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North Carolina Football: 2022 Team Awards

A surprising start gave way to a disappointing finish but there were plenty of impressive performances and memorable moments for the ACC Coastal champs.
Drake Maye, North Carolina Tar Heels Football

Drake Maye went from battling for the starting quarterback job in the summer to being named ACC Offensive Player of the Year.

In the grand scheme of things, 9-4 with a Holiday Bowl bid isn't bad, especially considering that most prognosticators had North Carolina as a middle-of-the-pack team in the ACC Coastal Division. But at 9-1, with major bowls and possibly even a College Football Playoff berth dancing around in Tar Heels' heads, playing Oregon on Dec. 28 is a major letdown.

Here's a look back at what occurred since Carolina first kicked off in Week 0, with some awards handed out for good measure.

Offensive MVP: Drake Maye, QB

Replacing Sam Howell, the school's all-time leader in passing yards and touchdowns, had to be a challenge, but Maye made it look easy at times, going over 4,000 passing yards with 35 touchdown throws. Surprisingly, he was more of a dual threat than anyone expected, rushing for 653 yards as well.

Defensive MVP: Cedric Gray, LB

While the defense was far from perfect, Gray was the best on the bunch on this side of the ball. The team leader in tackles also had two interceptions and recovered a fumble. His play resulted in a first-team All-ACC selection.

Best Freshman: Maye

The most incredible part of Maye's performance in 2022 is that he was doing it as a redshirt freshman. In his first game as a starter, Maye had 294 passing yards with five touchdowns in the win over Florida A&M, and things only went up from there.

Best Play of the Season: Will Hardy Diving Interception to Close Out Duke

First, there was the drive that culminated in Antoine Green tip-toeing down the side of the end zone to grab a go-ahead touchdown with 16 seconds remaining. But Duke quarterback Riley Leonard got the Blue Devils close to field goal range before a sprawling Hardy snatched a ball batted by Noah Taylor just before it hit the ground, ensuring that the Victory Bell would stay in Chapel Hill for another 365 days.

Best Performance (Player): Maye vs. Pitt

Of all his scintillating efforts, the game against Pitt stands out. The Heels were down 24-14 in the middle of the third quarter before a nearly flawless Maye led Carolina to 28 unanswered points. His final numbers were 34-of-44 for 388 yards and five touchdown passes along with 61 rushing yards.

Best Performance (Team): Win Over Pitt

As good as Maye and the offense were in the second half, this was also the best team win of the year. After Pitt's Israel Abanikanda scored with 10:07 remaining in the third quarter, the UNC defense shut the Panthers down by forcing a fumble and allowing just three first downs the rest of the way.

Defining Moment: The crazy win at Appalachian State

North Carolina won its first six games decided by a touchdown or less, and that run started in Boone in Week 1. In a bizarre fourth quarter that saw 62 total points scored, the Heels successfully defended a pair of Mountaineer two-point conversions in the final minute to survive with a win. This game epitomized the 2022 Tar Heels: a great offense, a shoddy defense, and a team that found a way to win most of the time.

Biggest Surprise: Emergence of Elijah Green

In his first 15 games as a Tar Heel, Green had 163 rushing yards, 69 of which came against FCS Florida A&M, and was mostly a special teams contributor. But over the last seven games, Green ran for 439 yards and eight touchdowns. With freshmen Omarion Walker and George Pettaway in the mix, no one knows what the future holds for Green in 2023, but he had a big impact down the stretch this fall.

Biggest Disappointment: Late-Season Swoon

The heartbreak of losing the last three games of the year after ascending to No. 13 in the College Football Playoff Rankings is bad enough, but the fact that it occurred while the defense was playing some of its best football of the year is stunning. As good as Drake Maye, Josh Downs and the rest of the offense were for the entirety of the season, their lack of production was the primary reason Carolina finished the year with a three-game losing streak.

Senior Who Will Be Missed the Most: Antoine Green, WR

Josh Downs has already indicated that he has played his last game as a Tar Heel, and his early departure will be the most impactful. But as far as seniors go, losing Green, who exploded for 43 catches for 798 yards and seven scores this fall, means that the Heels will have to break in two new receivers next fall.

Player to Watch in 2022: Zach Rice, OL

There will be some new faces along the offensive line next year and that may not be bad, all things considered. One player who will get a chance to claim a starting spot is Rice, a former 5-star prospect out of Lynchburg, Virginia. Rice was the No. 13 overall prospect in the Class of '22 and picked the Heels over Ohio State, Alabama, and Notre Dame.

Offseason Storyline: One more year of Maye

Yes, he was just a redshirt freshman this fall. But after completing the 2023 schedule, Maye will be draft-eligible and with another strong season will be positioned at the top of most draft boards. So the question this offseason becomes, can head coach Mack Brown and the Carolina coaching staff put this team in position to capitalize on what most likely be Maye's last season in Chapel Hill?

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.