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Friday February 3rd

Analysis: UNC football offense shines, defense remains mixed bag in midseason report card

UNC freshman quarterback Drake Maye (10) passes the ball during the football game against Duke on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022, at the Wallace Wade Stadium. UNC beat Duke 38-35.
Buy Photos UNC freshman quarterback Drake Maye (10) passes the ball during the football game against Duke on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022, at the Wallace Wade Stadium. UNC beat Duke 38-35.

Last offseason, the North Carolina football team lay well beneath the national spotlight for seemingly the first time since head coach Mack Brown’s return.

The Sam Howell era passed and much of the buzz surrounding the Tar Heels was crashing down after a befuddling 6-7 campaign. It appeared the program would face another test, one that would challenge its Hall of Fame coach. 

But then came Drake Maye.

The redshirt first-year quarterback brought the hype back to North Carolina football and led UNC to a 6-1 record to start the season. Now, the No. 21-ranked Tar Heels sit atop the Coastal Division and hold a 3-0 record within the ACC. 

With five games remaining in the regular season, here's a look at grades for North Carolina's offense, defense and coaches. 

Offense

Just how good has Maye been as a full-time starter?

UNC's signal caller ranks second in the country in passing touchdowns with 24 scores and is top 10 nationally in both total passing yards and QBR. He’s also North Carolina’s leading rusher this season with 378 yards.

But it hasn’t been just the efforts of Maye that have taken North Carolina’s offense to new heights. Wide receivers Josh Downs and Antoine Green have quietly become one of the better duos in the conference, with Downs leading the team in receiving yards and Green averaging a staggering 29.5 yards per reception. Both Kamari Morales and Bryson Nesbit have elevated the tight end position for UNC this year, as the two have combined for seven touchdowns.

If there was one flaw attributed to the offense, it would be the Tar Heels’ lack of a consistent rushing attack. With sophomore running back Caleb Hood taking over the lead role in the backfield, North Carolina could turn its ground game around in the coming weeks.

Grade: A-

Defense

Is it the 40 points allowed to App State in the fourth quarter? Or maybe Notre Dame quarterback Drew Pyne passing for 289 yards and three touchdowns in just his second career start?

Nevertheless, North Carolina’s defense has played poorly in Gene Chizik’s return to Chapel Hill. 

Statistically, the Tar Heels stand alone at the bottom of all Power Five teams in yards allowed per contest with 476.3 yards. 

But for nearly every long quarterback scramble allowed or 500-yard passing performance, there have been key plays on the defensive side, such as late interceptions against Miami and Duke. 

No matter what happens in the first three and a half quarters of play, the defense always seems to step up at the right time. Throw in that UNC houses linebackers Power Echols and Cedric Gray — who are each ranked first in the conference for solo and total tackles, respectively — and North Carolina’s defense narrowly gets a passing grade. 

Grade: C-

Coaching

Nobody is perfect. But offensive coordinator Phil Longo might be the closest thing to it for the Tar Heels. 

Since he joined UNC in 2019, North Carolina’s offense has perennially finished in the top 12 in total yards per game. And this consistent production has stood the test of the loss of marquee talent every offseason.

The narrative around Longo at times tends to lean on the negatives, whether it’s his tendency to get predictable with the run or his scheme relying too much on the deep ball. But now in year four, with Tar Heels leading the ACC in both points and yards per contest, it’s time to recognize that UNC staffs one of the best offensive minds in the country.

Grade: A

When assistant head coach for the defense Gene Chizik returned to Chapel Hill, he brought his “bend don’t break” mentality with him. 

As to be expected, Chizik rarely lines cornerbacks up in press coverage and deploys blitz packages sparingly. But when the team rosters multiple four and five-star prospects and is still one of the worst units in the country, something is not working. 

Grade: D+  

@evanr0gers

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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