The talk of North Carolina as a sleeping giant on the national scene has been prevalent for more than two decades. As Mack Brown enters Year 4 of his second stint at UNC, it's nearing time to put up or shut up. After a disappointing 2021 season, Brown hopes that the latter helps lead to the former. "Instead of sitting here talking about what we're going to do and what we're going to win," he says, "we're going back to setting the standard that we need to do everything right to get there."
The Tar Heels have plenty of corrections to make in 2022. They began last season ranked No. 10 nationally and spoke about the chance to go undefeated, but they finished 6–7. Sacks and penalties came in bunches, with UNC ranking at the bottom of the ACC in both categories. The Tar Heels went 0–6 outside the comforts of Kenan Stadium, wasting the final season of star quarterback Sam Howell.
With Howell gone, UNC faces uncertainty at the sport's most important position. Still, there are reasons for optimism. Gene Chizik, who resurrected UNC's underperforming defense in 2015, returns as defensive coordinator to try to repeat the feat. The Tar Heels also have talent from three consecutive top-15 recruiting classes.
"We're more talented than we've been, but they're young," Brown says. "A lot of times, young players don't play well. For us as a staff, that's our job. We've got to get them to play better."
Previewing North Carolina's Offense for 2022
Drake Maye and Jacolby Criswell will compete for the honor of replacing Howell as the leader of UNC's Air Raid attack. Neither player earned the sole backup spot last season, and the duo split reps in the game that Howell missed. Brown has a history of alternating quarterbacks within the same game when he lacks a clear starter, and that scenario could occur in 2022.
Whoever is throwing the passes will have one of the nation's top targets in Josh Downs, who will line up outside sometimes so that opponents can't constantly bracket him in the slot. Downs is a dynamic threat who broke UNC records for catches and receiving yards last season, but he needs more help. Antoine Green emerged late in 2021 as a threat on the outside, but the rest of the group is unproven. UNC has strong potential at tight end with Kamari Morales and 6'6" Bryson Nesbit.
The Tar Heels are loaded at running back with at least six capable players. However, only three will fit into the rotation. British Brooks rushed for 285 yards in UNC's final three games last season, and freshman George Pettaway has star potential. Up front, UNC must replace three starters from an offensive line that struggled in pass protection. This year's unit will feature several seniors and graduate students who have unremarkable credentials but can play multiple positions.
Previewing North Carolina's Defense for 2022
Defense was supposed to be a strength for the Tar Heels in 2021, but the reality never matched the potential. As a result, Brown replaced defensive coordinator Jay Bateman with Chizik. Among Chizik's goals is to force more turnovers, an area that has been problematic in recent years.
UNC has stockpiled young talent on the defensive line, and that talent must start producing. Myles Murphy has breakout potential at tackle, and Raymond Vohasek should return to form as a run stuffer after an injury-plagued 2021. UNC will rotate a plethora of pass rushers, including Virginia transfer Noah Taylor, Chris Collins and Desmond Evans, all of whom are taller than 6'4".
At linebacker, Cedric Gray is one of the few North Carolina players who exceeded expectations in 2021. He began the season in a reserve role and ended the year as the team's top tackler. Gray leads a group that features talented sophomores Power Echols and Rara Dillworth.
UNC needs a resurgent season from its secondary, which was a disappointment a year ago. Cornerbacks Tony Grimes and Storm Duck must lead the charge. Grimes, who appeared bound for stardom as 2020 ended, was merely ordinary and had no interceptions in 2021. Duck, meanwhile, struggled with injuries for the second year in a row and also had no interceptions. When healthy, the duo should be among the best in the league. Safety Ja'Qurious Conley, a versatile playmaker who oozes athleticism, is recovering from a torn ACL and MCL.
Related: ACC Predictions for 2022
Previewing North Carolina's Specialists for 2022
UNC is looking for more consistency on special teams. The Tar Heels blocked five kicks last season, but they have not returned a kick for a touchdown since 2018. They also ranked last or next to last in the league in net kickoff yardage, net punting and kickoff returns in 2021. Jonathan Kim, whose big leg has been an asset on kickoffs, will now get a chance on field goals and extra points. Downs is a dangerous punt returner.
Brown is a Hall of Famer, but UNC did not look like a well-coached team in 2021. Brown spent the offseason trying to solve UNC's poor red zone play and sacks on offense, blown assignments on defense and penalties everywhere. His level of success in those areas will determine how far his team can go. The ACC's Coastal Division, as usual, is up for grabs. The Tar Heels can contend if they get competent QB play and if their defense takes the step forward this season it was supposed to last year.
National Ranking: 47
Podcast: ACC 2022 Complete Preview + Predictions + QB Debate