The Tar Heels put up impressive numbers in the first rendition of offensive coordinator Phil Longo’s Air Raid system. With Howell leading the attack, an average 285.9 of the team's 474 yards of total offense per game came through the air, and that average of 474 yards each weekend ranked 12th in the nation.
Howell’s historic rookie season was assisted by a talented receiving corps, as Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome each finished with at least 1,000 yards receiving. Beau Corrales used his 6-foot-4 frame to emerge as a dangerous red zone threat, finishing with six touchdowns on the season.
UNC’s running game was equally potent, with Michael Carter and Javonte Williams each eclipsing 1,000 yards from scrimmage.
These five players are a part of an offensive unit that will return 10 of 11 starters, who will now have another off-season to build chemistry.
This group has also been battle-tested, with each loss in 2019 coming within one possession. Their experience should help them thrive in similar situations this time around.
The only hole will be at left tackle, which was previously occupied by captain Charlie Heck. This should be an important search for Brown and his coaching staff, as protecting Howell’s blind side will be a catalyst for UNC’s offense to become one of the nation’s best.
The defensive side of the ball will be more complicated for the Tar Heels to fill in the gaps.
UNC’s defense will lose four starters to graduation, including the tandem of Aaron Crawford and Jason Strowbridge on the defensive line. The two combined for 95 tackles, six sacks and three fumble recoveries.
The Tar Heels will also miss safety Myles Dorn and linebacker Dominique Ross, both key pieces in an improved defense.
However, these losses will be bolstered by one of the nation’s best recruiting classes, as the incoming North Carolina class ranks 16th in the nation, according to ESPN. The crown jewel of the class is defensive end Desmond Evans, who ranks second in ESPN’s top 300 players. He, along with other newcomers like Myles Murphy and Ja’Qurious Conley, can make an immediate impact filling in those gaps for the Tar Heels.
Despite struggling at times last season, this year’s secondary will have a lot of depth. First-year Storm Duck showed signs of becoming a productive corner late in the season. Patrice Rene and Cam’Ron Kelly went down with early season-ending injuries, but both players hope to return to bolster the unit even more.
When talking about the defense, it's impossible to ignore Surratt. After being UNC’s starting quarterback in 2017, he learned the linebacker position on the fly from co-defensive coordinator Jay Bateman and turned in an All-ACC campaign with 115 tackles last year.
Along with the emergence of fellow linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel, the Tar Heels should be set at the linebacker position this fall.
The first two games of the season will serve as a litmus test to gauge where UNC football stands on a national scale.
The Tar Heels will open their campaign in Orlando, Florida on Sept. 4 when they take on the University of Central Florida. UCF has lost only four games over the past three seasons, and posted an undefeated season in 2017.
The following week, UNC will travel to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta to face Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game. Auburn finished last season ranked No. 14 in the nation and was led by its own first-year quarterback, Bo Nix.
In ACC play, while the Tar Heels will avoid a rematch with Clemson in the regular season, there will still be some challenging matchups. In October, they will play at Virginia, the team that won the ACC Coastal Division last season, and also travel to Miami.
The pieces are in place for North Carolina to take the next step in 2020. In a wide-open division, the Tar Heels should have every opportunity to compete for a spot in the ACC Championship Game.
With the results of last season coming as somewhat of a surprise, there's no telling how far this team can go in 2020.
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