The Tar Heels rebounded from their season-opening loss a week ago in Blacksburg on Saturday night with 59-17 beatdown of the Georgia State Panthers in a primetime meeting in Kenan Stadium. While there were some bumps in the road throughout the night, it’s hard to complain too much about a team that put up 607 yards of total offense and never had a lead smaller than eleven after the first quarter, as they picked up that all-important first win of the season. There are still some areas that must be cleaned up, though, before this team welcomes in Virginia this weekend, where they will look to pick up their first win over the Cavaliers in five years. We give you a look at who and what are trending up or down as we head towards that crucial edition of the South’s Oldest Rivalry.
After a shaky performance in the season opener against the Hokies, Howell rebounded for a historic performance despite still seeing a lot of pressure in his face throughout the night. Howell threw for 352 yards and three touchdowns and added 104 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns, becoming just the second Tar Heel quarterback to throw for 300+ and rush for 100+ in the same game, joining Marquise Williams, who did so in that historic performance against Duke back in 2015. This was the perfect way for Howell to rebound after questions began popping up from national pundits about his ability to elevate his team with all that they had lost and now sets the stage nicely for him as he looks to put together another strong performance against the Virginia Cavaliers, a team he has dominated so far in the two times he seen them in his career.
Green was the Tar Heels leading receiver on Saturday night after a relatively quiet opener against Virginia Tech. He caught all three of his targets in this one for 117 yards and a touchdown, averaging 39.0 yards per catch and registering one of the highlights of the night when he hauled in the 57 touchdown pass from Howell in the first quarter that gave the team an early two score advantage. The Tar Heels are still in search of that consistent threat that can take the top off of the defense with Dyami Brown gone and Green showed on Saturday that he might just be the best candidate to be that replacement.
The staff was wanting more production from the tight end spot this season, but that was something they simply didn’t get in the opener from Garrett Walston who saw the majority of snaps at the position. On Saturday, however, the team used Morales a lot more in passing downs and it worked to their advantage. He caught all four of his targets for 42 yards, the most receiving yards by a Tar Heel tight end in a game since October 27, 2018. With both Michael Carter and Javonte Williams, Howell’s safety valves in the passing game from the past couple of seasons, now playing on Sunday’s, the Tar Heels are in need of a check down option and that will likely have to come from the tight end group. Morales might be the guy to emerge as that guy this season if he can continue to get the snaps.
Murphy had the best game of his young Tar Heel career on Saturday night, earning defensive player of the week honors from the staff. In his 28 snaps up front, Murphy finished with two total tackles, both of which were for a loss and one of which was a sack. He wreaked some havoc in the middle of that Tar Heel defense on Saturday and the hope is that that performance can carry over into the next few weeks, especially against the Cavaliers this weekend.
⇧True Freshman Linebackers
With the Tar Heels pulling away in the late third and early fourth quarters on Saturday, that gave some of the young depth their first chance at significant playing time and the two true freshman linebackers shined. Power Echols nearly had the first defensive touchdown of his young career, but the return on his interception was called back after he stepped out of bounds. Both him and fellow true frosh RaRa Dillworth were flying around, though, and were all around the football, finishing with a combined eight tackles on 20 snaps. Could there be a point later on in the season where these two could see some important reps because of how advanced they already look?
One true freshman who is already beginning to see some significant reps is Ritzie and for good reason. He looked good once again on Saturday, finishing with three total tackles on 26 snaps, which were the third most snaps amongst defensive linemen against the Panthers. He once again did a great job to get off of blocks by winning those one-on-one matchups and seemed to be around the football on just about every running play that he was on the field for. We knew Ritzie was a talented player and it became obvious in the opener that he was going to be a part of the rotation throughout the season. At this point, however, he could very well be heading towards a starting role in this defense by midseason because of just how effective he has been.
Kelly came in for the injured Ja’Qurious Conley and had a strong showing for the Tar Heels in his place. After playing just four snaps for the team in the season opener against Virginia Tech, Kelly played 44 snaps for them on Saturday, tying for the team lead in total tackles with five and holding his own in coverage as part of a defensive back group that allowed just 90 yards passing in the game. Although Conley did return to the game and played with the club on the left hand, there is uncertainty about how much he will be able to play and how effective he can be. That likely means that we will be seeing more of Kelly over the next few weeks than maybe the team expected to start the season.
It didn’t take long for the injury issues to begin to set in for the Tar Heels here in 2021. As we just mentioned above, star safety Ja’Qurious Conley left in the first half of the game on Saturday, and while it does appear as if he’ll be able to play through it, the question now is about how effective he can actually be. The secondary took another blow when Dae Dae Hollins went down with an injury of his own in the second half of the game, one that was confirmed to have been season ending on Monday by Mack Brown and the university. The secondary isn’t the only area on the team that has been plagued by injury early on this season. Starting offensive guard Joshua Ezeudu was out of the lineup for the Tar Heels on Saturday night after the team was without center Brian Anderson in the season opener and there is no guarantee that either one of those guys will be at 100% or even able to play at all this weekend against Virginia. The running back position also has their own injury issues, as both D.J. Jones, who didn’t play on Saturday, and British Brooks are going to be evaluated throughout the week. That doesn’t even mention the fact that starting linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel was seen going back to the locker room early, something that wasn’t mentioned by any of the coaches in the press conferences on Monday, but is certainly worth noting.
The Tar Heel offensive line really struggled once again on Saturday night. As we mentioned above, the unit has not been at full strength in either of the first two games, but they were still outplayed for the majority of the first half and even early in the second half by the Georgia State defensive line. The hope, of course, is that Ezeudu can return for the team this weekend, but regardless of if he does or doesn’t, the team simply needs the rest of the group to be better than they have in both elements of the offense.
The offensive line hasn’t done this group any favors, but the Tar Heels need this group to be more productive than they were on Saturday. Over half of the team’s yardage on the ground came courtesy of the quarterback, something that just isn’t sustainable going forward, especially with how important Sam Howell is to the success of this team. Of the running backs who saw snaps on Saturday night, none had more than 3.9 yards per carry on the night, a number that must improve going forward. The Tar Heels were spoiled a year ago with the historic duo that they had in the backfield and the expectation, as we’ve said many times, was never to match those numbers. However, when this offense is at its best, it’s because the team can run the football with success, something that they haven’t really been able to do so far this season. With the success that the Cavaliers have had offensively early in the season, the Tar Heels need to be ready for a shootout, something that will be much easier to counter if they can run the football at a decent level with those running backs.