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Heel Tough Blog: South Carolina Preview

Grant Halverson- Getty Images

We are mere hours away from the Tar Heels kicking off their 2023 season in Bank of America Stadium against the South Carolina Gamecocks. After a four-game losing streak to close last year, this year’s team will be looking to cleanse themselves of that and get off to another strong start in a crucial season for the program under Mack Brown. While a loss wouldn’t end the team’s hopes of a big season, a win would certainly be a nice springboard, especially with the lack of ranked opponents on the schedule right now.

Team Breakdowns

Tar Heels

This 2023 Tar Heel team has plenty of talent across the board but needs to answer some questions quickly with the first month this team faces. Heisman hopeful Drake Maye will look to build off of last year and help this offense take the next step under new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey. He’ll likely start the season without what was expected to be his biggest weapon in preseason All-ACC honoree Tez Walker, but there are still plenty of talented options to throw to, starting with Kobe Paysour and Nate McCollum who are dynamic playmakers in the slot. On the outside, Gavin Blackwell, J.J. Jones and Andre Greene Jr. are promising options who are looking to build off of flashes last season and true freshmen Christian Hamilton and Chris Culliver are talented enough to factor in, as well. The biggest strength of this team may be the tight end room. John Copenhaver has developed a great chemistry with Maye this offseason and is expected to break out under new tight ends coach Freddie Kitchens. Bryson Nesbit, the team’s leading returning receiver from a year ago, and Kamari Morales, the program’s all-time leader in receiving touchdowns by a tight end, complete the trio that will be one of the best in all of college football this year. While the passing game has plenty of talent, Mack Brown has said that he wants to be able to run the ball better this year and he should feel confident that he can. This backfield is deep and talented, led by the combination of veteran British Brooks, who will finally get his chance to play a significant role for an entire season and Omarion Hampton, who looks to build off flashes he showed early last season. Don’t sleep on Elijah Green either after he had some nice success in the final seven games of last year as the starter. The key to the success of this side of the ball, though, lies with the offensive line which must put the finish to last season behind them. Corey Gaynor is back to anchor the unit from the center spot but that is the only spot the team seems confident in entering Saturday. The team needs Ed Montilus and Spencer Rolland to take major leaps, especially in pass protection, at the spots they played a year ago and William Barnes needs to do the same out of the left tackle spot. Willie Lampkin provides hope at right guard after what he did at Coastal Carolina, but he has to prove he can translate to the Power 5 level. The hope is that guys like Diego Pounds and Trevyon Green can step up and play significant snaps if some of the oldheads continue to struggle.

Defensively, there is confidence strides can be taken in Year 2 under Gene Chizik. The unit has seen a ton of overhaul in personnel, starting with the defensive backfield, the unit that Chizik thinks is the key to this defense. New cornerbacks coach Jason Jones is only the beginning, as eight new players are a part of that room this season. Alijah Huzzie hopes to come in from East Tennessee State and make an immediate impact as a playmaking corner, while Marcus Allen looks to build off a strong finish to 2022. Tayon Holloway had a huge preseason for the team at outside corner and will look to translate that onto the field starting on Saturday night. In the nickel, injuries are a big concern to start the season, but DeAndre Boykins simply must be better than he was a year ago whenever he returns after allowing the most yards of anyone in the country last year when in coverage. Converted running back D.J. Jones will be the guy playing a lot here out of the gate and the good news is that he can be much worse in coverage than Boykins was a year ago. The question will be, can he bring what Boykins brought as a run defender. At safety, Giovanni Biggers and Don Chapman are expected to start again, but Will Hardy is back after is back are showing some promise late last season and Antavious ‘Stick’ Lane and Derrik Allen join the mix as transfers. The defensive front is the other group that the staff is hoping to see massive improvements from, but they will have to do it with most of the same core from last season. Kaimon Rucker will be moving to the JACK full-time this season, which could allow him to break out and his backup, Amari Gainer, is hoping that position can do the same for him. Speaking of breakouts, the hope is that Des Evans can finally live up to expectations after having to be shut down a year ago with an injury that he says has lit a fire underneath him. On the interior of the unit, Myles Murphy looks to recover from a disappointing season a year ago, while Jahvaree Ritzie looks to take the next step after a really solid sophomore season. At nose tackle, Kevin Hester Jr. is back, but Tomari Fox being back is the bigger story here with what he has shown so far in his Tar Heel career. Sophomore Travis Shaw, who is in better shape than a year ago, could also play a factor here, especially on run downs, if he can build up the stamina needed to stay on the field. Linebacker is once again the strength of this unit, as both Cedric Gray and Power Echols return to give the team one of the country's top linebacker duo. Unlike last year, the team expects to have a little bit of depth behind these two starting with true freshman Amare Campbell, who has really impressed the staff this preseason.

The Tar Heels special teams unit is similar to what they were late last season. There is a lot of confidence in the punting game and kick return game thanks to Ben Kiernan and George Pettaway and punt returner seems to be in solid shape with Huzzie taking over for the departed Josh Downs. The big question mark is kicker, where Ryan Coe has been inconsistent this offseason. The hope is that he can settle into a nice rhythm like he did at Cincinnati last year and help this unit become one of the best in the conference this season. 

South Carolina

The Gamecocks have a lot of change that they are dealing with as well, but they come in with the most momentum that the program has had since Steve Spurrier was one campus after the final three games of last season. The hope in Columbia is that Spencer Rattler can build off of the finish that he had to last season where he put the Gamecocks on his back to pull upsets against Tennessee and Clemson. He will have the challenge of having to do it in a new offensive system, with Dowell Loggins taking over for Marcus Satterfield, but folks in Columbia are confident that can happen. It helps that he has his top receiving target in  back from a year ago in the form of Antwane ‘Juice’ Wells, who might be one of the most underrated receivers in the country, but there are questions as to who emerges outside of him with Jalen Brooks and Josh Vann gone. Transfer tight end Trey Knox and true freshman Nyckoles Harbors are guys that the Tar Heels need to be aware of heading in, despite both being banged up in fall camp. The passing game will have to be leaned on heavily again this season after Marshawn Lloyd's departure for USC this offseason. Converted quarterback-turned wide receiver-turned running back Dakereon Joyner will lead the charge there and while folks aren’t expecting a big season from him, the Tar Heels should know not to take him lightly after what he did to them back in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl back in 2021. Just like the Tar Heels, the biggest concern for the Gamecocks is their offensive line after some struggles there a year ago. Neither offensive tackle spot is set in stone heading into this game and there is some concern about the starters that are set on the interior.

Defensively, the Gamecocks are looking for major improvements themselves, especially when it comes to stopping the run. The Gamecocks allowed 198.8 yards per game on the ground and it is far from a guarantee they take a step forward this season. Tonka Hemingway is a good anchor in the middle of the defensive line, but the losses of Jordan Burch and Zacch Pickens hurt. On the edge, the team will be rotating a bunch of different players in hope of finding a combination that can get after the quarterback after they struggled to do that a year ago. At linebacker, the Gamecocks are hoping for more from Debo Williams and Mohamed Kaba on the weakside and will lean on youth in the middle with two underclassmen. The secondary is still the strength of the unit despite both losing two corners who were drafted back in April. Marcellas Dial led the team in interceptions and passes defended a year and O’Donnell Fortune was another guy who succeeded in coverage last year. The unit may also contain the team’s best defensive player in the form of Nick Emmanwori, who led the team in tackles out of his safety spot a year ago.

Special teams was a staple of hall of fame coach Frank Beamer and it’s no different for his son. The Gamecocks may have the most creative special teams coach in the country in Pete Lembo, who isn’t afraid to go to the bag of tricks multiple times a game. They also boast one of the country’s best punters in Kai Kroeger and like what they have in Mitch Jeter, who didn’t miss a field goal last year. Both returners are back as well with Xavier Leggette returning kicks and Ahmarean Brown handling punts after very successful 2022 seasons.

Team Stats

Tar Heels (2022 Stats)

Off. PPG: 34.4 (26th)

Off. PYPG: 309.3 (11th)

Off. RYPG: 153.5 (67th)

Off. TYPG: 462.8 (19th)

Off. 3rd Down %: 46.3% (17th)

Tackles For A Loss Allowed: 89.0  (T-108th)

Sacks Allowed: 40.0 (T-115th)

Def. PPG: 30.8 (T-102nd)

Def. PYPG: 271.3 (116th)

Def. RYPG: 165.2 (86th)

Def. TYPG: 436.5 (116th)

Def. 3rd Down %: 41.8% (97th)

Tackles for A Loss: 51.0 (T-126th)

Sacks: 17.0 (T-120th)

Interceptions: 9 (79th)

Turnover Margin: 0 (T-69th)

Penalties Per Game: 6.1 (T-66th)

Penalty Yards Per Game: 55.3 (75th)

South Carolina (2022 Stats)

Off. PPG: 32.2 (T-38th)

Off. PYPG: 260.0 (40th)

Off. RYPG: 118.9 (106th)

Off. TYPG: 378.8 (72nd)

Off. 3rd Down %: 38.8% (74th)

Tackles For A Loss Allowed: 99.0  (T-122nd)

Sacks Allowed: 31.0 (T-82nd)

Def. PPG: 28.8 (T-87th)

Def. PYPG: 206.7 (34th)

Def. RYPG: 198.0 (117th)

Def. TYPG: 404.7 (89th)

Def. 3rd Down %: 43.4 (114th)

Tackles for A Loss: 57.0 (T-116th)

Sacks: 20.0 (T-104th)

Interceptions: 15 (T-14th)

Turnover Margin: -4 (T-96th)

Penalties Per Game: 6.9 (T-103rd)

Penalty Yards Per Game: 63.8 (115th)

Keys to the Game

Run the Ball

Mack Brown has said multiple times this offseason that the Tar Heels need to be able to run the ball better than they did a year ago and it starts with Saturday’s game. The Gamecocks run defense was one of the worst in the country a year ago and there isn’t a lot of confidence that it will be that much better this year, especially in this first game. The Tar Heels gameplan in this one should be to establish the run early and often and use it to open the passing game by bringing those safeties into the box to help. There is no question the backs in that room are talented enough to handle the load, it’s about actually doing it and not falling in love with the air raid game like Phil Longo did too often in his time in Chapel Hill. If they can get near that 200 yard mark, that should be enough to put up the point necessary to win this game.

Win the Trenches

In order to run the ball, the Tar Heels have to be able to win up front, something that didn’t happen often enough a year ago. They also need to protect their quarterback better than they did down the stretch of last season if they want this offense to be restored to the juggernaut that it was in the first ten games of 2022. It’s not just that side of the ball, though, where the team needs to get the best of the Gamecocks. The Tar Heel defensive line has to be able to win one-on-one matchups and pressure the quarterback, especially with uncertainty about what the defensive backfield will look like for the Tar Heels with the injuries they’ve been dealing with. If Tar Heels can win the battle of the hogmalies, they should be able to walk away with the victory.

Be Ready for Beamer Ball

With how evenly matched this game is, special teams could very well be the deciding factor in this one. As we mentioned above, the Gamecocks are very sound on special teams and they love to throw a couple of wrinkles in there every now and again. If the Tar Heels are going to win this game, they need to limit the impact of the South Carolina special teams group and have a good night in that department themselves.

Injury Report

Tar Heels

OUT- Lejond Cavazos (lower body), R.J. Grigsby (lower body), Malaki Hamrick (lower body), Julien Randolph (lower body), Tez Walker (eligibility)

QUEST- DeAndre Boykins (undisclosed), Will Hardy (undisclosed)

PROB- Antavious ‘Stick’ Lane (undisclosed)

South Carolina

OUT- Connor Cox (undisclosed), Jatius Geer (undisclosed), Bam Martin-Scott (undisclosed)

PROB- Nyckoles Harbors (undisclosed), Trey Knox (lower body), Antwane Wells (lower body)

Projected Starting Lineups

Game Information

Location: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, NC

Time: 7:30 PM (Kickoff scheduled for 7:44 PM)


Radio: Tar Heel Sports Network (check local affiliates)


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