Drake Maye be in Chapel Hill?
This is an easy question to answer but crucial nonetheless. Drake Maye turned heads throughout his 1st season as the starting quarterback, throwing for 4,321 yards and 38 touchdowns against just 7 interceptions. His accuracy, poise and mobility are all impressive, to say the least, and alongside Southern California’s Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams, Maye projects as a 1st-round pick in the 2024 NFL Draft — should he turn pro.
Brown and Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi insinuated last month that Maye had received sizeable NIL offers from other schools, to entice the Charlotte native to transfer. But Maye deemed the transfer and NIL speculation as “rumors” in the leadup to the Holiday Bowl loss to Oregon, saying “Caroline Blue is special. There’s no other color in the world that meaningful.”
Now, the 20-year-old, after being involved in the search process that resulted in former Central Florida offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey being hired as Phil Longo’s replacement (after the latter left to become the offensive coordinator at Wisconsin), enters the offseason as 1 of the best quarterbacks in the country. Maye did struggle in North Carolina’s final 2 regular-season games and the ACC title-game loss to Clemson (1 touchdown pass against 4 interceptions).
That, in all likelihood, means next season will his last as a Tar Heel.
2. How much longer will Mack Brown coach?
This is a much tougher question. Mack Brown dismissed any notion of him retiring during November 2021, telling The Athletic that “I’m having fun. We’re competing. We’re getting better.” Now 71, Brown has not lost a step on the recruiting trail, as the Tar Heels have reeled in 3 top-15 classes during the past 4 years, according to 247Sports. Obviously, heavy credit goes to his assistants and staff as well, but the former Texas coach still is in charge of the operation.
Have his thoughts changed in a year? With Maye in town for at least another season, a top-30 recruiting class on the way and a window of opportunity in the ACC (with powerful Clemson not quite the dominant force it was just 2 years ago), it is highly conceivable Brown remains at the helm until his mid 70s.
3. Who replaces Josh Downs as the Tar Heels’ top wideout?
Josh Downs, whose decorated college career came to an end with the ACC title game, was simply electrifying as a Tar Heel. The Georgia native, who ESPN has as the 5th-best available receiver in April’s NFL Draft, racked up 195 catches, 2,364 yards and 19 touchdowns over the past 2 seasons — helping out Maye and 2021 starting quarterback Sam Howell along the way.
Replacing Downs is a nearly impossible task at face value, but then again, Downs was able to fill the void left by the departures of Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome after the 2020 season. It figures to be a committee approach, with senior Antoine Green (if he elects to exercise his extra year of eligibility granted because of the COVID-19 pandemic) and sophomore JJ Jones as the likely top returnees out wide.
Additionally, 5 receivers will join the program as part of the 2023 recruiting class (4-stars Chris Culliver and Christian Hamilton, 3-star Paul Billups, Georgia Tech transfer Nate McCollum and Kent State transfer Devontez Walker), so depth at the position, outside mass injuries, should not be a major issue. But still, no Downs changes the chemistry of the offensive attack, and challenges Lindsey and the rest of the offensive staff to craft a scheme that, despite the departure of their star receiver, remains among the country’s most efficient attacks.
4. How will Chip Lindsey fare as the new offensive coordinator?
Chip Lindsey, 48, has considerable shoes to fill, as during Longo’s 4-year tenure as Tar Heels offensive play-caller, North Carolina failed to finish worse than 4th in the ACC in scoring offense (this season, which saw the Tar Heels average 34.4 points per game). Without a doubt, North Carolina had heavy blue-chip talent on the offensive side of the ball during Longo’s tenure, but there is no doubt the Tar Heels could score with the best of them throughout the past 4 seasons.
But now, Longo is part of Luke Fickell’s inaugural coaching staff at Wisconsin, with Brown hiring Lindsey to fill the gap. Based on his track record, the Gus Malzahn disciple (Lindsey coached under Malzahn at Auburn during 2 stints) could be just what the doctor ordered. Too often, North Carolina’s rushing attack was fueled primarily by designed quarterback runs by Maye or scramble drills. In their last year under Lindsey, Central Florida ranked 9th nationally in rushing yards per game at 228.3 — so the potential for boosted production from the Tar Heels running-back room is there.
5. Can Gene Chizik turn around the defense?
If North Carolina is to have a legitimate chance to win the ACC, turning around the defense is a must. Sure, the Tar Heels won the Coastal Division, but that was on the back of some remarkable moments in close games.
In Chizik’s 1st year back as the defensive coordinator (the former Auburn head coach and 2010 national champion also coordinated the Tar Heels defense in 2015-16), North Carolina ranked 102nd in scoring defense (30.8 points per game allowed) and 116th in total defense (436.5 yards per game allowed). Those numbers just will not cut it, particularly against a 2023 schedule that will feature South Carolina, NC State, Duke, Clemson and Pittsburgh.
Chizik, whose friendship with Brown is well-documented, has to turn around this unit if the Tar Heels are to improve upon their 9-win total this season. Winning shootouts, while highly entertaining, is not an extremely sustainable way to win at the highest level of college football.
6. Can the offensive line protect Maye more effectively?
On the season, Maye was sacked 40 times, an average of 2.85 per game which ranked 102nd nationally. During the 4-game losing streak to end the season, the ACC Player of the Year was sacked 14 times. It was tough sledding in pass protection for the Tar Heels.
Plus, the season-ending starting offensive line (left tackle Asim Richards, left guard Ed Montilus, center Corey Gaynor, right guard William Barnes and right tackle Spencer Rolland) featured 1 true senior (Richards), 1 redshirt senior (Barnes), 1 graduate student (Montilus) and 2 graduate transfers (Gaynor and Rolland).
A quartet of offensive linemen — incoming 3-stars Nolan McConnell, Robert Grigsby and DJ Geth, along with Coastal Carolina transfer Willie Lampkin (who started 13 games and was named to the All-Sun Belt 1st team this season) —enter the fray. While Maye has to do a better job of avoiding impending rushers, the new additions will have to make a distinctive impact early if North Carolina is to improve its pass protection.
7. What about the run game?
Effective pass and run blocking requires a different set of skills, but make no mistake — struggles with 1 can correlate with struggles with the other. In the Tar Heels’ case, their rushing attack was adequate (6th in the ACC at 153.5 yards per game), but so much of that had to do with Maye’s designed runs and scrambles. The redshirt freshman was North Carolina’s leader in rushing attempts (184) and rushing yards (698), finishing 2nd in touchdowns (7) to sophomore Elijah Green.
Lindsey’s background as a play designer and play-caller suggests an increased emphasis on establishing the run. That philosophy might require slight tweaks in practice, though, unless the offensive line makes huge strides during spring practice and fall camp. With Green and freshman Omarion Hampton (401 yards, 6 touchdowns) returning, could a 2-headed rushing attack help alleviate some pressure on Maye?
8. Will Cedric Gray return for his senior season?
Three Tar Heels were named to the All-ACC 1st team: Maye, Downs and linebacker Cedric Gray, the largest bright spot on an otherwise porous defensive unit. The Charlotte native accumulated a whopping 145 total tackles (82 solo, 63 assists) from his weakside position, and had a hand in 7 turnovers (2 interceptions, 3 forced fumbles and 2 fumble recoveries).
Gray is adept at closing on running backs in space and getting involved in the backfield, serving as the premiere playmaker on his side of the ball. His backup, Randy Caldwell, just finished up his freshman season with 6 total tackles and a sack, while appearing in 3 games — giving him the chance to redshirt.
As a junior, Gray is eligible for the NFL Draft but retains 2 full years of collegiate eligibility. If he stays in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels defense will benefit greatly. But if he departs, finding a suitable replacement will be a challenge.
9. Who fills the void left by Storm Duck’s transfer?
Storm Duck announced he was transferring to Penn State last week. The junior cornerback set career highs in total tackles, passes defended and interceptions, and was named to the All-ACC 2nd team for his efforts.
Without Duck, the Tar Heels lose the most productive piece of a pass defense that still ranked just 116th nationally. Marcus Allen and Tayon Holloway, a pair of freshmen this season, will be asked to do a whole lot more.
10. Can North Carolina win crucial end-of-season games?
If this season is an indicator, then no. At 9-1 and No. 13 in the Week 11 College Football Playoff rankings, the Tar Heels had an outside opportunity to sneak into the playoffs. But despite being favored by 3 touchdowns against Georgia Tech and a touchdown against NC State, North Carolina lost both, at home no less.
Despite the ACC’s new 3-5-5 scheduling format taking shape next season, a trip to NC State figures to close the season, and conference matchups against Duke, Pittsburgh and Clemson all would factor on the Tar Heels’ schedule into November.
With divisions eliminated in the ACC, North Carolina has less margin for error to make the conference title game for the 2nd year straight. That being said, a late-season swoon cannot occur if the Tar Heels are to surpass at least 4 of Clemson, Florida State, Pittsburgh, NC State and Duke to make it to Charlotte.