To say that Friday night’s loss to Virginia Tech was a letdown is an understatement for a team that entered the season with some of the biggest expectations in program history and was facing a team whose coach may have entered the game with the hottest seat in the country. While Hokie fans made Lane Stadium about as hostile of an environment as any that we saw in Week 1 and Justin Fuente’s team may end up being a little bit better than the expectations are for them this season, this is another loss, similar to Florida State and Virginia a year ago, that needs to become unacceptable if you are wanting to get to the point that you were talking about getting to in the offseason. With that, let’s take a look at the players who are trending up and those who are trending down as the Tar Heel look to reset at home against Georgia State.
The Tar Heels most veteran offensive unit was also the worst offensive unit on Friday night. Senior center Brian Anderson was unavailable for the game and Qurion Johnson, who started in his place, really struggled in the first road start of his career. Combine that with an even rougher showing from Asim Richards, who was moved inside to left guard for the game and it’s no wonder this team was dominated, especially on passing downs. The hope for the unit is that the return of Anderson is not that far off and that it will be the boost that this unit needs. However, this unit was at its best a year ago with Richards at left tackle and Joshua Ezeudu at left guard and that switch back needs to be made.
Downs was one of the few bright spots for the Tar Heels on Friday night, as he proved quickly that he is going to be the next dynamic receiver for the program. He was targeted ten times in this one, catching eight of those passes for 123 yards and a touchdown, leading the Tar Heels in all of those categories. He was a problem for the Hokies with the football in his hands and he looks like someone who could toture all of the defenses that the Tar Heels face after the catch with his speed. He is far and away the best receiver on the team right now and showed why he is thought so highly of around the country.
Outside of Downs, there was not much to write home about when it came to the Tar Heel receivers on Friday night. Emery Simmons received the most targets of anyone besides Downs with nine, but he caught just three of those targets and had a couple of catchable balls that he failed to haul in. The same was true for tight end Garrett Walston, who caught just one of his four targets, failing to haul in two catchable passes that could have been huge for this offense. Justin Olson, who was a standout in fall camp, saw his only target of the game get ripped away for an interception. One of the other big issues the group had was the inability to create separation,something that prevented the team from being able to create any momentum in the deep and intermediate passing games. Replacing Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome was a tough task for this Tar Heel offense and it showed on Saturday, but this group of pass catchers simply must be able to hold on to the football and create more separation going forward.
It’s hard to be overly critical of the performance from Howell on Friday night with the fact that the Tar Heels offensive line and receiving group was as bad as it was, but this was without a doubt the worst performance of his career. Howell finished the game 17 of 32 for 208 yards and a touchdown, but threw three interceptions, including a back-breaker on the final drive that sealed the teams fate. There were a few throws that Howell simply missed that we are not used to seeing him miss and two of those three turnovers came in the fourth quarter, a quarter where he ranked as the best quarterback in the country the last two years. This is not a performance that should be a concern going forward, but is far from the one that he wanted to kick off his Heisman Trophy campaign.
Asante, on paper, had a good night, but as the grades show, it was a rough night for him. After a tremendous showing last year in his first career start, there were moments on Friday where he looked lost and out of place in run defense, an area where he expected to shine for the team this season. There were a couple of times where he simply took the wrong angles or wasn’t where he needed to be because he was just too aggressive. Asante isn’t someone that we should probably have to be concerned about going forward, but this was not his best performance in his first game as the full time starter.
Don’t get it wrong, Grimes is still a special coverage corner, but Virginia Tech may have exposed one of the few weaknesses in his game. He was almost non-existent when it came to helping the Tar Heels slow down the Hokies running game because he simply couldn’t get off blocks on the outside. This is the one area that he still needs to work, especially if teams can still keep getting to the edge consistently this season.
Chandler only played 33 snaps on Friday night and looked really solid in those reps. He carried the ball ten times for 66 yards and looked good when he had some room to run. He didn’t get to show off the speed that the coaching staff talked so much about in the offseason, but when he got in space, you could see why there was excitement about it. He had some nice success when he actually had the football and he should see more touches going forward.
The talk all preseason was around Ja’Quirous Conley and Giovanni Biggers at the safety spot and even though Conley had a pretty nice game for himself, the most consistent member of that secondary on Friday night was Morrison. Early on in the game, he was the only player that seemed to make tackles in run defense and he did a good job all night coming into the box to make plays. Without him, the Tar Heel defense would have only continued to be gashed in the run game and may not have been able to have a chance to make some plays late.
Jones split reps with Chandler almost evenly in Blacksburg and he had some nice success of his own. Jones looked good on the ground, rushing for 43 yards on his six carries, showing some nice bursts similar to ones that we saw from him late last year. He was extremely valuable in pass protection, something that the Tar Heels are looking for in that backfield with all that they lost this offseason and that will be extremely valuable going forward for this offense. Jones showed on Friday night that there is a role for him in this backfield this season.
The Tar Heels true freshman defensive lineman got his career off to a strong start in Blacksburg. In the 15 snaps that he played, he was able to wrack up two tackles and graded out as one of the team’s top defensive lineman. If Ritzie can build off of this performance going forward, he’ll have a chance to earn a significant role sooner rather than later.