The Tar Heels were short handed in Saturday night’s first Orange Bowl appearance in program history, but they gave the No. 5 Texas A&M Aggies all they could handle for three and a half quarters before the Aggies pulled away for the victory. As we head into what will be an offseason of excitement and expectations around this Tar Heel football team, let’s take a look at who’s trending up and who’s trending down.
What more can you say about Brown? Two years ago, he took over a team that was struggling to beat FBS programs and has turned them into one of college football’s top programs on the rise. Although the final outcome wasn’t what he was hoping for, the Tar Heels were without three AP All-Americans and a first-team All-ACC wide receiver in this one and still had a chance to win this game. Joey Galloway said prior to the game on ESPN that we would find out just how good of a recruiter Brown was in this game and the success of guys like Eugene Asante and Josh Downs in this one show just how good of a job he is doing at building this team with pure talent. There will be some lofty expectations for this team heading into next season, but Brown definitely seems like he’ll have the team ready for them.
Bateman was under heavy scrutiny following the game against Wake Forest, but since that game he has been fantastic. He put together tremendous gameplans against both Notre Dame and Miami to close the regular season and did the same once again on Saturday. The young players, the ones that were recruited to play in this system, looked great in their larger roles late in the season and should only get better with the competition that the true freshman class will provide in the offseason. Bateman has the future of this defense looking as bright as it has in a decade.
Howell had a bit of a slow start, but roared back to have another really strong outing in this one. Howell finished the night 18 of 31 passing for 234 yards and three touchdowns. With his three touchdown passes, Howell ties Darian Durant for the most touchdowns passes in program history with 68 and breaks the mark set by Jameis Winston in the first two seasons of an ACC career. This loss will only serve as motivation for Howell who will want to finish his career with a major bowl win.
Downs was the player in the 2020 recruiting class that many were excited to see in the offseason and on Saturday he showed why. He caught all four of his targets for 91 yards and two touchdowns, including the highlight reel 75-yard touchdown that gave the Tar Heels the 27-20 lead early in the fourth quarter. It appears as of right now that Dazz Newsome will not be returning to Carolina next year, meaning Downs will have a much larger role next season.
Asante got his first career start in this one and showed that the future is bright for him in the middle of this defense. His 10 total tackles were a team high on the night and showed nice gap discipline and sideline-to-sideline ability throughout the night. With Chazz Surratt gone to the NFL, Asante gets the first shot at his job and as he showed on Saturday, there is a reason to be confident that he can handle it.
Grimes had another huge night, continuing an amazing finish to his true freshman season. Although he was targeted as often as he has been since becoming a starter, he may have had his game of the season, not allowing a single catch the entire night and grading out as the top defensive player according to PFF. He finished the night with three total tackles, 1.0 tackle for loss, 1.0 sack and two pass deflections. Grimes is well on his way to being one of the top corners in the conference.
The walk-on junior got the start in this one with both Michael Carter and Javonte Williams opting out and although he wasn’t as productive as those two had been throughout most of the season, he still put up some solid numbers against the stiff Aggie run defense. Brooks led the Tar Heels rushing attack with 53 yards on his 15 carries, easily the most substantial action that he’s seen in his career. With both Carter and Williams gone, the Tar Heels are in search of replacements in the backfield and Brooks showed that he will factor into the competition, at the least, this offseason.
Conley was another true freshman on the defensive side of the football that closed his season with some strong performances and looked good on Saturday. Conley was amongst the top three tacklers for the Tar Heels once again, finishing the game with five total tackles, highlighted by some strong open field tackles. Injuries derailed Conley early in the season, but with the finish that he’s had to the season it appears that the Tar Heels have found their starter in the nickel for at least the next two years.
Walston finished the night with four catches, which tied a career high, for 32 yards, serving as a nice safety valve for Howell throughout the night. As Mack Brown announced on Monday, Walston is set to return next season off of a career year where he caught 19 passes for 255 yards and was a big help for the Tar Heel run game this season.
Fox finished his 2020 season with one of his best performances of the year. He racked up five total tackles, 1.0 tackle for a loss and 1.0 sack, getting some good penetration early on before fading a bit late in the game. That one sack for Fox, though, tied him with Lawrence Taylor for fifth in career sacks in program history with Lawrence Taylor.
If you just looked at the stats, you would think that Morrison had a good night in Miami, but when you dive deeper into it, he had some struggles in the open field. Morrison finished the night with seven total tackles, but he took some questionable angles in open space and missed a couple of key tackles. This has been a growing issue for Morrison as the season has progressed and is something that he must address this offseason to help this defense take the next step.
Chapman played 50 snaps in the game on Saturday, but struggled to make much of an impact out of his safety spot. He finished the game with just one total tackle and missed the biggest tackle of the night in the open field against Devon Achane on the eventual game winning touchdown. It was a rough sophomore season for Chapman after showing a ton of promise as a freshman and hopefully he will be able to get things back on track in the offseason and show a little more improvement as an in-the-box tackler.
With Dyami Brown and Beau Corrales out of the lineup, the expectation was that Simmons would be one of the main beneficiaries, but that wasn’t the case. Despite playing 37 snaps, the third most among the receivers that saw action in this one, he was targeted just once and failed to register a catch on the night. With Beau Corrales returning next year, it appears that Simmons will be locked in a battle with Khafre Brown and Antoine Green for the final starting job, but regardless, the Tar Heels will need him to be more productive than he was in this one.