The North Carolina football team couldn’t control the hype built around it this offseason, but it can control its play on the field.
And so far, it hasn’t been good.
With half of the season in the rearview mirror, the Tar Heels sit at just 3-3 — with the preseason No. 10 team’s losses coming against squads with a combined record of 8-9. Though the loss of offensive weapons such as Javonte Williams, Michael Carter and Dyami Brown to the NFL has clearly affected UNC, this year’s starting lineup is almost a carbon-copy of the one that held a fourth-quarter lead in last year’s Orange Bowl.
For a team that’s prevailing narrative has been, ‘Wow, what a difference a year can make,’ since head coach Mack Brown returned to the helm and quickly brought UNC from sub .-500 to a New Year’s Six bowl, this year has fit the bill of rapid change.
But this time, the difference has been regression.
With that in mind, here are midseason grades for the Tar Heels’ offense, defense and coordinators.
Not good. Not good at all.
In six words, that’s the most efficient way to summarize how North Carolina has looked with possession of the ball this year.
That ‘not good’ starts with offensive line play — the group that has allowed 3.83 sacks per game, good for 124th out of 130 FBS teams nationally.
Junior quarterback Sam Howell has spent the early part of the season running for his proverbial life — and future professional career — behind a line that has allowed the pocket to collapse almost immediately on every snap. The running game hasn’t helped those matters, as UNC has struggled to garner a ground game that doesn’t include Howell being forced to leave the pocket early to pick up yards with his legs.
Last year, Howell finished the season with a 68 percent completion rate. This year he’s completing just 61 percent of his passes and has gone under that mark three times on the campaign. The junior has nearly matched last year’s interception total of seven — already totaling five — with at least six games to go. What started as a Heisman-hopeful campaign has turned into Howell’s worst statistical season in Chapel Hill, though much of it has been out of his control.
Despite this, Howell and sophomore wide receiver Josh Downs have created an electric connection as passer and receiver — to the tune of 741 yards and seven touchdowns for Downs — which has at times masked the Tar Heels major offensive deficiencies.
Still, this offense has not measured up to the previous two years' precedent, forcing UNC to rely on its inconsistent defense to keep games close.
While the defensive unit has shown some signs of improvement when compared to previous campaigns, it still isn’t quite capable of carrying the Tar Heels to any wins.
So far this year, UNC has allowed a tick under 27 points per game — a slight improvement over last year’s 29 points-per-contest mark — which is particularly impressive given North Carolina’s offense. The offense has put together much shorter drives this season, often putting the Tar Heels’ defense in bad field position.
Still, UNC has continued to struggle against the quarterback run, a common theme that has forced this group into bad losses continuously the last three years.
Saturday’s loss to Florida State was no different, as Seminole quarterback Jordan Travis held a personal track meet in Kenan Stadium, running for 121 yards and two touchdowns.
Offensive coordinator Phil Longo has struggled to adjust to life post-Williams, Carter and Brown this season, as UNC has continued to rely on a run-pass-option system, despite the absence of the running part.
Long-developing routes behind one of the nation’s worst offensive lines have often forced Howell to move outside of a collapsing pocket to progress through reads, and made one of the nation’s most talented quarterbacks play below his skill level.
Despite Saturday’s results, working with a young group of players in key positions across both the front seven and secondary, defensive coordinator Jay Bateman has overseen improvement in a defense that struggled to get stops in previous years.
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