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North Carolina Football: 2021 Team Awards

Ty Chandler, North Carolina Tar Heels Football

Ty Chandler made quite the impression in first season as a Tar Heel, including a monster game in the upset of undefeated Wake Forest

It started right off in week one. North Carolina fell 17-10 to Virginia Tech despite having opportunities to win the game and things did not get much better as the season progressed. After beating Virginia to go to 2-1, the Tar Heels alternated between losses and wins the rest of the year and finished 6-6.

Here’s a glimpse at how it all unfolded with some good (and not so good) awards for the 2021 Heels.

Offensive MVP: Josh Downs, WR

With 98 receptions for 1,273 yards and eight touchdowns, Downs had the best receiving season in North Carolina history. Antoine Green was second on the team with 27 catches, so opposing defenses knew they had to focus on Downs and they still couldn’t stop him, leading to his first-team All-ACC recognition.

Defensive MVP: Cam'Ron Kelly, CB

Myles Murphy was a force in the middle and Tomon Fox once again provided heat off the edge, but the junior corner was an indispensable piece to the defensive puzzle. Kelly intercepted four passes and was third on the team with 56 tackles. He was voted third-team All-ACC.

Best Freshman: Cedric Gray, LB

While everyone picked up an extra year of eligibility in 2020, Gray played only three games last season and would have been considered a redshirt freshman this year regardless. Gray led the Heels in tackles with 87 and his 49 solo stops tied for eighth in the ACC.

Best Play of the Season: Ty Chandler 50-yard touchdown run to beat Wake Forest

Clinging to a three-point lead with just over a minute left, Chandler broke two tackles and ran to the end zone, seemingly putting the game away and giving Carolina an upset win over an undefeated, top-10 team. Of course, Wake scored again in mere seconds and the Heels survived that onside kick, but Chandler’s dynamic run was the best play of the year.

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Best Performance (Player): Chandler vs. Wake Forest

That 50-yard scamper was just a part of what was a remarkable day for the Tennessee transfer. The final stats say that he had 213 rushing yards and four scores on 22 carries, but his timing also was essential. Three of those touchdowns came in the fourth quarter as the Tar Heels charged back from a 45-27 deficit to knock off the Demon Deacons.

Best Performance (Team): The 58-55 win over Wake Forest

And Chandler’s play was just a piece of what was Carolina’s best effort of the year. Sam Howell had a gutsy performance both through the air and on the ground and the defense, which did allow 55 points, made some huge stops late in the third quarter and throughout most of the fourth enabling the offense the opportunity to pull out the victory.

Defining Moment: Loss to NC State

It actually could have been the loss at Virginia Tech, which set the tone for the whole, disappointing season. But how UNC snatched defeat from the jaws of victory against the Wolfpack epitomized the 2021 Tar Heels. Not recovering the onside kick was bad enough, but allowing two touchdowns in the blink of an eye in the final two minutes was absolutely brutal.

Biggest Surprise: Sam Howell the ball carrier

Howell came into the season as a Heisman Trophy contender that got to that point on the basis of a strong, accurate arm. The last thing the Carolina coaching staff would want to do is put him in harm's way and risk losing him to an injury, right? Wrong. Howell carried the ball 170 times, whether by design or not, and he finished the year with 825 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns.

Biggest Disappointment: Offensive line

Analysts always say that continuity along the offensive line is extremely important and with five starters returning, UNC expected to have one of the better units in the ACC. But that was definitely not the case. This group allowed a league-worst 45 sacks (127th nationally), so it is amazing that Howell had that many rushing yards considering what was taken off as a result of lost yardage.

Senior That Will Be Missed the Most: Tomon Fox, DE

Obviously, Howell will be the player that will be the most difficult to replace. But since he is a junior, the choice is the sixth-year senior on the edge. Fox had 29.5 sacks during his career and had at least seven in each of the last three seasons.

Player to Watch in 2022: Desmond Evans, DE/LB

One player that will be counted on to help fill the void left by Fox’s departure is Evans, a top-50 recruit in the Class of 2020. Evans has played in 16 games in two years in Chapel Hill but he has only scratched the surface. He drew rave reviews last spring and will have a huge opportunity to make a substantial impact in 2022.

Offseason Storyline: Drake Maye, you're up

No pressure, Drake. You’re only replacing the best quarterback in program history, one that may be selected in the first round of the NFL draft. Maye has the tools and the reputation as he was a high four-star recruit in the Class of 2021.

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.