All eyes are on Miami’s first game of the season; a matchup with a likely-ranked Florida Gators team that will be one of the early indicators of where Manny Diaz’s “New Miami” is headed. But, a better indicator might be next week, when the Canes travel to Chapel Hill to face off with a new-look UNC squad headed up by Mack Brown.
Besides a season where Mitchell Trubisky made the Heels competitive, UNC has struggled to be a relevant force in the weak ACC Coastal since the last time Mack Brown coached this team. Larry Fedora seemed to have the Heels on the right track but over the course of 2017 and ‘18, the wheels fell off, culminating in a 2-9 campaign last year.
Coach Brown has already proved his worth, pulling away Florida State’s coveted 4-star QB recruit (thanks Coach!) Sam Howell this spring, as well as a couple of talented 4-stars in LB Eugene Asante and WR Khafre Brown. However, this is still a team 2-3 years away from even starting to look like a competitive force in the Coastal. Come September, Miami should be favored by double digits.
The first key for the Tar Heels fielding a solid team will be finding a QB they can depend on. Sound familiar? Howell will certainly get a chance to prove he’s the savior right away with few other QB options on this team. Redshirt freshmen Cade Furtin and Jace Ruder will also be in the QB competition. The three have thrown a combined 70 passes, with 65 of those coming from Fortin last year (he completed 49% of those for one TD and one INT).
Brown wants to run an Air Raid offense, which, in a wide open system, could help take some pressure off whoever the young starting QB will be. Key for them will be the skill positions making noise. UNC’s offensive strength lies at runningback where upperclassmen Antonio Williams and Michael Carter form a good 1-2 punch. However, UNC is rebuilding a lot of their offensive line as well, with LT Charlie Heck and Center Nick Polino the holdover starters.
At receiver, last year’s reception leader, Dazz Newsome, returns. He’s joined by a lot of guys with question marks, though sophomore Dyami Brown has the ability to be a breakout player. UNC will need to have a strong run game, hope to find some consistency at receiver and rally around their young signal caller if they expect to win games this year.
Army’s ace defensive coordinator, Jay Bateman, joins the Tar Heels after a fantastic tenure making over the mediocre Golden Knights defense into a fearsome unit. He’ll use a lot of multiple, attacking looks, the success of which will rely on how quickly his players adapt to the new, attacking attitude.
Although the Heels lost two of their best defensive players to graduation, LB Cole Holcomb and DE Malik Carney, several returning starters stood out in spring practice. Pass rushers Tomon Fox and Dominique Ross have the defensive staff buzzing and seniors Aaron Crawford and Jason Strowbridge are solid if not a little undersized. They will be the key to determining how effective UNC is at stopping the run, where they struggled badly last season (111th nationally).
In the defensive backfield, the Tar Heels have a little more cohesion with several returning starters. CB Patrice Rene, nickel corner Trey Morrison and safety Myles Dorn will all return, with Rene and Dorn tying for the team lead in interceptions last season (two apiece). However, depth at CB is a big question mark after the Heels lost three corners during the spring. If everyone stays healthy, the DBs might be UNC’s defensive strength.
UNC should be better than the 2-9 (1-7 in ACC play) horrorshow of 2018. A bowl game berth will likely be the goal and 5-7 or 6-6 seems possible in Mack Brown’s first season. For Miami, even though the game is played at Chapel Hill, this a game CMD & co. needs to win in 2019. The Canes cannot lose to teams that are significantly less talented than they are and expect to be taken seriously. As long as they play disciplined, get after the Heel’s young QB and make few mistakes on defense, Miami should be able to come away with a victory.