After last night, it’s hard not to be impressed with the North Carolina football team.
The No. 13 Tar Heels, just two seasons removed from a miserable 2-9 campaign, finished this year 8-4 and won a trip to Miami for the Orange Bowl, their first major bowl game in 70 years.
Despite suffering a 41-27 loss to No. 5 Texas A&M, they reaffirmed what they’ve spent the last two seasons proving: there is more to this team than can be read from a box score. Here are some of the key takeaways after the Tar Heels’ trip to the Sunshine State:
UNC's roster depth helped manage opt-outs
The biggest storyline for UNC leading up to the Jan. 2 matchup was the absence of four of its most important players after they opted out of the Orange Bowl to prepare for the 2021 NFL Draft. So how did the team fare?
Well, with UNC’s leading receiver Dyami Brown out, first-year Josh Downs had a breakout performance with four catches for 91 yards and two touchdowns, including a 75-yard score to give UNC the lead in the fourth quarter. Brown’s first-year brother, Khafre, also played well when called upon, getting an efficient 40 yards on two catches.
In place of first-team All-ACC linebacker Chazz Surratt, sophomore Eugene Asante led the team with 10 total tackles. The area where the opt-outs were most missed, though, was in the backfield.
Without the dynamic running back duo of Javonte Williams and Michael Carter, walk-on junior British Brooks had a respectable 53-yard performance, including a powerful 17-yard run in the first quarter. Though it wasn’t enough to replace their impact, the Tar Heels can rest easy knowing their upcoming recruiting class features four-star running back Kamarro Edmonds. It'll give them enough talent in the backfield to aid their explosive passing offense.
Lingering defensive issues
There was a lot to appreciate from UNC’s defense during the Orange Bowl, especially the solid plays from the younger members of the secondary, like first-year cornerback Tony Grimes and first-year safety Ja’Qurious Conley. But the main issue that plagued the defense is one that’s been hanging over its head all season: securing tackles.
This showed itself most obviously late in the fourth quarter, when Aggie running back Devon Achane bounced towards the sideline and broke through multiple would-be tacklers on a 76-yard run to the end zone. The score gave the Aggies a touchdown lead and represented the beginning of the end for North Carolina.
Had someone been able to stop Achane, the game could have turned out differently. But right now, all co-defensive coordinator Jay Bateman can do is go back to practice and hope that his unit improves its stopping power by the beginning of next season.
Sam Howell: One of a kind?
With Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence almost guaranteed to be the top pick in the 2021 Draft, UNC’s record-breaking sophomore quarterback Sam Howell will be ready to take his place as the belle of the ball in 2022. What this means for Tar Heel fans, though, is that there’s likely only one more year of the Sam Howell experience.
The Tar Heels have already lined up his replacement in 24/7 Sports four-star prospect Drake Maye — brother of UNC basketball legend Luke Maye. But Howell has proven time and again that he is a special gunslinger — maybe UNC’s greatest of all time. He, alongside head coach Mack Brown, inspired Tar Heel fans to believe in their football team. You can’t just replace someone like that.
After the team’s meteoric rise, UNC should have higher aspirations than a New Year's Six loss entering next season. The culture has been built, the players assembled, the plays drawn — and now, UNC shouldn’t settle for anything less than greatness.
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