Written by special contributor Zack Hubbard
The Tar Heels took the short drive up to Durham this afternoon, coming off a frustrating loss in Charlottesville and a depth chart that continues to be depleted, with both starting corners (Storm Duck and Kyler McMichael) out another week, alongside starting WR Beau Corrales. UNC rebounded with a beatdown on in-state rival Duke, cruising to a 56-24 win over a 2-6 Blue Devils. Here is what we learned about the Tar Heels in a rebound win.
Sam Howell is still the Engine of the Offense
The Carolina Offense is arguably the overarching identity for the program within the national scene. However, even with a myriad of receiving weapons and a two-headed monster at running back, UNC quarterback Sam Howell is the central piece of the offense and, potentially, the whole team. Sam was again excellent on Saturday afternoon, passing 27 times for 18 completions, 235 yards and 3 touchdowns, while also rushing for 41 yards on the ground. Tar Heel fans are well familiar with Sam Howell’s proficiency with the deep ball but UNC’s passing attack was very effective with different passing methods as well, utilizing run-pass option slant routes, running back screens alongside their patented back shoulder fade. The offensive line kept Sam clean enough to work and he never really had a ton snaps where he held on to the ball too long. Sam Howell’s legs continues to be a growing threat within the offense, with Sam taking several option snaps and scrambles for good gains on the ground. Adding that additional offensive option gives defenses another thing to consider on any given snap and allows all the other weapons a little bit more space to work. The 2020 Duke Blue Devils did not enter this football game as a strong threat to this explosive offense but yet again, Sam Howell did his job, moved the chains, and added another win in the race for the ACC Championship and Bowl Season.
The Defense is Improving but Still Needs Work
As compared to the offense, the Tar Heel defense has been a work in progress and will continue to be, as players miss time with injury and younger players attempt to carve out a spot. Against a struggling Blue Devil offense, the Heels did see some improvement, in terms of pressuring the quarterback and hitting the running backs early for minimal gains. Despite this, North Carolina still showed some struggles in some aspects, including shedding blocks, tackling in space, and defending the middle of the field. In a blowout win, any complaint tends to be nitpicking but the standard has to rise for teams that wish to be great. Overall, the defensive issues should not be overly surprising, as this team is still attempting to recruit itself into a contender and is arguably still in the process of implementing their new strength and conditioning program but it’s frustrating to not see UNC dominate an opponent physically at least once in a season, especially with the defensive pedigree of the last Mack Brown regime in Chapel Hill. Again, it’s difficult to be legitimately upset but a fanbase can always want more.
Javonte Williams is a Highlight Machine - If there’s a fan favorite, it might be running back Javonte Williams, who had another 100+ yard performance on Saturday.. Many know the story of how the unheralded recruit out of Teachey, NC, Javonte finds new ways to go in, over, and around defenders. His ability to push forward for extra yards is an elite rarity in modern college football and his mastery of the stiff arm always gives him opportunities for explosive runs. For a school once known as “Tailback U,” North Carolina has a special player, who will be playing on Sundays at some point in the future.
Pass Rush Has a Good Showing
The UNC pass rush had a good day against an admittedly below-average offensive line. The Tar Heel defensive front was able to total 10 total tackles for loss with 9 total players, 5 of which are sacks. It was apparent from the opening drive that the Tar Heel defense had a physical advantage for once and were able to shake off the effects of last week’s battle with Virginia. With the proliferation of spread offenses and potent passing attacks, pass rush is a premium impact factor for any aspiring defense and it is encouraging to see the defense cause problems for a quarterback. Even more encouraging was how 5 of the 10 tackles for loss came from freshmen or sophomores, entrenching the notion that the Tar Heels’ defensive future is bright.
Freshmen Contributing Early in an Irregular Year
The world has changed for everyone and college football is no different: every player this year will get an additional year to play, including all your shiny new true freshmen. North Carolina was going to need contributions from their young players this season but with contributions they received today, specifically on the defensive side, it’s good to know these guys will be in Chapel Hill for a while. 6 true freshmen on defense played Saturday (Myles Murphy, Clyde Pinder, Kaimon Rucker, Desmond Evans, Ja’Qurious Conley, and Tony Grimes), with 4 recording stats for a total defensive output of 13 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, and a sack. Getting reps for these young players will be key for 2021 and beyond.
Penalties Not Going Away
Unforced errors continue to be an issue for this Tar Heel team, specifically on the defensive side, which continued on Saturday against Duke. The Tar Heels are giving their opponent 77.57 yards in penalties per game, good for 113th in the nation and 60th amongst Power 5 teams. Even worse was how often these penalties came on 3rd and long situations for Duke, in which the penalty itself would extend the drive. Sloppy defensive play has been the case at essentially every school, especially in an era that favors offense, but that is hardly an excuse for a team trying to move into the upper echelon.
Tar Heels Still on the Way Up
North Carolina sits at 5-2 and is 4th overall in the ACC. Yet, I see quite a number of Tar Heel fans upset, disappointed with losses to lesser teams and a shrinking path to the ACC Championship. As Head Coach Mack Brown said over the past few weeks, the team’s hype had grown past their actual ability. It is apparent that this team, particularly the defense, is still learning and developing. Players are out with injury, no spring, etc; it was never improbable to see this team play well in year 2 but still not be on “Challenge Clemson” level. This team is young and will continue to be so, as Mack’s recruiting classes get in the system and get their feet wet. 2021 and 2022 will be the major years to watch, in my opinion, but this is still a good year for a program coming off of 3 and 2 win seasons not that long ago. The Tar Heels are making the steps they need to make and have already moved into national relevancy.