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College Football Preview 2021: 10. North Carolina Tar Heels

Sam Howell, UNC

 10. North Carolina Tar Heels

The talent level has elevated and a Heisman contender at QB leads the way, but are they good enough to go toe-to-toe with Clemson?

2020 Review
After a strong 7-6 debut in Mack Brown's return to Chapel Hill, UNC entered 2020 with fairly high expectations. They had success, rising to as high as No. 5 in the nation and squaring off against Texas A&M in the Orange Bowl. However, they also lost two head-stratchers to Florida State and Virginia, both on the road, then came out flat in the second half against Notre Dame, which was their third regular season loss. At the end of the day, an 8-4 record is still something to be proud of in such a weird year, but you got the feeling this team was even better than their record may have indicated. The goal for UNC in 2021 is not only to push towards ACC Title contention, but find a way to avoid the weird losses that occurred last fall.

2021 Outlook
Offense: Quarterback Sam Howell returns as one of the faces of college football and a serious threat to be the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. He was tremendous as a true freshman back in 2019 but showed even more growth last year, becoming more efficient and forcing less throws. He may have a slight learning curve to begin 2021 as he operates without most of his top receivers from 2020, but expect him to still put up huge numbers and be a factor in the Heisman conversation.

The Tar Heels will be breaking in a new tailback after both Javonte Williams and Michael Carter moved on to the NFL. Carter finished as the top rusher in terms of yardage, with 1,245, but Williams was the touchdown machine, totaling 19 on the ground and three through the air. The coaching staff did bring in a possible replacement through the transfer portal in former Tennessee back Ty Chandler. Chandler ran for over 2,000 yards during a long career in Knoxville and at the very least, can be serviceable. It's likely that he'll split time with some of the younger options on the roster, namely sophomore Josh Henderson and junior British Brooks. It will be incredibly difficult for this group to replicate the 1-2 punch of Williams and Carter but even if it's just okay, that might be enough for this offense to succeed.

Losing receivers Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome might end up being more significant than Carter or Williams. They not only ended up being taken in the NFL Draft but were great leaders in the locker room whose departure will be felt. The good news is that there is still a bunch of potential in this receiver corps, and I wouldn't be shocked if one or two guys really emerge quickly. The top candidates are Josh Downs and Khafre Brown, who is the younger brother of Dyami. Brown finished third on the team with 337 receiving yards in 2020 and much like his brother, is a dynamic deep threat. Downs didn't see the field very much but had 91 yards in their bowl game and can be used in a wide variety of ways. 

In addition to Brown and Downs, senior Beau Corrales is a crucial returnee. He was considered part of a "Big Three" trio with Dyami Brown and Newsome, but couldn't stay healthy last fall. Not only will he have to aid Downs and Brown on the perimeter, but will also have to take up more of a leadership role with the youth in this group. Behind him, keep an eye on a few other names, including sophomore Emery Simmons and true freshman Gavin Blackwell. Blackwell played with Howell in high school and enrolled early, giving him a chance to make a quick impression with this staff.

UNC's offensive line has been just about average over the last two seasons protecting Sam Howell, but that could change in 2021. All five starters from last season return and they combine for over 100 starts in total. Guards Marcus McKethan and Joshua Ezedu earned All-League recognition for their performance last year and are the "stars" of the group, but the Heels want better play from their tackles, Jordan Tucker and Asim Richards. 

It's not often at a place like UNC that you can lose four NFL Draft selections on offense and still potentially get even better the year after. But having a QB like Howell leading the charge changes things, as does an experienced offensive line. There will likely still be growing pains at running back and receiver but the upside at those spots speaks to the way Mack Brown and this staff have been recruiting.

Defense: Defensive coordinator Jay Bateman arrived with Brown prior to 2019 and has had his work cut out improving a defense that was terrible in the final years of the Larry Fedora tenure. The Heels have already made steady progress here, and with ten starters back for 2021, this should be a real strength.

The defensive line is still young in some areas but has the potential to be strong. Junior Raymond Vohasek is a tone-setter in the heart of the unit, racking up 29 tackles and 3.5 TFL last season. He's even good at getting hands in opposing passing lanes, with a pair of pass deflections to his credit in the shortened season. Likely to pair with him is Myles Murphy, who was a big-name recruit that played in all 12 games last season and notched a pair of TFL. The final starting spot in this 3-4 scheme is up for grabs, likely to come down to Tomari Fox or true freshman Jahvaree Ritzie. Fox wasn't a very hyped recruit but acclimated quickly to Chapel Hill and made 46 tackles and four sacks. Ritzie was tremendous in the spring after enrolling early and could fight for the starting job.

The depth along the D-Line is important to note. There's a bunch of guys who can rotate in, including Kaimon Rucker, Jahlil Taylor, Kendrick Bingley-Jones, and Keeshawn Silver. Silver in particular is a name to watch, as he is one of the major gems of the 2021 recruiting class. Simply put, these defensive linemen are not the same as the ones 'NC trotted out for the better part of the 2010s; there are guys second and third on this depth chart who will have a chance to play on Sundays.

At linebacker, the Tar Heels lose a key contributor in Chazz Surratt. Surratt was a great story, a guy who began his UNC career as a quarterback before making the switch to LB and developing into one of the best anywhere in the nation. He had impeccable instincts, unlimited range, and superb athleticism that allowed him to compile 91 tackles and six sacks in 2020. The good news is that UNC still has several veterans returning at linebacker. Junior MLB Jeremiah Gemmel is very important, coming in just behind Surratt with 76 tackles. He has started every single game the last two seasons and while he isn't flashy, he's incredibly productive. Joining Gemmel is senior Tomon Fox (Tomari's older brother) and sophomore Chris Collins. Fox was once exclusively a pass rusher with the Heels, but has grown other areas of his game. He still gets after the QB quite a bit, leading the team with seven sacks a year ago.

The Tar Heel secondary is loaded with talent, but injuries forced the group to be one of the worst pass defenses in the ACC in 2020. Expect a resurgent campaign, as the Tar Heels return just about every key piece, with the lone exception being Patrick Rene, who transferred to Rutgers. UNC has numerous cornerbacks with starting experience, including Tony Grimes, Storm Duck, and former Clemson transfer Kyler McMichael. Duck looked well on his way to becoming a star before missing the final ten games of 2020, which forced McMichael into an even larger role. Grimes on the other hand reclassified from the Class of 2021 and enrolled a year early, essentially beginning his career as a high school senior. There were growing pains, but you can see the talent and upside. Don't be surprised if he takes a big leap in his second season on Chapel Hill and establishes himself as one of the household names on this defense.

At safety, Trey Morrison, Ja'Qurious Conley and Cam'Ron Kelly also offer proven starting experience. Kelly was third on the team in tackles a season ago and is a proven commodity in run support as well as pass coverage. Conley is the projected starter at strong safety and is built for the position (6'1", 220 pounds) but has to become more consistent.

It has been understandable that UNC's defense has suffered through growing pains in the first two years of the Mack Brown era. This group was in a bad spot coming out of the Fedora era and even though this staff has recruited incredibly well, it always takes some time for that talent to come through. Expect some real progress this fall, with more experience and depth throughout the roster. Losing Surratt is significant but there's enough elsewhere that the Heels will be able to move on.

Special Teams: Kicker Grayson Atkins transferred from Furman prior to last season but struggled more than expected, going 12 for 18 on field goal attempts. He is likely to enter the season as the returning starter, but there's some question whether sophomore Jonathan Kim could push him, even though he's been used almost exclusively as a kickoff specialist. Punter Ben Kiernan is solid, but the Heels need some new faces to step up in the return game.

Bottom Line: Mack Brown has done an excellent job since his return to Chapel Hill, taking a program that was dead in the water from 2017-2018 and creating a legitimate ACC Title contender. They check off a lot of boxes you like to see, with a superstar at quarterback and intriguing skill position talent, plus a rapidly improving, veteran defense. The ultimate question is whether all this talent that's been amassed can start equating into not just wins, but program-defining victories. This program has the pieces to go toe-to-toe with teams like Notre Dame, Miami, and even possibly Clemson. It's just a matter of developing more consistency week-to-week and finishing off games more effectively. If they can do that, they represent the greatest threat to Clemson inside the ACC, even though they don't play them in the regular season. A Playoff run seems like a tall task this year, but a second straight New Year's Six bowl is a real possibility.

Further Breakdown
Team Projections
Projected Record: 10-3 (8-2 ACC, Lose ACC Championship Game)
Offensive MVP: QB Sam Howell
Defensive MVP: LB Jeremiah Gemmel
Breakout Player of the Year: WR Josh Downs
Impact Freshman: WR Gavin Blackwell

Recruiting Breakdown
The Tar Heels landed a Top 15 group nationally and the third best in the ACC. They continue to do a much better job at locking down the talent-rich state of North Carolina than previous UNC staffs, with nearly all their big names coming from the pipeline. Defensive linemen Keeshawn Silver and Jahvaree Ritzie are studs who will see snaps right away. Silver was the No. 1 player in the state in the Class of '21, while Ritzie's big spring has fans and staff thrilled about his future. Another player who could vie for immediate playing time is linebacker Power Echols, who is a Charlotte product. He was in the for the spring and although he plays primarily inside linebacker, his ability to blitz and get after opposing quarterbacks could be valuable in a wide variety of packages. Another player to highlight is high four-star QB Drake Maye, who is the brother of former UNC basketball player Luke. He didn't play football in the fall and will obviously have to wait his turn behind Howell, but could fight for the backup job with Jacolby Criswell.

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