We are now within two weeks of the kickoff of the Tar Heels 2021 season opener against the Virginia Tech Hokies on the road in Blacksburg, VA, a season that will be filled with some of the biggest expectations in recent memory. Each year here on the Heel Tough Blog we give you a look at some of our writers’ bold predictions for the season and this year it was definitely a little more challenging than in years past. However, our guys cranked it up a bit to give you their boldest preseason predictions ever.
Des Evans Leads the Team in Sacks with Double-Digit Total
This is probably the least bold of my predictions for this season in large part because of what we have heard coming from camp regarding the sophomore pass rusher. Evans is up almost 30 lbs. from when he arrived to campus last fall and has been raved about when Mack Brown and Jay Bateman have been asked about him. The focus of the staff this year is to find that pass rusher that can win one-on-one matchups off the edge or in the trenches and get to the quarterback at a consistent rate. Evans has been one of the first names talked about whenever it has been brought up and with the added weight, there is plenty of reason to believe that he can be that pass rushing force that the defense is looking for. With veterans all over the defensive line and one the edges and plenty of depth there, as well, Evans should see plenty of one-on-one pass rushing opportunities and I think it leads to him becoming the first Tar Heel pass rusher since Kareem Martin in 2013 to finish a season with double-digit sacks.
Jeremiah Gemmel Earns First-Team All-ACC Honors
This one on paper may not seem like that bold of a prediction but it is a little more bolder than you may think. Production should be no issue for Gemmel, who finished second on the team in tackles a year ago and will now likely play more a traditional inside linebacker spot where he will be focus on slowing down the run and controlling the box, which should allow him to play more off of instinct, which he thrives at doing. This more about the rest of the linebackers in the ACC, a conference that could very well produce has of the linebackers for the All-American team when it is all said and done. If Gemmel can get to a similar spot to Chazz Surratt of 2019, which I believe he can, it will be hard not to have him on that All-ACC first team at season’s end despite all of the other talented linebackers in the conference.
Giovanni Biggers Will Lead the Team in Interceptions
Biggers has been raved about throughout the offseason and has put himself in the running for significant reps this fall. While the search for consistency is the most talked about aspect of this secondary, the team also remains in search of defensive playmakers that can create turnovers. While many like Tony Grimes to be that player that will step up but he probably won’t be targeted that often. Biggers was a playmaker at the prep level before arriving to Carolina and with him earning a bigger role this season and rotating in at both safety spots, I think there is a legitimate chance that he could be that playmaker that this defense has been in search of.
Tar Heels Finish With a Top 25 Overall Defense Nationally
With all but one starter returning to the defensive unit and the offense having to replace four major contributors from a year ago, the Tar Heels may have to lean on their defense in a few games early in the season. For the first time in a while, that is something that Tar Heel fans can feel comfortable with because of how much talent and depth has been added to the unit over the last couple of years. The talent and depth along the defensive line and in the secondary is as good as it has been in a long time and have a chance to be some of the top units in the ACC. The linebacking corps might not be as deep as those other two units, but there is plenty of talent there and this is the first time since Mack Brown and his staff has talked about working in some rotation at the position since they arrived back in 2019. Last year, when this team started working in more rotation late in the season, they showed some major improvements, ranking inside the top 20 in total defense down the stretch of the season. The added talent and depth should allow this unit to take another step forward this season and with more rotation from word go this should allow the unit to avoid wearing down late in the season. This defense has the capability of making a huge jump this season and I think with everything that is in place and a manageable schedule in terms of the offenses they face, I think this defense could very well be a top 25 unit in college football this season.
Sam Howell Wins the Heisman
I have the Tar Heels finishing the season 11-1 and in order to do that, they will need Howell to have another big season, if not the biggest of his career. Most people around college football believe that heading into the season that he is the best quarterback in college football and it’s hard to disagree with that right now considering what he has done in his first two years on campus. If the Tar Heels can live up to my expectations and head into the ACC Championship Game with a chance to make the College Football Playoff with a win, he will have a great chance to take home the most famous piece of hardware in the sport.
UNC Will Have Multiple Players with 10+ Touchdown Receptions
UNC is tasked with replacing both Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome, two electric receivers that thrived in Phil Longo’s wide receiver friendly offense. Unlike back when UNC lost guys like Ryan Switzer, Bug Howard, Mack Hollins, etc Carolina is more than equipped to replace such production. Josh Downs made a name for himself in the Orange Bowl loss to Texas A&M, and will be a household name not only in the ACC, but around the country by the time the season ends. He’s a natural fit to replace Newsome in the slot, and will be a big play threat every time he touches the football. Beau Corrales is still working himself back from injury, but he’s supposed to go for the opener at Virginia Tech. Corrales gives Howell the go to receiver this offense needs in the red zone, and with go Brown, and Newsome will be targeted plenty. UNC figures to be pass happy as the running game will be a work in progress when the season begins, allowing for big passing numbers from the best quarterback in college football. Both Josh Downs and Beau Corrales will have 10 or more touchdown receptions this season.
Eugene Asante Will Lead Team in Tackles and Will Top Chazz Suratt’s 115 mark from 2 years ago
No one is going to be surprised if Asante does lead the team in tackles, but predicting Asante to surpass Chazz Surratt’s mark of 115 total tackles definitely qualifies as a bold prediction. He registered 10 tackles in his lone start last season, and if he can average that total over the course he can top Surratt’s number from 2019. Asante is a more natural fit at his position in Jay Bateman’s scheme than Surratt, and he is expected to be a big part of a defense that appears ready to take the next step. With him beside Jeremiah Gemmel, UNC has one of the better linebacker tandems in the ACC.
Ray Vohasek Earns First-Team All-ACC Honors
For context, Phil Steele has Vohasek as a Third-Team All-American for this season, so there is reason to believe Ray is in for a big time season. Vohasek emerged at the end of the 2019 season, when the Tar Heels rallied to make a bowl game. He was sensational in the beginning of last season, where he led the defense in the month of September. UNC has lacked depth up front since Mack Brown returned (something they’ve addressed in recruiting), and it really hurt them a year ago. By October, Vohasek was worn down, and this defense couldn’t stop Virginia and Florida State, losses that took the team out of competing for the ACC Championship. This year though there is more depth up front, which means Vohasek should produce more, while being on the field less. That uptick in production should mean a better more complete defense, and will land him on an All-ACC team.
Sam Howell Will be a Heisman Finalist
The last time UNC had a Heisman finalist, I wasn’t born, my father wasn’t born, and his mother, my grandmother wasn’t born, back when Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice was leading UNC to Sugar Bowl’s and being a Heisman Finalist. That will all change this season, when Howell attends the Heisman Ceremony. Sam has been breaking and setting records since his first start in Charlotte back in 2019, and his record setting career is going to culminate as a finalist for the most prestigious award in college athletics. Mack Brown had both Vince Young and Colt McCoy as finalists back when he was at Texas, but neither won the award. Howell will become the first finalist for Brown at North Carolina.
UNC Doesn’t Make ACC Championship Game
UNC arguably has the best quarterback in the country, a stable full of talent at the skill positions, they return 10 starters on defense from last season, but it’s not going to be enough to get this team to the ACC Championship Game. The schedule doesn’t do them any favors, as they open the season in Blacksburg, a venue they’ve only won twice since the Hokies joined the ACC. The matchup with Miami was close the last time the Hurricanes visited Chapel Hill, and UNC doesn’t have Michael Carter and Javonte Williams to run through their defense. Factor in they haven’t beaten Virginia under Mack Brown, and with Florida State and NC State expected to be much improved there are a lot of questionable games on the schedule for this team, that hasn’t proven they can handle the spotlight. UNC was last picked to win the Coastal in 2016, when they started the season 7-2, before limping to an 8-4 finish in the regular season. That has been the only other time UNC was predicted to make the ACC Championship Game by the ACC media. The reality is that if UNC fails to make the Championship game this season, they will have wasted the best career of any Tar Heel in program history, as Sam Howell is poised to leave for the NFL after his junior season.