When Mack Brown was hired for a second time as North Carolina’s head coach in late November 2018, it was met with great skepticism. But almost immediately, attitudes began to change as Brown connected in a meaningful way with everyone around Chapel Hill.
The 7-6 finish in year one didn’t tell the whole story as the Tar Heels were close in so many of their losses and the 2019 progress led to an Orange Bowl bid in 2020. Despite an unexpected step back this past fall, optimism still reigns at UNC. Here are three reasons why things are still looking up for Carolina.
1. Brown has brought in an abundance of talent
Coming in so late in 2018, Brown had to quickly piece together a recruiting class and he was very successful, securing the No. 30 group in America according to 247Sports. Quarterback Sam Howell was the headliner in that class and he is off to the NFL, but key contributors like Raymond Vohasek, Kamari Morales, Giovanni Biggers, and several others still remain. And since then, recruiting has exploded.
The 2020 class was ranked 14th and was headlined by Tony Grimes and Josh Downs. Then the next class also ranked 14th and featured 5-star Keeshawn Silver and 10 other players listed in 247Sports' Composite Top 300. And the most recent class ranks No. 11 and has two 5-stars in Travis Shaw and Zach Rice. So despite some major personnel losses, the Heels' talent level remains very high.
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2. The next quarterback
You don't lose the most accomplished passer in program history and not miss a beat. Howell’s commitment and immediate rise up the depth chart was one reason the perception of the Carolina program ascended so quickly. But the pieces are in place for a succession plan.
Drake Maye was a top-100 national prospect in the Class of 2021 and many expected that he would get the keys to the car with Howell departing. But Jacolby Criswell was a 4-star recruit from the previous cycle that actually saw more game action than Maye in 2021. While their statures are different, both Maye and Criswell can run as well as throw and the UNC staff should feel confident no matter who wins the job.
3. Experience in the secondary
Four-year corner Trey Morrison decided to transfer to Oklahoma, but a veteran presence remains on the back end of the defense. Grimes is not old in chronological age, but in two seasons he has played in 20 games and is a mainstay in the Carolina defensive backfield. Classmate Ja'Qurious Conley has also played in 20 games and returns in the nickel back slot while Storm Duck should be healthy after battling injuries the past two seasons. As a freshman in 2019, Duck played in 11 games and had 37 tackles and two interceptions.
At safety, Cam’Ron Kelly and Biggers are both back and they finished third and fourth on the team in tackles. Depth will have to be developed, but there are plenty of exciting options from the recent recruiting classes. Cameron Roseman-Sinclair and DeAndre Boykins are two players that could make an impact next fall.
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– 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.