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North Carolina Football: Tar Heels Midseason Review and Second Half Preview

Drake Maye's stat-stuffing has UNC in a position to win the ACC Coastal title.
Drake Maye, North Carolina Tar Heels Football

Only a redshirt freshman, Maye has thrown 24 touchdown passes and scored three times on the ground in his first seven career starts.

Because North Carolina opened the season in Week 0, the Tar Heels have played seven games despite having an open date. Even though they have played an extra game, it's midseason time for everyone else and time for a review.

The Tar Heels are 6-1, already bowl eligible and, more importantly, 3-0 in the ACC, with all three being division victories. The offense has carried the team so far, and if the Heels get any help from the defense, they will win the Coastal and find themselves in Charlotte on the first weekend in December.

Here's a look back and a look forward with some awards thrown in for good measure.

Offensive MVP: Drake Maye, QB

With apologies to a certain credit card banking company, this may be the easiest decision in the history of decisions. The redshirt freshman has filled in for the departed Sam Howell and then some, leading the ACC in all of the major passing categories (tied for the national lead with 24 TD passes) while also proving to be a threat running the ball.

Defensive MVP: Cedric Gray, LB

He can run himself out of position at times, but Gray has been the best defender for the Tar Heels in 2022. He leads the team in tackles and interceptions while placing second on the squad in tackles for a loss. As a redshirt sophomore, Gray has plenty of room to grow and will as his game experience increases.

Best Moment of the First Half: The final minute of the win over Duke

Needing a touchdown, things looked bleak when Carolina had a second-and-19 on the Duke 34 with time ticking away. But Maye ran for 14 yards and then found Josh Downs on fourth down to set up first-and-goal. On third down, Antoine Green caught the go-ahead touchdown pass after tightrope-walking the outside edge of the end zone. To close things out, with Duke nearing range to try a game-tying field goal, Noah Taylor's batted ball fell into the hands of a sprawling Will Hardy, preserving Carolina's sixth win.

Best Newcomer: Noah Taylor, LB

A case could be made for true freshman running back Omarion Hampton, but I'm going with Taylor. The Virginia transfer leads the team in both sacks and tackles for a loss, and he had that tip of a Riley Leonard pass that led to the interception that closed out the victory over Duke.

Biggest Surprise: How the passing game didn't miss a beat when Josh Downs was injured

Beyond Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome in 2020 and Downs in 2021, Carolina had very few pass-catching options over the past two seasons. So when Downs had to miss games earlier this fall, there was concern as to whether the passing game would get bogged down. What happened may prove to be immensely beneficial for the future, as Maye showed an aptitude to get everyone involved. Through seven games, eight different players have had double-digit receptions and 10 have caught touchdown passes.

Three Things to Watch in the Second Half

1. Can the Heels continue to be road warriors?
After posting a 5-10 record in road games during the first three years of the new Mack Brown era, North Carolina is 4-0 away from Kenan Stadium this season. Three of this year's final five contests are at home, but the two road games, specifically the one at Wake Forest on Nov. 12, will be challenging.

2. Finding something that the defense does well
It looked like the Heels were trending in the right direction in terms of their rush defense after quality efforts against Virginia Tech and Miami. Then Duke ran for 297 yards, so coordinator Gene Chizik has to go back to the drawing board. The pass defense has been consistently horrible all year, so as up and down as the run defense has been, improving that aspect seems more likely of the two.

3. Developing the running game
Maye is not on a pace to eclipse the 828 rushing yards that Sam Howell had in 2021, but I don't believe that the Carolina staff wants him to be the leading rusher when the season closes. One of the other tailbacks needs to emerge to take some pressure off Maye.

Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule

1. NC State, Nov. 23
2. at Wake Forest, Nov. 12
3. Pitt, Oct. 29
4. Georgia Tech, Nov. 19
5. at Virginia, Nov. 5

Podcast: Midseason Review, Second-Half Predictions, and Dream Conference Championship Games

Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, focusing on the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.