The Tar Heels opened up what will be an unorthodox 2020 season on Saturday in a fanless Kenan Stadium against Syracuse. After a slow start that raised some legitimate concerns, the Tar Heels were able to settle in and pull away for a nice 31-6 win over the Orange to begin a season that comes with high expectations. Here’s what we learned in Saturday’s season-opening win about the Tar Heels.
Defense is Already Showing Major Improvements
While the offense had their struggles on Saturday, the Tar Heel defense looked about as good anyone could have imagined. The defense allowed just 202 yards on the day, averaging out to just 2.8 yards per play, including allowing just 68 yards on the ground, something that was unthinkable just two years ago. The secondary made a couple of sloppy mistakes early in deep coverage, but quickly took care of those mistakes after halftime and the defensive line that wasn’t nearly as consistent at getting in Tommy DeVito’s face early on had him running for his life from the second quarter on. The unit finished the day with eleven tackles for loss and seven sacks on the day, a phenomenal all around performance for this Tar Heel front seven that came into the day wondering what they'd look like with no Jason Strowbridge or Aaron Crawford. While they still had some moments where they had some head-scratching missed tackles, that was to be expected with the adjustment to the preparations that the team had to make because of COVID-19 and is something that should disappear as this team gets deeper into the season.
This Offensive Line Has Work to Do
We knew losing Charlie Heck would hurt, but coupled with Joshua Ezeudu’s injury, this offensive line had a tough go of it on Saturday afternoon. Ed Montilus got the start in place of Ezeudu and had trouble all through the first half, especially in pass protection. The communication seemed off for most of the first half on the left side of that offensive line, as Asim Richards also had his struggles and seemed to be out of position far too many times. Even veterans like Jordan Tucker and Marcus McKethan were inconsistent in the first, leading to the lack of a consistent offense before the half. Junior walk-on Quiron Johnson replacing Ed Montilus on the offensive line seemed to wake the unit up a little bit, but this was still a disappointing start for this group up front. The good news is that Ezeudu should be back no later than the bye week, according to Mack Brown in his post-game presser, but this group must be able to at least get back to the level that they were playing at late last season by the start of October or there could be some real issues.
Even When Sam Struggles, He Seems to Have a Good Day
Saturday was not a perfect start to the season for sophomore quarterback Sam Howell, but even with the struggles that he did have, he was able to still make plays when he needed to. Howell finished the day 25-34 for 295 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions, hooking up with tight end Garrett Walston on the opening drive of the game for a touchdown. The two interceptions may seem a little concerning on the surface, especially since he only threw seven all of last year, but the first one was simply just a deflected pass caused by a great defensive play from Syracuse. While the deep passes weren’t there as often as they were late last year, Howell still did a good job of taking what the defense gave him and was able to help the Tar Heels develop a nice 25-point cushion before he came out of the game. His 295 passing yards were the most in a season opener since T.J. Yates' amazing 412-yard season opening performance against LSU back in 2010. Overall, still a very solid first outing for the Tar Heels’ Heisman hopeful quarterback.
Special Teams Could Be a Concern Throughout the Year Again
Ultimately, you feel like the offensive line group will be able to get it together as the season goes along, but for the other big concern from today's game, the special teams unit, the same can not be said. While Dazz Newsome had a big day in the punt return game, kicker Grayson Atkins struggled missing a 33-yard field goal in the first half and the Tar Heel coverage units had a rough day with Syracuse breaking off a couple of nice punt returns. This unit did undergo a coaching change in the offseason and doesn’t nearly the amount of focus that the offense and defense does in practice, so it’s not time to overreact yet, but there is still plenty of reason to be concerned about a unit that definitely hurt the Tar Heels in some close games a year ago.
Rushing Attack is Dialed In and Ready to Go
160 yards on the ground might not be a number that blows you away and it shouldn’t, but considering the struggles that the Tar Heel offensive line had, it was still a very solid start to the season for the backfield. Michael Carter averaged 11.1 yards per carry in the game, showing off some nice speed and quickness, even some better decisiveness from a year ago, all while carrying the ball just seven times. Javonte Williams had more of a workload on the ground and while he was only able to rush for 57 yards on his 14 carries, he helped the Tar Heels take care of business where it mattered most, finding the end zone three times in the second half as the team put some distance between them and the Orange. Both true freshman saw a couple of snaps on the final drive of the game, each ripping off a solid carry themselves. The yards may not have been mindblowing, but this was a strong start for the Tar Heels backfield, especially for the tandem of Carter and Williams.