What are Brown's top personnel priorities for next season?
North Carolina moved quickly to replace Larry Fedora following its season finale against NC State, as the program hired former coach Mack Brown to lead the team in 2019 and beyond. Brown last coached at Texas in 2013 and has compiled a 244-122-1 record in his career. Under Brown’s watch, the Tar Heels went 69-46-1 from 1988-97, which included back-to-back 10-win seasons (1996-97).
For every new coach, the to-do list after the initial press conference is pretty standard. The head coach has to recruit, implement scheme changes, build a staff of quality assistants and coordinators, discuss potential NFL Draft impact with juniors and work on any facility or support staff requests. Needless to say, that’s a lot.
While every coach has those goals in mind, it’s never too early to look at some of the personnel concerns surrounding a program and a new coach for the upcoming year.
Here’s an early look at three personnel question marks for Brown to address in 2019:
3 Priorities for New North Carolina Coach Mack Brown in 2019
1. Address the Quarterback Position
The former staff was recruiting Clemson transfer Kelly Bryant to Chapel Hill, and reports have indicated Brown has already paid the quarterback a visit. Bryant is slated to decide his next stop on Dec. 4, so there’s not a ton of time for Brown and the new staff to make an impression. If Brown lands Bryant, that’s a huge boost for 2019. If not, the Tar Heels have some work to do under center. Nathan Elliott threw for 11 touchdowns, nine picks and 2,169 yards this season and is slated to return as a senior next fall. Chazz Surratt returns after playing in only one game due to an early-season suspension and injury. Freshman Jace Ruder played in one contest and is eligible for a redshirt year. Fellow freshman Cade Fortin played in four games and started two contests. Fortin finished 2018 with 32 completions for 388 yards and a touchdown. Just like Ruder, Fortin is eligible to take a redshirt year for the 2018 season.
Assuming Bryant picks a different team, North Carolina will have four options likely vying for the starting job. Will Elliott and Surratt take the top two spots on the depth chart once again? Or will Fortin and Ruder develop over the offseason to take the starting job?
2. Fix the Defense
North Carolina’s defense showed progress under former coordinator Gene Chizik but has regressed over the last two years. The Tar Heels only allowed 24.9 points a game in 2016 but that number climbed to 31.3 in ’17 and 34.5 in ’18. Additionally, this unit surrendered over 200 rushing yards a game in back-to-back seasons (2017-18).
How quickly can Brown and his defensive staff find the right answers in 2019? Linebacker Cole Holcomb (105 tackles), safety J.K. Britt (64) and standout lineman Malik Carney have expired their eligibility. However, safety Trey Morrison (46 tackles) is back after a promising freshman season, while the defense can lean on upperclassmen Dominique Ross (linebacker), Myles Dorn (safety) and linemen Jason Strowbridge and Tomon Fox to anchor this unit. Improvement on defense is a must if North Carolina wants to make a bowl game in 2019.
3. Close Games, Turnovers and Penalties
Of North Carolina’s nine losses in 2018, seven came by 10 points or less. So while the final record was only 2-9, this team isn’t too far from a .500 mark. Can Brown and this staff find a few ways to get over the hump in close games? Two areas to watch will be penalties and turnover margin. The Tar Heels forced the fewest turnovers in the ACC in 2016 and has posted back-to-back seasons of a minus-six margin. The self-inflicted mistakes have continued to penalties. North Carolina averaged six penalties a game and lost 55.6 yards to flags in 2018. Those numbers ranked among the highest in the ACC.
If the Tar Heels can cut back on mistakes and limit the turnovers next fall, a jump in wins should be within reach.