Prior to the Duke’s Mayo Bowl Wednesday in Charlotte, Inside Carolina reported that sources were telling them that staff changes were on the horizon once the season was over. The 30-10 loss to West Virginia should only exacerbate those thoughts of change. Now the question is, who should be on the chopping block? As we’ve sadly had to do the last two offseasons, it’s time for us to tell you who we think should stay or go from this coaching staff.
Defensive Line Coach Tim Cross
Cross came into the season with pressure on him and needed to see his unit improve, but it was much of the same for that room. They got off to an outstanding start in the season opener, registering nine sacks and 16 tackles for loss against South Carolina, but were never able to find their footing again after Appalachian State pushed them around in the home opener. Even though the unit finished middle of the country in both of those categories and saw major improvement from the edge rushers, getting dominated the way they did in the second half of the year, especially in the run game, is a bad look with all of the talent that you’ve had in place.
What Should Happen: Go. This was a move that should have been made last year, but wasn’t because of his recruiting prowess and relationships with the perceived talent that is in the room. I understand that he has also played a big role for the team as the team chaplain after Mitch Mason’s health issues and if you want to keep him in that role, it is totally understandable. He can’t be back as this team’s defensive line coach. The creativity in his scheme and player development simply aren’t there and at some point enough is enough. It’s time for a new voice in this room.
Defensive Coordinator Gene Chizik
Chizik’s defense looked as if they had improved in the first half of the season, but much like the team itself, completely collapsed in the second half of the year. In the final seven games of the season, the defense allowed 442.7 yards per game, including 205.4 yards per game on the ground. In the most important game of the season in the regular season finale, the defense allowed 504 yards of total offense in a game that resembled the 2015 Russell Athletic Bowl that marked the beginning of the end in Chizik’s first stint in Chapel Hill.
What Should Happen: Go. It feels like the game has just passed him by judging off the lack of adjustments that we saw in the second half of the season. When offenses started moving the ball on this unit at the midpoint, Chizik fell back into bad habits and his defense lost the aggressive edge that was allowing them to be successful in the first half of the year. It also isn’t a good sign when the leader of your defense comes out in a postgame presser in the middle of your second season and says that he is having trouble setting your defense up. The defense’s struggles aren’t all on Chizik by any stretch, but his lack of adjustments, especially against the run is just too much to overlook.
Linebackers Coach Tommy Thigpen
The linebackers have been the strength of the defense for the last few years, but that’s not a high bar to clear. The unit was solid again this season, but the bigger issue was the lack of rotation that wore out the starters as the season went along. This has been a problem for the team the last few years and it has contributed to the team’s issues defending the run down the stretch of the season.
What Should Happen: Go. I hate to say this because it feels like Thigpen is a scapegoat here, but is a holdover from the previous and unfortunately it is not working. If Chizik remains in place and keeps him in place, it would be a move that I could sign off on. If Chizik wants a change, though, or the team brings a new defensive coordinator, you have to move on from Thigpen as hard as it will be.
Special Teams Coordinator Larry Porter
The special teams unit has been one of the main weaknesses of the Mack Brown 2.0 era and it may have reached a new low this season. The biggest issue for the unit in the last four years was the placekicking and, ironically, that was the one element that didn’t disappoint this year. The punter spot was in good shape before Ben Kiernan went down with an injury, but his replacement Tom Maginness struggled with consistency the rest of the way. The punt return unit also had a pretty solid year, but the same couldn’t be said for the kick return unit. After George Pettaway showed promise at the end of last season, the unit had just 257 yards total this season, the ninth fewest in the entire country. The coverage units were the biggest issue in special teams this year, though. The kick coverage unit allowed the fourth most yards per return and ranked outside of the top 100 in punt return average. Even more concerning for the punt coverage unit was the fact that they allowed three punts to be blocked this season, including the one that led to the Kiernan injury.
What Should Happen: Go. Now it is important to note that this is just as the special team’s coordinator. Porter has been amazing as the team’s running backs coach, but this special teams unit needs a new voice, preferably one that focuses primarily on special teams. The problem is, with the way the Tar Heel staff is built, it’s hard to think they will free a spot up for someone to solely coach this area of the team.
Offensive Line Coach Randy Clements
This was a name that was brought up by fellow Heel Tough Blog writer Josh Marlow in the latest edition of the Heel Tough Blog Podcast after another rough season for the offensive line. The unit allowed 37 sacks this season, meaning they have now allowed 34 or more sacks in five consecutive seasons, the only team in the country to do that during that span. They also finished bottom third in the country in rushing yards before contact despite having one of the best running backs in all of college football this year.
What Should Happen: Stay. It’s hard to really put this season’s struggles on Clements. It was his first year with the team and four of the five starters were holdovers that have had three different coaches in three years. The line will be almost completely remade in 2024 and if the unit is no better or even worse, then you can have this conversation.
Head Coach Mack Brown
For the first time since I have been doing this, the head coach appears here. Three straight disappointing seasons, including back-to-back late season collapses, are just too much to overlook right now. The fact that the team was only able to reach one ACC Championship Game and was never able to win double-digit games with the program’s two best quarterbacks is also pretty damning. With Drake Maye gone, it’s far from a given that this team will be able to reach those eight wins that Brown has said most people would love to have.
What Should Happen: Go. Look, you are not firing the greatest coach this program has ever had, but you have to hope that Brown realizes what most fans have: the game is passing him by. With the struggles this team had down the stretch punctuated by the effort against NC State at the end of the regular season, you have to wonder if he is a guy that can motivate his team to win the important games when it matters the most. Many people will say that there is no guarantee that the grass is greener, but you will have to take a risk at some point and why not do it when there is this much talent still on the roster. Ultimately, the decision is his, but what might be best for the program is him stepping away now.