The loss of John Lilly last week was a significant one for a Tar Heels staff that has seen a ton of turnover this offseason on the offensive side of the football. Lilly’s tight end group was the most successful at the position group in recent memory for the Tar Heels, registering over 1,000 yards and at least eight touchdowns for the first time since 2013. The Tar Heels made quick work of finding his replacement, though, and did so in the form of a former NFL head coach and play caller.
As first reported by Doug Samuels of FootballScoop, the Tar Heels will turn to former Cleveland Browns head coach Freddie Kitchens to replace Lilly, both as the tight ends coach and run game coordinator. Kitchens spent this past season as a senior football analyst for the South Carolina Gamecocks, the team that the Tar Heels open the season with in Charlotte this season.
This will be the fifth time that Kitchens will be a tight ends coach at either the NFL or college level. The last time he did so was at the NFL level was back in 2020 with the New York Giants. That season, the tight end group was a major part of the Giants production in the passing game, totaling 812 yards receiving and one touchdown on 86 receptions, accounting for nearly a quarter of the team’s passing offense that season.
Prior to that he spent time with the Arizona Cardinals as their tight ends coach from 2007-12, coaching in a Super Bowl with the team before he moved to coaching the quarterbacks for the Cardinals in 2013. He also coached tight ends with Dallas Cowboys back in 2006 under Bill Parcells and had some nice success thanks to the future Hall of Famer Jason Witten. At the college level, Kitchens coached the position group at Mississippi State back in 2004.
Kitchens will also handle the run game coordinator duties that Lilly had added to his plate this offseason prior to the move to the NFL. Kitchens has never held these duties before, but he has handled play-calling duties before with the Browns and Giants and he has some nice experience as a running backs coach. With the Browns in 2018, he split his duties, taking over as the team’s offensive coordinator midseason after coaching the running backs in the first eight weeks under Hue Jackson. The Browns finished the season averaging 118.3 yards rushing (14th in the NFL) and 4.6 yards per carry (11th in the NFL). The year prior, he was the running backs coach in Arizona, where the team struggled to run the ball, averaging just 86.6 yards per game (30th in the NFL) and 3.4 yards per carry (31st in the NFL). Kitchens also coached running backs at both North Texas (2003) and Mississippi State (2005).
When it comes to recruiting, it hasn’t been an area of great success for Kitchens in the roles that he has had in the past. 247Sports credits him with having landed just three commitments, all of which were during the 2005 cycle for Mississippi State. The good news is that this staff is full of great recruiters and Lilly was not a major part of what the team did on the trail in the past few seasons. Still, Kitchens will have to be much more involved than he previously was in this aspect of the game.
Kitchens is a name that many should know from his time in the NFL and the experience at both the pro and college level is certainly nice to have. His hire is certainly a splash one, but because his results have been rather mediocre at both levels, there is a question as to just how big of a splash this really is. The hope is that all of his previous stops can pay off and lead to some nice success for an offense that relies heavily on the run game.