Sam Howell and 10 returning defensive starters give the Tar Heels hope in 2021
In the first two seasons of Mack Brown's return to Chapel Hill, the North Carolina Tar Heels are a combined 15-10, which is identical to what Larry Fedora posted in his first two years on the job. But the two situations are not identical.
Fedora started with an 8-4 season and slid back to 7-6 his second year while Brown opened with a 7-6 campaign and improved the squad to an 8-4 Orange Bowl team in year two. Plus, while Fedora recruited at an adequate pace early on, he didn't crush it like Brown is doing right now.
So optimism about the future is overflowing at North Carolina. But should hopes be so high in 2021 after losing their top two receivers, their dynamic duo in the backfield, and their first-team All-ACC linebacker? Here are three reasons why the answer is yes.
1. The passing game will still be elite
When you go down the list of top quarterbacks in America entering the 2021 season, you don't have to go far to get to the name Sam Howell. After a bit of a slow start when he threw three interceptions versus three touchdowns in the first two weeks, the sophomore quarterback was sensational the rest of the way. His average yards per attempt and passer rating were actually better than Clemson's Trevor Lawrence.
While Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome are off to the NFL, Howell will still have plenty of weapons with which to work. Dyami's brother Kafre showed last year that he is capable of carrying on the family receiving tradition, Beau Corrales will return after missing most of 2020 with a sports hernia, and Emery Simmons flashed great potential last fall. Throw in Josh Downs, a top-100 prospect in the Class of 2020, and 4-star 2021 recruit Gavin Blackwell, and the Heels should have enough options to continue to put forth a top-notch passing attack.
2. Offensive line
They're all back. It's fair to say that they weren't perfect in 2020. Their 34 sacks allowed ranked 13th in the ACC and 120th nationally. In their four losses, they gave up 19 sacks. While fault should not be placed entirely on the line, they need to get much better at protecting the team's most important asset.
But the potential for improvement is there. And no one can question their run-blocking abilities. It didn't matter whether Javonte Williams or Michael Carter was carrying the ball, holes were being opened. Guard Joshua Ezeudu earned third-team All-ACC honors while Jordan Tucker, Marcus McKethan, and Brian Anderson all were listed as honorable mentions. Continuity along the offensive line is always very important and another year together should produce even greater results.
3. Defense returns practically intact
Chazz Surratt is a big loss, but everybody else will return next fall. And as good as Surratt was, Carolina should be fine on the second level with Jeremiah Gemmel entering his senior season coming off two productive years at linebacker. Tomon Fox's decision to return for a sixth year means that UNC will have an experienced, productive player on the edge, and safety Trey Morrison will provide a similar presence in the secondary.
With defensive coordinator Jay Bateman now in year three at Carolina, these 10 returning starters are very aware of what the coaching staff wants to do. The Heels were sixth in the ACC in total defense in 2019 and finished fifth last fall, though the yards per game were elevated in an offense-friendly ACC. The same held true in terms of rushing defense, an area where North Carolina struggled mightily in the later Fedora years, with UNC going from seventh to fifth. Look for similar consistency but with more havoc plays by this veteran unit in 2021.
— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.