In the middle of last season, it looked like the Tar Heels were heading towards a significant step forward as a program after a 2021 season that left it at the point of a crossroads. A four game losing streak to close 2022, though, has the program back in a similar spot again this offseason with the concerns that the team could be wasting the career of another program legend in Drake Maye. 2023 will be a crucial season for Mack Brown and the direction of this program with major changes coming to both the coaching staff and the roster. There are plenty of guys that the team needs to see growth to navigate, but these are five that we think absolutely have to make a jump for this team to have any chance of doing so.
There are so many different guys along this defensive front that need to take a leap this season after how much the group struggled in 2022, but Gainer is chief among them. The biggest issue for this Tar Heel defense this past season was that they simply could not get to the quarterback and that was the reason they brought in the Florida State transfer. Gainer’s most success in Tallahassee came when he was playing on the edge, but he has never had more than 3.5 sacks in a season. Gene Chizik and Tim Cross need this to be a breakout season for him where he can at least double that career-best sack production because they will need this defense to finally start producing to navigate this uncertainty.
With how much this defensive line struggled in 2022, it should come as no shock that we have two members of the unit on this list. Murphy was a player that many projected to have a breakout season this past season and not only did that not happen, but he took a significant step back. He should have to battle to earn his starting role back, but the fact that he started all fourteen games a year ago would suggest he will. If he does, the team needs him to take that leap that he was supposed to last year and become a force in the middle of a defensive line that sorely needs one.
Wide receiver is another room that the Tar Heels have a host of players that will need to take another step this season to help fill the shoes left behind by Josh Downs and Antoine Green. The key to this Tar Heel offense since Mack Brown took the job in 2019 has been success of the slot receiver and that will be important once again this year under new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey. McCollum had an extremely productive 2022 with Georgia Tech amidst less than ideal circumstances, catching 60 passes for 655 yards and three touchdowns. He will get every chance to be the starter in the slot and the team will need him to build upon that sophomore season and become some that Drake Maye can rely, especially in red zone and third down situations.
One of the biggest reasons why the Tar Heels and Dré Bly parted ways this offseason was because there was no development at the cornerback position after strong freshmen seasons. Similar to the now-departed Tony Grimes, Allen showed some really nice flashes late in his true freshman season, earning two starts to close the season. The team desperately needs him to build off of that and become a consistent force that they can count on snap-after-snap. If he could become what Desmond Lawrence was for the team back in Chizik’s first stint, that would be a big step towards improving this defense overall.
Asim Richards’s departure for the NFL has left a major void for the Tar Heels along their offensive line, but the good news is they have a former 5✮ that will be able to help them replace him. Rice only played 16 snaps as a true freshman, but we heard Brown rave about him when he first arrived to campus for looking the part. With a full season in the system, Rice should be better positioned to show why he is one of the highest rated prospects that the Tar Heels have ever landed. The left tackle spot is a huge key to the success of the line as a whole as Richards showed this past season and the team is hoping that Rice can take that significant jump and provide even more consistency there than the prior did in his time as the starter.