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North Carolina Football: Tar Heels' 2022 Spring Preview

Drake Maye, North Carolina Tar Heels Football

Drake Maye will compete with Jacolby Criswell for the Tar Heels' starting quarterback job with Sam Howell off to the NFL

The Pittsburgh Panthers are the defending ACC champs and will again be a major factor in the Coastal Division. There is a buzz surrounding Miami with Mario Cristobal coming home after a successful stint in Oregon. And both Virginia schools along with Duke have new energy due to their own coaching changes.

Flying under the radar is North Carolina. It’s understandable that the Tar Heels wouldn't be the main topic of Coastal conversation considering last season's 7-6 finish in Mack Brown’s third season. But UNC has put together three straight top-15 recruiting classes, which could very well lead to more wins and fewer losses in 2022.

Carolina suits up for spring ball this week and here are five intriguing aspects to watch.

5 Storylines to Watch During North Carolina's Spring Practice

1.  Quarterback

Sam Howell had another year (or two) of eligibility remaining, but it was a foregone conclusion that the 2021 season would be his last, so Mack Brown and his staff had to prepare as such. In the 2021 recruiting class, UNC secured the signature of highly-touted passer Drake Maye. Last fall, Maye saw limited action but did complete seven of 10 throws with a touchdown. The first step for Maye, however, is actually winning the starting job. Junior Jacolby Criswell, himself a 4-star recruit in 2020, is back and he actually saw more playing time in 2021 than Maye. Early entry Conner Harrell is also around, but a Maye-Criswell battle should be the top focus for Heels' fans this spring.

Related: Early 2022 ACC QB Preview and Rankings

2. Putting together the O-line

North Carolina returned a veteran unit up front last fall, but this group did not perform as well as their experience would have suggested. This year, three starters need to be replaced and it is vital that the newcomers gel better than the veterans did in 2021. Despite the changes, Carolina could still field a group that has been around for a while. Ed Montilus, Quiron Johnson, Brian Anderson, Asim Richards, and William Barnes will have each spent at least three years on campus and Jonathan Adorno will be entering his junior season. The starting group could come from five of those six but there will be competition from Miami transfer Corey Gaynor and much-heralded early entry freshman Zach Rice.

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Related: 5 Newcomers to Watch for the Tar Heels

3. Getting help for Josh Downs

Antoine Green had 31 catches last season, but from a wide receiver perspective, it was all on Downs in 2021. He certainly responded, nabbing 101 receptions for 1,335 yards and eight touchdowns, but there has to be some diversification in the offense going forward. Green is what he is, so others have to emerge outside, be it holdovers like Justin Olson or a newcomer like Andre Greene. Also, the running game has to be overhauled for the second year in a row. Between Howell and Ty Chandler, more than 1,900 rushing yards have to be replaced and there is not a lot of production returning. British Brooks has the most experience but he will get a battle from D.J. Jones and freshman George Pettaway this spring.

4. The return of Gene Chizik

Brown has had a fairly successful second run so far in Chapel Hill, so he must have figured Chizik could do the same. The former head coach at Iowa State and Auburn, who was the Heels" defensive coordinator in 2015 and '16, will be the assistant head coach for defense in 2022. The 2014 Carolina defense finished 120th in the nation in total defense and under Chizik the unit improved to 96th in 2015 and 63rd in 2016. The most important aspect of the spring defensively will be putting the pieces that were made for former coordinator Jay Bateman’s scheme into Chizik’s system.

5. Replacing Tomon Fox and Jeremiah Gemmel

The two linebackers were very different but they were both highly productive during their time with Carolina. Coming off the edge, Fox had three straight seasons with at least seven sacks and 10 tackles for lost yardage. In those same three seasons, Gemmel had 70-plus tackles each and every year. Chizik will have a good number of players coming back, but finding someone that can generate pressure like Fox and provide leadership like Gemmel will not be easy.

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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.