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Heel Tough Blog: John Lilly’s Departure for Panthers Leaves Big Hole

Andy Mead- ISI Photos

This offseason of change for Tar Heel football appeared to have come to an end with the transfer portal window closing and the hire of cornerback coach Jason Jones. As it turns out, that is not the case.


On Thursday afternoon, Joe Person, Carolina Panthers beat writer for The Athletic, reported that new Panther head coach Frank Reich is hiring Tar Heel tight ends coach John Lilly to the same role. Lilly, who has two years of NFL experience as a tight ends coach, worked with new Panthers offensive coordinator Thomas Brown at Georgia in 2011 and 2015. He also has a history of working with offensive line coach James Campen when he was with the Browns in that 2019 season.


This is a yet another substantial blow to this Tar Heel offensive staff this offseason. Lilly may have been the team's single-most successful coach this past season because of how big of a jump his unit made. He took on some added responsibility for this offseason when he was named the team’s run game coordinator under new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey back on December 15th. This past season, the Tar Heel tight ends caught 79 passes for 1,087 yards and eight touchdowns, easily the most successful season for that unit in nearly a decade. Sophomore Bryson Nesbit led the team with 35 catches, 507 yards and four touchdowns, all of which were the most for a tight end since Eric Ebron’s huge 2013 season. Kamari Morales has had back-to-back strong seasons and has set the record for touchdowns catches in a career for a Tar Heel tight end with ten so far. Even John Copenhaver took a major step this season, giving the team three different players at the position with at least 15 catches and 200 receiving yards last season.


The unit saw steady improvement in each of Lilly’s three years in Chapel Hill. The unit saw an increase in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns from the tight ends in each of those three seasons, including a major jump in all three categories in 2022. 


The team also had some solid success in run blocking under Lilly. He had five players that graded out with a 60.0 or better according to Pro Football Focus and never had a single player that graded out lower than a 50.0 for a season. The unit also had some pretty nice success in pass protection prior to this season where everyone struggled.


Losing Lilly leaves behind another big hole for this coaching staff that has experienced a ton of turnover so far this season. Not only are they losing a key position, but also a guy they were looking to to help the running game become what this new Chip Lindsey offensive system demands. This will be another important hire for Mack Brown this offseason as the team looks to navigate another crossroads in his second tenure in Chapel Hill.

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