With the Tar Heels just three days until the Tar Heels take the field in Charlotte for the Duke’s Mayo Kickoff Classic, it is time for our two primary writers, Anthony Pagnotta and Josh Marlow, to give you their breakout players for this year. In years past, the guys have hit big with their predictions on players like Dyami Brown and Joshua Ezeudu, while also swinging and missing big with guys like Kristian Varner and Emery Simmons. Here are the five players they think will break out this season in an important year for the program.
This is the one I feel most confident about with everything we’ve heard from the staff. He has wowed them with the steps he has taken as a receiver and blocker and is the most well-rounded player in that room right now. Drake Maye has reportedly built really nice chemistry with him and with the possibility of Tez Walker not being available this season, he could be one of the top couple of targets for the Heisman hopeful to begin the season. I expect him to be an all-conference player by the end of the year.
Huzzie has been one of the stars of camp on the defensive side of the ball and is set up to have a big year in Chapel Hill. Mack Brown has said that he has done a good job of creating turnovers this preseason, something that he made a living off of last year at the FCS level with East Tennessee State. There is a lot of confidence that Huzzie can be the consistent corner that this team needs and with the success that he had against one of the best quarterbacks in the country this preseason, I’m buying in.
Hampton came out of the gates on fire a year ago, but hit a bit of a freshman wall once the conference play started. With that freshman year behind him and an offseason of improvement in many areas, including in pass protection, it looks like he is set up for a big season. With the balanced skillset that he possesses as a runner and the effect that he could have as a receiver, it’s hard not to think he will be the leader in that backfield by season’s end.
Holloway might be the player on this team that has taken the biggest leap this offseason. He was one of the most talked about camp standouts in the last few years by both the staff and his teammates, so it hard not to get excited about what he could do for the team this season. I am buying what everyone is selling about Holloway and think that he has a chance to be a really solid third corner that could become a starter if he can continue to cover at a high level.
The level of breakout for Hamilton will be determined by the decision that is made or not on Tez Walker. If Walker isn’t eligible, there is a chance that Hamilton, who is currently locked in a battle with J.J. Jones for snaps, could become the starter on the outside opposite of Gavin Blackwell. If Walker is eligible, Hamilton could still factor in as one of the top rotational receivers if he can beat out Jones. Regardless, the fact that he is battling for whatever role it ends up being is a telling sign of how much of an impression he has already made. This is the biggest risk I’ve taken this year, but I really think that this staff is high on the true freshman and he will have a role in this receiver room at some point this season.
After years of pleading for Phil Longo to utilize the tight end position more in his offense, the plea has been answered, and it took Phil Longo leaving for Wisconsin for UNC to get the most out of the room. Going into this, you probably had your money on either Bryson Nesbit or Kamari Morales being the breakout player from this position, but after a solid spring, and even better fall, Coopenhaver has emerged as the guy in the tight end room. Copenahver has made a name for himself, doing the dirty work in the blocking game, but he had a knack for making timely catches in key moments a year ago. With Chip Lindsy going to deploy more tight end friendly sets, the opportunity is there for him to emerge as one of the better pass-catching tight ends in the ACC, which is possible with a guy like Drake Maye throwing him the football.
There are a lot of questions on the back end of Carolina’s defense, after another injury-riddled off-season. One guy who is more than capable of emerging is Marcus Allen, a young corner who played above his head to end the 2022 season. For many years, Carolina has lacked the ability to have its corner, be physical at the line of scrimmage, and make plays in the run. Marcus Allen showed a knack for doing both down the stretch last year. Combined with his long wingspan, he’ll be able to make plays on the football, something the Tar Heels need to improve on as a unit. When I see Marcus Allen, he reminds me a lot of Des Lawrence and the underappreciated cornerback during Gene Chizik’s first sting in Chapel Hill. Allen has the chance to make the type of plays that would make it hard to forget about. Let’s hope that starts this weekend in Charlotte.
Before seeing the depth chart earlier this week, this would’ve been Elijah Green, and rightfully so, as he was Carolina’s leading rusher. Instead, Green finds himself third on the depth chart, behind British Brooks, and Omarion Hampton. Hampton was a guy that flashed early last year, with big games at App State, and at Georgia State, while Carolina was trying to figure out its running back room. When the dust finally settled, it was Green who was the guy, but this was a new year. There is a lot of Elijah Hood in Hampton’s game, and with a coordinator who wants to run the ball, that could mean that Hampton is due to have an impactful 2023 campaign. Given the amount of talent and depth that does exist in the running back room, it might be too much to ask for Hampton to amass over 1,000 rushing yards, but 800 yards, and double-digit touchdowns, are definitely attainable.
Carolina may need someone to step up from the wide receiver position if Tez Walker isn’t deemed eligible to play in 2023. Lucky for Carolina, they have recruited that position as well as any under Mack Brown, and they have plenty of options. Kobe Paysour led the team in receiving in the three games he started last year, so he has a knack for stepping up when his team needs him the most. Paysour is listed as the starter at the slot position in Carolina’s offense and could be Drake Maye’s top target in 2023. There are a lot of pundits around the country that question how the Tar Heels will replace the lost production of Josh Downs, without knowing that Paysour did the heavy lifting when Downs was injured in the early part of 2022. After this year, the college football world will be familiar with the slot receiver.
For many years, you’ve seen me hype of Des Evans, after the staff would spend the summer raving about him. I’m not buying anything that has been said about him, and neither should you. As for Jahvaree Ritzie, you should have your eyes glued to him, and he’s not hard to miss, as he weighs nearly 300 pounds. He may be listed behind Myles Murphy on the initial depth chart, but that shouldn’t sway you away from him. Now that he’s playing in rightful spot at the 3-technique, he is poised to be a force in the middle, that Carolina hasn’t had since Aaron Crawford, all the way back in 2019. Ritzie could be the missing piece to helping Carolina stop the run more effectively in 2023 and might demand the type of attention that will make it easier for Gene Chizik to dial pressure to get to the QB. This might be a stretch, but I wouldn’t rule out All-ACC honors if Ritzie develops into the type of player his talent possesses.