The Tar Heels close out their 2022 spring camp with the #TyleeStrong Spring Game on Saturday afternoon. The game ended in a 14-14 tie, but there were plenty of players who had nice days for themselves to close out their spring. Here is a look at who is trending up and who is trending down after Saturday’s game.
Downs, as you would expect, was the best player on the field on Saturday afternoon. He didn’t see any action after the “halftime” break, but he still caught four of his eight targets for 95 yards and two touchdowns, burning the defense twice for long pass plays. Downs isn’t going to catch anyone off guard this year in the ACC, but as he’s showing, slowing him down be a task more easier said than done.
The quarterback position as a whole had a great day, but Criswell may have been the best player on the entire field on Saturday outside of Downs. He finished the day 6-6 for 104 yards and a touchdown, including a perfectly thrown deep ball and a nice touchdown pass on the move on his first drive and he also led the team on a touchdown drive in his second drive of the day. This is a battle that will go well into the fall, but Criswell was the best quarterback on the field on Saturday.
Green is one of those guys that hasn’t been mentioned much at all when talking about the backfield this spring, but he was the best running back on the field for the Tar Heels on Saturday. Green showed off nice speed and good back vision on the way to leading the team in rushing, carrying the ball nine times for 61 yards and a touchdown. It feels like we have talked about every other member of that Tar Heel backfield this offseason, but Green’s performance on Saturday and the fact that he saw as many snaps as he did early means he needs to be taken more seriously moving forward in the battle for reps.
Evans had a strong spring camp and closed it out with a nice performance on Saturday. He finished the day with three total tackles, all of which were solos and had sacks on back-to-back plays for the first team defense. It hasn’t quite been the start to his career that he was hoping for, but it feels like this new system might fit his skillset a little bit better than the prior one. With the struggles that the Tar Heel defense had with getting to the quarterback last year, his breakout would be more than welcome.
⇧First Team Offensive Line
The struggles of the offensive line were one of the biggest storylines of the 2021 season and the hope is that this unit can show some major improvement in front of a new quarterback and an offense still revamping from two years ago. While there is still a long way to go before that can actually happen, Saturday was an encouraging sign of the progress this group is making. This unit did not allow a single sack and allowed just one tackle for loss, two areas that have been a huge issue for this team since Mack Brown’s return to Chapel Hill. The five-man group of Richards-Montilus-Gaynor-Barnes-Rice dominated for most of their time on the field and Rice’s performance was extremely encouraging for a true freshman. It’s hard to take that much away from a performance in a spring game, especially because the majority of the reps came against the team’s second team defensive line, but any progress here from a year ago is encouraging.
The Tar Heels have a lot of firepower at the linebacker position this season and it was on display on Saturday. Cheeks had the best day of the group, racking up five total tackles in the afternoon, four of which were solos and one of which resulted in a sack. He did a nice job of getting after the quarterback, providing two quarterback pressures to go along with the sack he had. If Cheeks can continue to thrive the way that he did on Saturday, it’s hard to think that he won’t be able to earn at least some type of role this season.
⇧Kevin Hester Jr.
Hester Jr.’s production on Saturday was a bit quiet, but he was one of the best defensive players on the field. Although he only finished with one solo tackle, he was around the ball all afternoon, racking up five total tackles. Hester Jr. has been a guy that has flown under the radar a bit in his first few seasons on campus, but as Saturday showed, he is progressing toward challenging for a starting role this season. At the least, he looks like he will be a major part of the rotation once again this season as he was at the end of last season.
With the spring game, it’s hard to take away many negatives, but it’s hard to ignore some of the struggles that the secondary had on Saturday. The Tar Heel defense allowed 250 yards passing and while that number itself is concerning, the number of big plays allowed is the bigger issue. The defense allowed five pass plays of 15 or more yards, including three of 30 or more. This is one of the main things that Gene Chizik said he was focused on eliminating in his introductory press conference and it is clear that it’s still a work in progress. The good news is, the team will get additional resources for the fall, but this is a position group has a ways to go.
Asaboro had his struggles on Saturday as part of that second team offensive line. He was worked over on the back-to-back sacks from Des Evans and struggled overall to handle himself overall at that left tackle spot, eventually being replaced by Eli Sutton. There was clearly a reason that Asaboro was out there to start the day with the twos, so it may have just been an off day, but this was a rough outing to say the least.
Saturday wasn’t a bad performance from Pettaway, but in the race for reps in the backfield he had the quietest day of anyone. He carried the ball four times for 16 yards and caught two passes for just one yard, totaling the least amont of yards of any of the running backs that took snaps in the game. Again, this doesn’t mean that he won’t have a role in this Tar Heel offense this season, but with the performances of guys like Green and DJ Jones, this did not help his case in a battle where every rep seems to matter.