North Carolina football: Way-too-early look at the 2022 Tar Heels

North Carolina is coming off a disappointing season in 2021, but — for better or worse — it will have a clean slate in 2022.

The Tar Heels will be replacing key offensive players like Same Howell and Ty Chandler. Their defense should also be completely transformed under new defensive coordinator Gene Chizik.

Despite the turnover in some key areas, North Carolina does return the framework of a great team. Receiver Josh Downs is back after a standout sophomore season, as is leading tackler Cedric Gray. There’s also multiple key additions coming to Chapel Hill this offseason via a highly-touted recruiting class and the transfer portal.

Here’s a look ahead at what North Carolina might look like moving forward:

What Worked in 2021

Sam Howell and the offense worked, for the most part. Howell — somewhat by necessity — became more of a running quarterback in the 2021 season. He always had that element in his game, but the Tar Heels made it a focal point of their offense last season. Howell rushed for 828 yards and 11 touchdowns last season while averaging 4.5 yards per carry. 

With Howell moving on to the NFL, it will be interesting to see if UNC keeps the QB run game in its offense in 2022. Backup quarterbacks Jacoby Criswell and Drake Maye both showed off their mobility by rushing for touchdowns this past season. 

Elsewhere offensively, Josh Downs was the star of the show for North Carolina this season. He finished second in the ACC with 1,335 receiving yards, trailing only Biletnikoff Award winner Jordan Addison. The good news is he is returning to Chapel Hill in 2022. 

The bad news? Not much else is returning offensively. Howell, leading rusher Ty Chandler and three starting offensive linemen are turning pro. In total, the Tar Heels are returning less than 30 percent of their rushing yards from last season. 

What Didn’t Work in 2021

Most of what didn’t work for North Carolina was on defense. The Tar Heels were one of the five worst defensive units in the ACC by almost any measure. Here’s their ACC rankings in some key defensive areas:

  • Yards per carry allowed: No. 11
  • Rushing yards per game allowed: No. 10
  • Passer rating allowed: No. 10
  • Yards per pass attempt allowed: No. 12
  • 3rd down conversion percentage: No. 12
  • 4th down conversion percentage: No. 10
  • Yards per play allowed: No. 11

As a result, North Carolina parted ways with defensive coordinator Jay Bateman this offseason. He was replaced by Gene Chizik, who is beginning his second stint with UNC’s defense. The talent is there — UNC has several defensive 5-stars on its roster — but it needs to be deployed with more efficiency next season. 

On the offensive side of the ball, North Carolina had one glaring weakness: the offensive line. Howell rarely had time to survey the field from the pocket as North Carolina allowed a staggering 49 sacks this season. That was the worst number in the country by a Power 5 team and the next closest — Tennessee — was 5 sacks away. 

Looking ahead to next season, three regular starters are moving on to the NFL: Joshua Ezeudu, Jordan Tucker and Marcus McKethan. UNC will only be returning 45 percent of its starts from a season ago, but the unit could be more experienced than it appears. Players like Brian Anderson and Ed Montilus have double digit career starts despite playing sparingly in 2021. Quiron Johnson will be back for his second year as a starter and Asim Richards for his third. There’s also 5-star offensive lineman Zach Rice who will be arriving this offseason. This is a unit that could see drastic improvement in 2022. 

Key Losses

Anytime you have to replace a quarterback like Howell, you’re going to have some growing pains. North Carolina’s offense was built around him, and now Mack Brown will have to adjust the attack to fit Criswell, Maye or an eventual transfer addition. 

It’s also worth noting that Chandler is moving on as well and will be difficult to replace. He had over 1,300 all-purpose yards during his lone season at UNC and was a major part of both the running and passing games. 

Losing three offensive linemen like Joshua Ezeudu, Jordan Tucker and Marcus McKethan will be tough, but a fresh start is likely a positive for the Tar Heels. That unit struggled so much in 2021 that a fresh group of lineman can only be a good thing. 

Defensively, North Carolina returns six of its top 10 tacklers from a year ago. Jeremiah Gemmel, Trey Morrison, Raymond Vohasek and Tomon Fox are the exceptions. Gemmel and Fox are significant losses for the linebacker corps, but UNC has the roster talent to replace them next season. 

Key Returners

Downs is the biggest returnee for the Tar Heels. He has the potential to be one of the best receivers in the ACC next season and should be a focal point of the offense. If UNC is playing with an inexperienced quarterback in 2022, having a No. 1 receiver like Downs will be indispensable. 

Running backs British Brooks and DJ Jones will also be back on offense. Both rushed for over 250 yards last season and seem ready for bigger roles moving forward. 

Defensively, North Carolina returns its leading tackler in linebacker Cedric Gray, who piled up 100 tackles during his sophomore campaign. Defensive backs Cam’Ron Kelly, Giovanni Biggers and Tony Grimes are also expected back next season. 

An under-the-radar returner is cornerback Storm Duck, who has played in just seven games over the past two seasons. However, he flashed big potential in 2019 as a true freshman when he picked off two passes and batted down 5 more. If he’s able to be a regular contributor in 2022, it could be a big boost for UNC’s defense. 

Key Additions

North Carolina is bringing in the ACC’s best recruiting class for the 2022 cycle, according to 247Sports Composite rankings

Most notably, the Tar Heels are adding a pair of 5-star prospects to the trenches. 5-star offensive tackle Zach Rice and 5-star defensive lineman Travis Shaw could both be early contributors next season. 

There’s also 4-star running back George Pettaway, who chose North Carolina over offers from multiple blue blood programs. With Chandler moving on, he should have a chance to play a role in UNC’s backfield next season. 

Looking at the transfer portal, North Carolina has made two notable additions so far: Former Virginia linebacker Noah Taylor and former Miami offensive lineman Corey Gaynor. Taylor has 30 career tackles for loss and Gaynor has 28 career starts at center for Miami. Both players should prove to be quality additions for the 2022 season. 

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