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Heel Tough Blog: Orange Bowl Preview

For the first time since 1950, the Tar Heels will be playing in a major bowl game, as the team is set to face one of Mack Brown’s old rivals from his Longhorn days in the Texas A&M Aggies. The loss of four major contributors will leave the Tar Heels a bit short-handed against an Aggies team that many expect to come in motivated after missing out on the College Football Playoff. In order to pull out the victory, the Tar Heels will need to see some new contributors step up and some current starters take their games to the next level. Can the Tar Heels find a way to pull out their second straight bowl victory and their fourth straight when Mack Brown has been coaching the team?

Team Breakdowns

Tar Heels

As we mentioned the Tar Heels will come into this game a bit shorthanded, especially on the offensive side of the football. The Tar Heel backfield sees the biggest effects from the opt outs, as both Michael Carter and Javonte Williams having decide they will sit this game out and prepare for the upcoming NFL Draft, leaving the Tar Heels without one of the most productive running back tandems in all of college football in recent memory. True freshman D.J. Jones will not be available in this one either due to injury, leaving the Tar Heels with a trio of Josh Henderson, Elijah Green and British Brooks to try and create some form of a rushing attack in this one. The team will also be without their top receiver in Dyami Brown, who will also be sitting out to prepare himself for his early entry into the NFL Draft, while Beau Corrales remains out with a lower body injury. The good news here is that Dazz Newsome will play, but the Tar Heels will still need guys like Emery Simmons and Khafre Brown to play bigger roles in this game, along with Antoine Green, who get a chance after being buried on the depth chart this season. The Tar Heel offense still has their biggest weapon in this game in quarterback Sam Howell and there is no reason to believe he won’t be able to put this offense on his back if he needs to. The offensive line remains intact and has actually had time to get healthy since the game against Miami. This might be the most important game of the season for the hog mollies, as they’ll have to be able to open running lanes consistently against the Aggies stout run defense while also being able to provide Howell time to throw to a young group of receivers.

When it comes to the defensive side of the ball, the group will be without just one key starter, but it might be their most important defensive player in senior linebacker Chazz Surratt. With him out to prepare for the draft, Eugene Asante will get his first career start and should still fill a solid tandem in the middle of the Tar Heel defense with Jeremiah Gemmel. The front four has to be ready for a tough battle against the Aggies talented offensive line that allowed just four sacks in their nine regular season games. The infusion of some young talent and much more rotation towards the end of the season helped the unit to provide a more consistent threat later in the season after hitting a midseason lull. They have to be able to help a young group on the back end of the Tar Heel defense that has a lot of talent, such as true freshman Tony Grimes, but has allowed some yards this season, especially in the middle of the field.

The Tar Heels special teams unit cost them big time in losses to Florida State and Virginia, but since that latter game, this unit has stepped up and shown improvement. Place kicker Grayson Atkins has gained some confidence as the season has progressed and has found some consistency along the way, as well, while Dazz Newsome has been more effective as the team’s punt returner since his slow start to the season. Punter Ben Kiernan and kickoff specialist Jonathan Kim look to close out what have been extremely strong seasons for them, respectively, while also looking to prevent testing the coverage units that have had some struggles when they have been earlier in the season.

Texas A&M

Let’s just say the Aggies are not happy about the fact that they are not playing the day prior for a shot to go to the national championship game. The Aggies offensive numbers may not blow anyone away, but this is a team that has put up points when they’ve needed to, including the signature upset win of Florida back in October. Kellen Mond has had a very solid season and will do things similar to Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book, who gave Carolina fits last month. The backfield features one of the most underrated running backs in college football in Isaiah Spiller, who is averaging more than 110.0 yards per game on the ground. The wide receiving corps doesn’t possess a superstar, but tight end Jalen Wydermyer has had a nice season and Ainias Smith is a versatile weapon that they will get touches in a variety of different ways. The offensive line is led by it’s trio of second team All-SEC linemen which has allowed just four sacks while also paving the for a running game that is averaging over 200.0 yards per game.

The Texas A&M defense has had a strong year, led by its run defense that has allowed under 100.0 yards per game on the ground. It all starts up front with first team All-SEC defensive tackle Bobby Brown who has had a fantastic season. The linebacking corps boasts a nice tandem of their own in Buddy Johnson, the team’s leading tackler, and Aaron Hansford. If there is a weakness with this defense, it is their secondary, but they still boast some young talent like safety Leon O’Neal back there.

The special teams unit might be the biggest weakness on this Aggie team. Kicker Seth Small hit the game winner against the Gators, but he only attempted 11 field goals all season and did not attempt one for outside of 41 yards. Punter Nik Constantinou has had a solid season, but his average is just that; average. The return games have been unimpressive, as well, led by the kick return game that has averaged just 10.0 yards per return this season.

Team Stats (rankings are amongst 127 FBS teams to play a game in 2020)

Tar Heels

Off. PPG: 43.0 (6th)

Off. PYPG: 307.5 (19th)

Off. RYPG: 249.1 (10th)

Off. TYPG: 556.6 (4th)

Off. 3rd Down %: 47.6% (23rd)

Def. PPG: 28.4 (T-61st)

Def. PYPG: 248.0 (85th)

Def. RYPG: 147.8 (48th)

Def. TYPG: 395.8 (56th)

Def. 3rd Down %: 37.9% (41st)

Sacks: 33.0 (T-8th)

Interceptions: 8 (T-43rd)

Turnover Margin: -1 (T-71st)

Texas A&M

Off. PPG: 31.7 (41st)

Off. PYPG: 234.3 (57th)

Off. RYPG: 202.9 (27th)

Off. TYPG: 437.2 (33rd)

Off. 3rd Down %: 56.7% (2nd)

Def. PPG: 21.1 (27th)

Def. PYPG: 224.3 (55th)

Def. RYPG: 92.2 (3rd)

Def. TYPG: 316.6 (11th)

Def. 3rd Down %: 35.2% (23rd)

Sacks: 24.0 (T-34th)

Interceptions: 9 (T-31st)

Turnover Margin: +5 (T-25th)

Keys To The Game

Control the Line Of Scrimmage

This is the third straight game where the deciding factor might be the line of scrimmage. With a younger group of receivers and the loss of pass protection help with Carter and Williams out of the game, the Tar Heels need the offensive line to play one of their best games of the season. On the other side, the Tar Heels need the momentum that the front four has built over the last month to continue against this efficient Texas A&M offense.

Get Off the Field on Third Down

This has been a major issue so far this season for the Tar Heels, but it showed up against Notre Dame, a team that compares well to this Texas A&M offense. Mond takes care of the football about as well as any quarterback in the country, so when the Tar Heel defense has a chance to get off the field, it has to.

Utilize the Short Passing Game Early and Often

This is something the Tar Heels have gone to a couple of times this season, but it will need to be an intricate part of the offensive game plan in this one. With concerns about pass protection and some younger, less experienced options at wide receiver, getting the quick passing game going might be the best way to move the football in this game. Getting the ball in the hands of guys like Dazz Newsome and Khafre Brown will allow them to make plays after the catch, something both thrive at doing.

Injury Report (Injury info from

Tar Heels

OUT- Kedrick Bingley-Jones (leg), Dyami Brown (opt out), Michael Carter (opt out), Beau Corrales (lower body), Stephen Gosnell (lower body), D.J. Jones (lower body), Ed Montilus (upper body), Ty Murray (undisclosed), Chazz Surratt (opt out), Ethan West (undisclosed), Javonte Williams (opt out)

QUEST- Storm Duck (lower body), Obi Egbuna (undisclosed)

Texas A&M

OUT- Caleb Chapman (lower body), Michael Clemons (ankle), Baylor Cupp (shoulder), Grayson Reed (leg), Blake Smith (knee)

QUEST- Myles Jones (foot), Devin Morris (undisclosed), Dylan Wright (undisclosed)

Projected Starting Lineups

Tar Heels Offense

QB# 7 Sam Howell, So.

RB# 23 Josh Henderson, So. OR #21 Elijah Green, Fr.

WR# 1 Khafre Brown, RFr.

WR# 0 Emery Simmons, So.

WR# 5 Dazz Newsome, Sr.

TE#84 Garrett Walston, Sr.

LT#72 Asim Richards, So.

LG#75 Joshua Ezeudu, So.

C#69 Quiron Johnson, Jr.

RG#73 Marcus McKethan, Jr.

RT#74 Jordan Tucker, Jr. Defense

NOSE#51 Raymond Vohasek, Jr.

DT#56 Tomari Fox, So.

OLB#12 Tomon Fox, Sr.

ILB#44 Jeremiah Gemmel, Jr.

ILB# 7 Eugene Asante, So.

OLB#10 Desmond Evans, Fr. OR #42 Tyrone Hopper, Sr. OR #17 Chris Collins, So.

CB#1 Kyler McMiichael, So.

FS# 4 Trey Morrison, Jr.

SS# 2 Don Chapman, So.

CB#20 Tony Grimes, Fr.

NB# 0 Ja’Qurious Conley, Fr. Special Teams

K#17 Grayson Atkins, Sr.

KOS#95 Jonathan Kim, So.

P#91 Ben Kiernan, So.

LS#60 Trevor Collins, Sr. (K) #61 Drew Little, So. (P)

H#96 Cooper Graham, Jr.

KR# 5 Dazz Newsome, Sr.

PR# 5 Dazz Newsome, Sr.

Texas A&M Offense

QB#11 Kellen Mond, Sr.

RB#28 Isaiah Spiller, So.

WR# 2 Chase Lane, RFr.

WR# 9 Hezekiah Jones, Jr.

WR# 5 Jalen Preston, So.

TE#85 Jalen Wydermyer, So.

LT#65 Dan Moore Jr., Sr.

LG#55 Kenyon Green, So.

C#77 Ryan McCollum, Sr.

RG#73 Jared Hocker, Sr.

RT#54 Carson Green, Sr. Defense

DE# 3 Tyree Johnson, Sr.

DT#92 Jayden Peevy, Sr.

DT# 5 Bobby Brown III, Jr.

DE# 2 Michael Clemons, Sr. OR # 8 DeMarvin Leal, So.

WLB#33 Aaron Hansfield, Sr.

MLB# 1 Buddy Johnson, Sr.

CB# 0 Myles Jones, Sr.

S# 9 Leon O’Neal, Jr.

S#26 Demani Richardson, So.

CB#17 Jaylon Jones, Fr.

NB# 4 Erick Young, So. Special Teams

K#47 Seth Small, Jr.

KOS#47 Seth Small, Jr.

P#95 Nik Constantinou, RFr.

LS#40 Connor Choate, So.

H#95 Nik Constantinou, RFr.

KR# 2 Chase Lane, RFr.

PR# 0 Ainias Smith, So.

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