Thursday was the opening of fall camp for the Tar Heels and that means we are officially in preseason mode. Last year, just prior to fall camp, we gave you a look at our picks for the five breakout players for the upcoming season. This season, as part of our lead in to arguably the most important fall camp in program history, our lead football writers, Anthony and Josh, give you a look at their picks for the five breakout stars for the 2020 season.
After an early season shoulder ailment kept him from playing a major role for the Tar Heels, Vohasek showed some promise late in the season a year ago. Vohasek shined in the late season matchups with Mercer and Temple, but now must capitalize on that upside and become a leader for the Tar Heels along an defensive line that lost Jason Strowbridge and Aaron Crawford to graduation. Vohasek has been one of the standouts of the offseason program and the staff is looking to him as the main reason to be confident in this defensive line heading into this season. Although he only finished last season with 15 total tackles, 5.0 tackles for loss and 1.0 sack, there is plenty of reason to be confident that Vohasek can become a standout on this defensive line.
Another guy who came on late last season and showed a lot of promise, Ezeudu looks set to play a big role along the offensive line this year. He started the final five games of the season at left guard and started seven games overall, allowing just one sack, a year ago. His versatility is an added bonus for this staff that will have the tough test of replacing their blindside tackle Charlie Heck, although last season he looked much better at guard than at tackle. If he can take the next step forward this season, him and Marcus McKethan will be great anchors for this 2020 Tar Heel offensive line.
Some may have forgotten about just how much hype there was around Kelly before last season and he sure did live up that hype in the five games that he was active for a year ago. In his lone start at safety against Clemson, he looked fantastic, totaling five tackles prior to suffering a torn ACL that cost him the remainder of the season. Kelly will be one of the favorites to earn the starting job at the safety spot alongside Myles Wolfolk that is now open and if he doesn’t win the job there, he could also help provide depth at nickel, a spot where he nearly won the starting job a year ago. I expect Kelly to have a big 2020 for the Tar Heels somewhere in this defense.
Injuries have derailed each of Green’s first two seasons at Carolina, but similar to Toe Groves last year, if he could just stay healthy, there is a lot to be encouraged about with his game. There is a reason that he was able to earn a starting job out of the gate in 2019 and looked good to begin the season prior to a lower body injury that cost his three games and the starting job to Beau Corrales. Even with the injury issues, Green still played 268 snaps a year ago and averaged 27.1 yards per catch on his eight catches and also caught two touchdowns. The staff wants this talented deep threat on the field and he can finally stay healthy, I would expect him to have a nice season in 2020.
As I mentioned, this Tar Heels defensive line is looking for new names to help replace the production left behind by the two seniors that have moved on and Varner is one of the candidates to do that at one of the 4i-tech defensive end spots. Varner was a standout in winter workouts and has a good combination of speed and power. With uncertainty around this defensive line and playing time set to be available, there is a great opportunity for Varner to explode on the scene in 2020.
I went with Tomon as more a need for him to break out more than anything. Carolina is losing Jason Strowbridge, who Mack Brown repeatedly said would be a better NFL player than college player, and Aaron Crawford from their defensive line unit. That means someone has to step up and fill the void left behind by those two great players, and I think Tomon Fox fits the mold perfectly. Last season, Fox recorded 41 total tackles, 9 tackles for loss, and 6.5 sacks. He had 3 sacks in the thrilling home opener victory against Miami, but was never able to consistently bring the quarterback down. The numbers he put up last year were solid, but if Carolina wants to compete for the right to play in Charlotte, they’ll need more from him this season. Luckily he possesses the talent and ability to be a big time contributor for Jay Bateman’s defense.
A lot like with the selection of Tomon Fox, Carolina needs someone to step up and try to replace the production of Aaron Crawford, who last year graded out as the best run defender in the country. Vohasek appeared in 12 games last year, only recording 15 total tackles, with 1 sack and 5 tackles for loss. But it was his play at the end of last year that has the coaching staff excited about his potential this year to make a big impact this season. If he along with Tomon Fox and others can make an impact at the line of scrimmage, the back 7 of the defense is more than capable of making big plays to help win games.
You might not think that Sam Howell needs more weapons to throw to, with 1,000 receivers Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome returning, but it’s the exact opposite. Defensive coordinators have had all off-season to prepare to try and take away one of college football’s more dynamic receiving duos. When Carolina flipped Simmons’ commitment from Penn State, there was a lot of hype around him, and what he could bring to Chapel Hill. Last year he caught 4 passes, for 72 yards, to go with 1 touchdown. He’s going to get more reps, which should mean an increase in production as well. If he can become the 4th target for Howell, it’ll make it harder on opposing defenses to take Brown and Newsome away more consistently.
Another receiving target, but this one is in the form of a different capacity. The only thing missing from Carolina’s passing attack, was reliable production from the tight end position. With Carl Tucker transferring to Alabama, and Jake Bargas graduating, Walston is the only tight end from last year to catch a pass. He hauled in 9 receptions, for 76 yards and 1 touchdown. I already expressed the possibility of defenses taking away the deep ball to Dyami Brown and the intermediate routes to Newsome, Howell will need a safety valve to get the football too. Walston and Howell appeared to have chemistry in the early part of last season, before the passing game focused on their two stars wide outs. Walston doesn’t have to post big numbers in terms of catches or yards to be deemed productive, but if he can become a reliable third down target to move the chains, it’ll make this offense that much more dangerous.
Mack Brown wasn’t shy about saying that Carolina had the deepest back field in the country last year with Michael Carter, Javonte Williams and Antonio Williams. With Antonio Williams off to the NFL, there’s a void in the backfield for Carolina. Henderson was the fourth leading rusher last year for Carolina, running for 127 yards on 18 carries. Antonio Williams ran for 338 last year, as his leadership on and off the field was more valuable than his production. A lot like with passing game, defenses will be keying on Michael Carter and Javonte to try and slow the running game. Both of them also have had issues at times staying healthy, so depth will be needed. If Henderson can become a reliable member of the rotation, it’ll help keep Carter and Williams more healthy, and more fresh as they try to wear down opponents in the 4th quarter. And build confidence as he’s the future of the running back position for Phil Longo.