While another great day of college football commences around the country, the Tar Heels are in the midst of an early bye week for the second straight year after getting to 4-0 for the first time since 1997 last weekend. As we wait for the team to return to the field next weekend in Chapel Hill, let's look back on the first four games of the season with some of our biggest surprises and disappointments so far this year.
Most people who follow this program expected much more production from Rucker this season in his second year in Gene Chizik’s system, but no one could have seen this start coming. Rucker’s 7.5 tackles for loss currently leads the ACC and is top ten nationally and is already a career-high, as are his 4.0 sacks. His 24 quarterback pressures are tied for the second most in the entire country and shows just how impactful he has been off the edge this season. The Tar Heels will need him to continue to be a force off the edge as they get fully into conference play and face some much stronger offenses than they have faced so far.
The staff raved all offseason about and we can see why. The East Tennessee State transfer is coming off of one of the best performances of anyone in college football this season, with two interceptions and a punt return against Pittsburgh and that is just part of what has been a great four games for him. Huzzie has allowed just 11 catches on his 27 targets so far this season for 114 yards and has yet to allow a touchdown so far this year. He will certainly be challenged more in the final eight games, but it feels like the team final has someone that can be trusted down in and down out in coverage.
Jones entered fall camp just battling to stay a part of the rotation on the outside, but now has become the team’s most productive receiver. He currently leads the team in receiving yards with 296 and is coming off a career best performance against Pittsburgh where he went over 100 for the first time at the college level. The hope is that he can start finding the end zone more than he has so far this season, but just having him producing the way he is now is a big boost for this passing game.
Coming into the season, there was a lot of concern about running it back with the same safety duo that finished the season last year, but they have played very well so far. Both Don Chapman and Giovanni Biggers have been much more impactful in the run game and they have done a good job of keeping everything in front of them in coverage, especially Chapman. Behind them, some good depth has developed with Will Hardy and Stick Lane providing some great rotational reps the last few weeks. This is the first time since Myles Dorn and Myles Wolfolk were back there that you can feel confident about this group week in and week out.
This was another transfer that we had high hopes for, but I don’t know if we knew he would be this impactful. The former Coastal Carolina offensive guard has missed the last two games and that has been very noticeable with how much the team has struggled to run the ball. After averaging 243.5 rushing yards in the first two games of the season with him active, the team has only been able to run for 91.0 in the last two. This bye week will hopefully be what he needs to get healthy and be able to help the Tar Heels run the ball better as they start a difficult stretch in their schedule.
Burnette was forced into action a couple of weeks ago against Minnesota after an injury to starting kicker Ryan Coe prior to that game. All three of the field goals that he has connected on have been from beyond 40 yards and came as the team was trying to establish further separation in games that they simply could not put away prior to that. Burnette has seemingly regained the confidence that he lost late last year, which is huge for a Tar Heel team that needs some sort of stability at that kicker spot.
Kick Coverage Unit
Kick return yards allowed is the one category nationally that the Tar Heel rank among the worst in the entire country. The team has only allowed six kicks to be returned this season, but those returns have gone for an average of 34.0 yards, third-worst in the nation, and a touchdown. With games that are expected to be much closer the rest of the way, the unit needs to be much better moving forward.
Interior Defensive Line
While the Tar Heel edge rushers have taken a major step forward this year, the interior of the defensive front has continued to struggle. Their issues getting off blocks has been a big part of why the team has had issues stopping the running game against this season. The group hasn’t been much better on passing downs, registering just 1.0 sack and 19 total pressures in those first four games of the season and the majority of those haven’t come from Myles Murphy and Kevin Hester Jr., the two starters. In order for this defense to take another step, the interior of the defensive line needs to step up.
Blackwell won a starting job at wide receiver early in fall camp, but simply has not been able to produce, opening the door for others to step up. While he has been able to make a couple of big plays down the field at times, he has just six catches for 88 yards so far this year. The good news is that J.J. Jones has broken out and Kobe Paysour has been moved to the outside after Nate McCollum’s return from the injury that cost him the first game of the season. If he is going to play significant reps like he did in the first three games, he will have to be more impactful.