Friday afternoon’s Military Bowl in Annapolis, MD was the conclusion of Mack Brown’s first season back on the Tar Heel sideline. For the third straight game, the Tar Heels put together a dominant overall performance, hammering the Temple Owls 55-13, giving the Tar Heels their first winning season since 2016. Let’s take a look at the five things we learned on Friday in the Tar Heels first bowl victory since the 2013 Belk Bowl.
This Offensive Juggernaut Will Be a Force Next Season
An offense that entered this season with some major concerns became one of the nation’s most lethal units as the season progressed. That concluded on Friday afternoon, when the Tar Heels amassed 534 yards of total offense and scored 55 points, while averaging 7.1 yards per play. For the first time in program history, the Tar Heels finished the season with two 1,000 yards receivers, as both Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome reached the mark in Friday’s game. Running back Michael Carter was able to reach the 1,000 yards rushing mark, the first Tar Heel running back to do so since Elijah Hood back in 2015. Javonte Williams finished just 67 yards short of that 1,000 yard rushing mark, getting the Tar Heels the closest they’ve been to having two 1,000 yard rushers since 1993. This offense is scheduled to lose just one starter in the offseason, so there is no reason to believe this offense won’t be just as dynamic next season.
Sam Howell’s Running Ability Could Answer Some Red Zone Questions
The Tar Heels closed the season out strong in the red zone, but this is one issue that will still need to be addressed in the offseason. One saving grace next season could be the use of Howell’s legs in the red zone. With Jace Ruder’s injury keeping him on the shelf most of the season, the Tar Heels limited how often they used Howell in the running game to make sure they kept him healthy, but we got a chance to see the true freshman’s running ability on Friday afternoon and there is reason to be encouraged. No one should really be shocked that Howell has the ability to move the ball on the ground, considering he ran for 3,621 yards and 60 touchdowns in his prep career. With Ruder expected to be back for the 2020 season and Jacolby Criswell early enrolling, there will be a capable backup option if needed, meaning there could be a loosening of the reins a bit when it comes to running Howell. While you shouldn’t expect to see him used on the ground often, don’t be shocked if you see some more read option and quarterback run plays in the red zone next season.
The Defensive Line and Secondary Have Some Promising Young Options
These two position groups are probably the biggest question marks heading into next season, but as we saw on Friday afternoon, there look to be some promising options here. The secondary will have a lot of options next year at cornerback, especially with Storm Duck closing the season out with arguably his best showing. Safety is still a bit of a concern, but the good news is, Don Chapman finished the season very well, stamping it with the best performance of his young career on Friday. The defensive line is a much bigger concern, as both Aaron Crawford and Jason Strowbridge will be gone. Players like Raymond Vohasek and Jahlil Taylor have finished the season strong, though, and should instill some confidence that while the unit may take a step back, it won’t be a dramatic one.
Jay Bateman Deserves a Ton of Credit
For the better part of this decade, the Tar Heel defense had been a liability. In just one season, Bateman has already fixed that mindset and turned this into a unit on the rise. After allowing 34.5 points per game a year ago, the Tar Heels will finish the 2019 season allowing just 23.6 points per game, a +10.9 differential. The biggest improvement, though, comes in run defense, where the Tar Heels held opponents to under 200.0 yards per game on the ground for the first time since 2013. After holding Temple to 78 yards rushing on Friday afternoon, the defense will finish the season allowing just 143.5 yards rushing a game, the lowest number by a Tar Heel defense since 2012. Bateman’s crew fought through plenty of adversity, especially in the secondary, where they were ravaged with injuries during ACC play. This unit never fell apart, however, and Bateman was able to make the adjustments to his scheme to make the players that were field fit instead of doing things the other way around, a problem the previous staff had. It’s hard to see a scenario where Bateman doesn’t get a raise this offseason, one that would be extremely well deserved.
Expectations Will Be Sky High in 2020
This close to the season has Tar Heel fans as excited as anytime in recent memory for the future. Sam Howell is only a true freshman and is only going to progress in the offseason. All the major position players on offense will be back. The trenches will need to find a few new starters, but there is promise there. The linebacking corps and defensive backfield will return a good amount of talent and add more depth. Add in the fact that Virginia loses a ton, Virginia Tech remains a huge question mark, Miami is a dumpster fire and Pittsburgh is still a mystery and you can see why the Tar Heels might just be the preseason favorite in the ACC Coastal in 2020. This should be an interesting magazine and speculation season for the Tar Heels coming up this summer.