Each year since 2018, we here at the Heel Tough Blog have predicted some of the breakout stars for the Tar Heels ahead of the start of football season. While some of the predictions have been spot on, such as the Dyami Brown pick back in 2019 others haven’t been nearly as successful. This year, though, is the most confidence that our guys have ever felt in their breakout candidates.
This is probably the most obvious breakout candidate that I have ever put on these lists, but you can leave him off. Downs didn’t play a ton of reps a year ago, but that was in large part because of Dazz Newsome still being on campus and no spring ball due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the snaps that he did see a year ago, he showed why everyone is so excited about his future with the team. Many around college football peg him as one of the sport's biggest breakout stars this year and it’s not crazy to think that he could put up some of the best numbers amongst receivers in all of college football.
There are plenty of great candidates on this defensive line this year for the Tar Heels, but the most talked about member so far has been Murphy. He began showing some flashes late last season and has a lot of versatility that will allow him to move all over the defense line and allow the Tar Heels to play a bunch of different fronts. The conversation around him has also focused a lot on the fact that he has become much more physical, something that will be welcome in the middle of that Tar Heel defense. Expect Murphy to be one of the Tar Heels leaders in tackles for a loss and have a big season for the Tar Heels in his sophomore season.
Evans is the guy amongst the outside linebackers that has stood out the most so far this fall and I am expecting a big season from him in 2021. The talent and the ability has never been a question with him, but rather his frame, which he has added 30 lbs. to this offseason. Head coach Mack Brown has said plenty of times throughout the last few months that the team is in need of guys that can win one-on-one battles in pass rushing situations and he has the best skill set to do just that. In my bold predictions I have Evans reaching the ten sack mark this season, which some may think is a reach, but he, at the least, has a great chance to lead this Tar Heel pass rush that will hope to make life easier on the guys in the secondary.
The fact that Chazz Surratt is gone from the middle of this Tar Heel defense hasn't been talked about much at all this offseason and there is a good reason for that. In the Orange Bowl game, the one start for Asante a year ago, he was simply spectacular, leading the team in tackles and simply swarming to the football all night. He brings more athleticism and familiarity to the position than Surratt, a converted quarterback, did and will allow Jeremiah Gemmel to avoid having to drop into coverage as much as he did a year ago. There shouldn’t be much of a drop off if any for the Tar Heels at linebacker this season and Asante should be set up for a very productive year this year.
Biggers is the player that many around the team believe has evolved the most this offseason and he has progressed from being a depth piece to possibly being a starter. He has the versatility to move back and forth between both of the safety spots and the coaches have raved about his ability to communicate and set the defense. The Tar Heels are in need of a consistent threat on the back end of that defense and Biggers might be able to provide that. He looks set up for a big role this season and could be one of the bigger reasons that this Tar Heel defense takes a step forward this year.
Many folks around the country may not know who Josh Downs is as of today, but after next week’s opener at Virginia Tech they most certainly will. Downs is poised to be Sam Howell’s go to target coming out of the slot position, and is set to have a big time season, and that’s just coming from UNC coaches and players. Kirk Herbstreit from ESPN awarded Downs with his preseason “Herbie Award” for the breakout star of the 2021 season, and rightfully so. If you go back to the Orange Bowl from a season ago, you could see the talent Downs possess, and why he has clicked with Sam Howell in such a quick amount of time. He would have seen more snaps last season, but Carolina wasn’t taking Dazz Newsome off the field, no matter the situation. He scored 3 touchdowns last season, while catching 7 passes. Expect both of those numbers to take a massive step forward this fall.
The lack of production from Evans last season wasn’t talent based, a lot of had to do with a COVID restricted off-season, where he wasn’t able to add the necessary weight to be a big time play maker. 35 pounds of muscle later, and Evans is going to give many offensive lines fits, trying to keep him out of their backfield. He’s a natural fit for what Jay Bateman wants in a guy coming off the edge, either as a pass rusher, or a defender in the run game. Double digit sacks isn’t out of the question for Evans, as he’s going to be a big part of a defense looking to take that next step.
In an era where players transfer left and right for not getting on the field early, Giovanni Biggers has stayed the course, and is reaping the benefits for doing so. A once afterthought in the Carolina secondary, Biggers is on the verge of a possible starting role, or at the minimum being in the rotation in the defensive backfield. Biggers may not contain the type of talent of some others on this roster, but has learned the scheme as well as anybody, and does a good job of not missing tackles, or losing coverage. The safety position is a big question mark on this team, a question that Biggers is going to be a solution to the answer.
My love affair with Emery continues for another off-season, but this year he has potential to live up to the billing. After being called out by his head coach about the lack of consistency, Simmons has proven during the spring, and the summer to be a reliable deep threat for Sam Howell to throw to. Carolina is of course replacing Dyami Brown, who was as good a down the field receiver in the country the last two seasons. Simmons made an acrobatic catch last season against Notre Dame, so you know he has the physical traits. It’s now about translating on the field, and proving he belongs in the ACC.
Hood has emerged as the #2 running back behind Ty Chandler, and by season’s end he could be setting himself up for a monster 2022 campaign. The converted high school quarterback is still learning how to pick up in pass protection, among other things as he is learning a new position, but one thing is clear: Caleb Hood is a football player, and will thrive no matter where he is. His physicality is going to be needed in the run game, as UNC lost as physical a runner in college football with Javonte Williams off to the NFL. If Hood can prove to be a productive #2, and not force UNC to use a rotation by Chandler, this offense can look the part that it did last season, and that could mean a return to the ACC Championship Game, for the first time since that magical 2015 season.