Heel Tough Blog: 2022 Bold Predictions
The Tar Heels will kick off their 2022 season tomorrow night in Kenan Stadium and it is time for us to get bold. Here is a look at our writers' bold predictions for this upcoming season, one that is starting to generate a lot of excitement as we have gotten closer to the season.
Defense Force 15+ Interceptions
At first glance, this is one prediction that probably seems pretty bold, but in all reality, it really isn’t. Even with the struggles that the team had a year ago in pass defense, they still finished with thirteen interceptions, including four interceptions by oft-criticized Cam’Ron Kelly. Eleven of those thirteen interceptions return this season and with Chizik and Warren now taking over the defense, there is more confidence in the defense and the ability to create turnovers. Chizik’s defense proved it the first time around, intercepting 17 passes in the 2015 season. Communication was a big issue for this team a year ago and this has been a focus of the staff so far this offseason and I believe that will pay off immediately. If it does and the defensive front can create more pressure on the quarterback, I think they can get to that fifteen interception mark.
Offensive Line Finishes Top 50 In TFL and Sacks Allowed
It’s no secret that this offensive line was abysmal last season and ranked as one of the worst nationally in both of those categories. However, the departure of Stacy Searels combined with some fresh faces leading the unit might be just what this unit needs to have better success this season. While there will be four new full time starters for this group, there is a scenario where all five will be upperclassmen, meaning there will still be plenty of experience in this room. Jack Bicknell Jr. has a strong track record and last year was able to turn Louisville’s offensive line around very quickly in his one year there. I think this unit has the talent and competitive depth to be able to take a significant step this season.
Both George Pettaway and Omarion Hampton Finish With More Than 500 Yards
This was one prediction that seemed a bit bolder a couple of weeks ago when I first thought of this for the podcast. Since then, senior starter British Brooks has been ruled out for the entire season with a lower body injury, blowing the door wide open for carries in that Tar Heel backfield. Still, these are two true freshmen and neither one is starting on Saturday. However, this talented duo will see some action this weekend according to Coach Brown and this could be the start of a special duo in Chapel Hill. D.J. Jones, Caleb Hood and Elijah Green will have something to say about this one, but there is a reason that these two are already drawing comparisons to Michael Carter and Javonte Williams.
Josh Downs Finishes With 1,500 Yards Receiving and 10+ TDs
Downs set the school record for receptions and receiving yards in a single season last year, but the talk all offseason has been about how they can free him up more throughout the season. With how good he was at creating separation and how dynamic he is after the catch a year ago, there is no doubt in my mind that he will find ways to produce even with attention. If the staff can find ways to get him in more one-on-one situations, he will have a chance to improve upon his production from a year ago. If he does that, I definitely think he will get to that 1,500 yard receiving make and will score double-digit touchdowns.
True Freshman Andre Greene Jr. Finishes as Second Leading Receiver
Greene Jr. was one of the early standouts of fall camp for Mack Brown and company and there is plenty of excitement about what the future may hold for him. He may not have to wait long to produce, though, with the injury to Antoine Green freeing up snaps. Even though he is not starting the season as a blue team member, it is hard to ignore the comment from Mack Brown on Monday where he called him a “potential superstar”. His ability to climb the ladder and win the 50/50 balls is something that this offense sorely missed a year ago and it feels like it will only be a matter of time before he starts getting his opportunity to shine in that role. This is certainly the boldest of my predictions, but with questions about the rest of the receiver room outside of Downs, I think there is a legitimate chance that Greene Jr. could finish with the second most receiving yards of anyone on the team.
Bryson Nesbit Finishes Second on Team in Receiving
This one may be more complicated after Mack Brown released the initial depth chart for the start of the season, and Nesbit wasn’t listed as a starter, but I’m going to stand firm in this prediction. It’s time for Phil Longo’s offense to evolve and take that next step, and that includes adding the tight end to the passing game. Carolina has a lot of talent at the wide receiver position, but you could make the argument that Bryson Nesbit is a bigger mismatch threat than anyone not named Josh Downs. Factor in you’re breaking in an inexperienced QB, Nesbit should be featured a lot when on the field. While I don’t anticipate a high volume of receptions necessarily for Nesbit, I do foresee him being explosive when he does get targeted. I wouldn’t rule out 800 yards for Nesbit this season.
Des Evans Records Double-Digit Sacks
This falls under the bold category only because Evans hasn’t produced much during his time in Chapel Hill, so recording double-digit sacks would be seen as a breakout season for him. Evans has all the gifts in the world to be a premier pass rusher in all of college football, and with Gene Chizik having a better understanding of how to use him, big things await him this season.
Power Echols and RaRa Dillworth Earn All-ACC Honors
If you’ve listened to recent episodes of the Heel Tough Blog podcast you've heard me drool over these two guys, as I believe they are the future of the linebackers in Chapel Hill. Echols will begin the season as a starter, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Dillworth ends the season as a starter. I often compare them to the days that Bruce Carter and Quan Sturdivant manned the linebacker position, and it’s easy to see why. Combined they can both play sideline to sideline, get after the quarterback, make plays in the open field and so much more. Gene Chizik did wonders with this position when he was here the last time, I expect the same this time around, in a way that garners them conference honors.
Josh Downs Wins Biletnikoff Award
Ohio State and USC boast great wide receiving rooms, and if Josh Downs were on their respective campuses, he’d fit in right in. He’s that good. Coming off the best single season by a wide receiver in the history of the program the bar is high for Downs, as this is likely his final season playing college football. Drake Maye, like Sam Howell, will look for him early and often, and even though defensive coordinators across the ACC have had a summer to watch film on him, it’s going to be hard slowing him down. We’re only two years removed from a receiver winning the Heisman, and why I don’t think that’s going to happen, Downs is going to be a household name across the country by the time the season comes to a close.
UNC Beats Notre Dame & Pittsburgh For First Time Since Mack Brown Returned to Chapel Hill
Carolina had their chances to beat both these teams last season and had they done so, who knows how the season would’ve ended. Mack Brown has yet to beat either team since returning to Chapel Hill, but doing so this season would be a big boost for a program at a crossroads this season. It helps that both games come at home, especially the Notre Dame game. The Irish are breaking in a new head coach, and play at Ohio State to start the season, and if that result goes wrong, it could be a sign of things to come in South Bend. As for Pittsburgh, the lose of Kenny Pickett to the NFL, and Jordan Addison to USC are significant, but I’d argue that losing offensive coordinator Mark Whipple to Nebraska is an even bigger loss. Winning these games would likely mean a bounce-back season for the Heels, and return a belief in the program that Mack Brown is the best guy for the job.