North Carolina plummeted to 2–9 in 2018, finished in last place in the ACC's Coastal Division for the second year in a row and has three wins in its last 24 games against FBS competition. Yet the excitement around the program is high, thanks to the return of an old friend.
Mack Brown is back to rebuild UNC's program for the second time. He succeeded in his first effort, leading the Tar Heels to marks of 10–2 and 11–1 in 1996-97 before leaving for Texas. After five years away from coaching, he's trying to put UNC's program back where he left it more than two decades ago: among the nation's elite. Brown faces a big challenge, but he made quick progress by jump-starting UNC's recruiting efforts and igniting the fan base. Now, he's looking for immediate on-field success.
"I know more than I did last time I was here, and I'm more mature than I was the last time I was here," Brown says. "We want to win, and we want to win in the opener. That's just part of who we are."
Previewing North Carolina's Offense for 2019
Brown wants to implement the Air Raid offense popularized by Hal Mumme and Mike Leach, and he hired Ole Miss offensive coordinator Phil Longo to run it. UNC's new motto, "Don't Blink," fits with the up-tempo system that the players were accustomed to under former coach Larry Fedora.
"It definitely feels fast," senior left tackle Charlie Heck says. "We were a tempo offense last year, and we're going to keep on improving that this year."
UNC has a three-player competition at quarterback after Chazz Surratt's conversion to linebacker, with highly touted recruit Sam Howell joining redshirt freshmen Cade Fortin and Jace Ruder. Fortin and Ruder flashed dual-threat ability in limited action a year ago, but both got injured. Howell, Fortin and Ruder spent the spring learning the offense, and the competition will crank up during training camp.
The strength of UNC's offense is at running back, where Michael Carter and Antonio Williams form a solid 1-2 punch. Carter's knack for breaking long runs and Williams' bruising style complement each other, and both players should get opportunities despite the Air Raid's pass-happy reputation. Brown insists that he wants to run the ball effectively, but that will depend on UNC's offensive line. Heck, a starter the last two years at right tackle, has moved to left tackle to anchor the unit. Nick Polino will move from left guard to center, and the Tar Heels have intriguing but unproven players at the other spots.
UNC's receivers were inconsistent during the spring, dropping too many passes for Brown's liking. The group is inexperienced, but it features plenty of speed. Dazz Newsome is back after leading the team with 44 catches a year ago, and Dyami Brown has breakout potential.
Previewing North Carolina's Defense for 2019
New defensive coordinator Jay Bateman excelled at Army with lesser talent. He'll employ an attacking system with multiple looks, bouncing between 3-4 and 4-3 alignments while sending blitzers from all angles.
"There's just more energy really," defensive end Tomon Fox says. "Everybody is ready for their new role, they're ready for what we're about to do here. They'e just excited for it."
The new staff has identified Fox and linebacker Dominique Ross as UNC's top pass rushers and will feature the duo in passing situations. Seniors Aaron Crawford and Jason Strowbridge are assets on the interior line, and freshman defensive tackle Brant Lawless was impressive during the spring.
Linebacker is a concern after the graduation of Cole Holcomb, the team's leading tackler for the last three seasons. Senior Jonathan Smith, Holcomb's heir apparent, missed the spring because of academics and has yet to become a force. Ross will lead the group, but the team needs someone else to emerge.
In the secondary, safety Myles Dorn and cornerback Patrice Rene return after tying for the team lead with two interceptions last season. The Tar Heels lost three cornerbacks during the spring, so depth is a question. Nickel back Trey Morrison, a reliable tackler last season as a freshman, should be an effective blitzer from his position opposite slot receivers.
Previewing North Carolina's Specialists for 2019
The kicking game is a priority for Brown, but it will be a big uncertainty this season. UNC must replace its placekicker and punter, and performances were inconsistent at both positions during the spring. Sophomore Noah Ruggles has some experience, making two extra points last season. Newsome is a dangerous punt returner, which he showed on a 75-yard touchdown at Syracuse last year.
UNC plays in the ACC's Coastal Division, where the separation between programs is small and the uncertainty in predicting their performance is large, so the team has a chance to rebound. The keys are finding a quarterback who can move the ball without turning it over, reducing penalties and making more big plays on defense. While the Tar Heels aren't good enough to challenge for ACC supremacy, they have more talent than their recent record would suggest. UNC went 2–8 in games decided by seven points or fewer the last two years, indicating that small improvements could make a big difference.