North Carolina

From Sam Howell to the defense: What to make of UNC football midway through the season

Mack Brown gathered his players last week and told them he wasn’t pleased with how some of them were practicing.

Heading into their Sept. 28 game against No. 1 Clemson, the Tar Heels had their best week of practice. But on this day, Brown didn’t see the same focus. And he wasn’t having it.

He told his players that the coaching staff would grade practice film — and whichever players were not practicing hard would not make the trip to Georgia Tech.

“You either are playing hard or you’re not,” Brown said last Wednesday. “So if you’re not, we don’t need any hamburger eaters, stay here.”

When asked about the message, UNC junior wide receiver Dazz Newsome said, “Oh yeah, he definitely told us that.”

It’s unclear whether he left anyone because of that, but it appears the players heard the message loud and clear.

Last Saturday against Georgia Tech, UNC won 38-22, and led by as many as 23 points. It wasn’t the most comfortable win. At one point in the second half, Georgia Tech cut UNC’s lead to nine points.

But the Tar Heels responded.

“I thought they played hard tonight, I thought they played with passion tonight and did a lot of good things,” Brown said on Saturday. “(Atlanta’s) been a really, really difficult place for us to win. ... Really, really pleased with the way the guys played.”

The Tar Heels are 3-3 overall and 2-1 in the conference entering their bye week. They have more wins this season than they had in 2018.

“We’ve come a long way, but there’s still a lot more work to do,” UNC senior defensive tackle Aaron Crawford said Saturday.

Here are nine things we know about the Tar Heels at the halfway point in the season:

1. Sam Howell is no ordinary freshman

Howell, a true freshman quarterback, hasn’t looked like one. Since day one, he’s had the poise of a veteran. The 6-1, 225-pound quarterback engineered two fourth-quarter comeback wins in his first two games, and almost engineered three more.

There’s usually a growing period for freshmen quarterbacks playing in their first college season. But Howell has been solid all year. Through six games, he has 1,544 yards, 15 passing touchdowns, three interceptions, one rushing touchdown, and is completing 63.1 percent of his passes.

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North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell (7) looks for receiver Toe Groves on the Tar Heels’ final drive of the game, picking up seven yards and a first down on Saturday, September 28, 2019 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. Howell was 15-27 for 144 yards and two touchdowns in the Tar Heels’ 21-20 loss to Clemson. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

Howell threw a career-high four passing touchdowns against Georgia Tech last Saturday.

“We said it since day one, ‘Sam is a baller,’” UNC junior wide receiver Beau Corrales said after Saturday’s game. “Everybody on the team has faith in him, and it’s obvious he has faith in himself.”

Having faith in your quarterback is huge, especially in clutch situations.

2. The fourth quarter is where UNC shines.

You can never count out the Tar Heels, no matter the score, because the fourth quarter is where they’ve played their best football. It’s where Howell has been most effective. It’s where the running backs have run their hardest. And it’s where the defense has gotten stops.

UNC is ranked No. 1 in the country in fourth quarter passing offense (524 yards), No. 1 in fourth-quarter passing touchdowns (seven), and is tied for first with the fewest number of fourth-quarter interceptions (zero) thrown.

The Tar Heels are tied for sixth in fourth quarter interceptions (three), and their opponents have completed just 45.5 percent of their passes against them in the fourth quarter, which is 10th best.

That has translated into more points than their opponents in the fourth quarter. The Tar Heels have outscored opponents in the fourth quarter 72-31.

This gives UNC a chance to win each week.

3. The secondary is vulnerable

There is no unit on UNC’s team that has taken a worse beating than its secondary. Since July, three defensive backs — Bryson Richardson, Patrice Rene and Cam’Ron Kelly — have gone down with season-ending injuries. UNC junior safety Myles Wolfolk, who leads the ACC with three interceptions, is out indefinitely with a lower body injury.

Because of the injuries, UNC is relying on a lot freshmen and backups with little to no game experience. UNC freshman cornerback Storm Duck made his second career start, while freshman safety Don Chapman made his first against Georgia Tech. Both played fairly well. Chapman had two tackles and an interception. Duck had three tackles and a pass deflection.

True freshmen defensive backs Obi Egbuna and Giovanni Biggers also played against Georgia Tech.

UNC’s defensive back unit was already one of its thinnest entering the season. Four guys are out, and it’s only halfway through the season.

4. The Tar Heels’ defense is much improved

If you compare UNC’s 2018 defense to its defense this season, it’s almost like night and day.

UNC defensive coordinator Jay Bateman’s scheme has often times confused opposing offenses with its multiplicity, and disguised blitzes. On Sept. 28, the Tar Heels’ defense held then-No. 1 Clemson to 331 yards of total offense, and 21 points. Both were season-lows for the Tigers.

The Tar Heels shut out Georgia Tech in the first half of last week’s game, and allowed only 94 yards of total offense. UNC also allowed only seven points in the second half of its 24-20 loss to South Carolina in the season-opener on Aug. 31.

This wasn’t the case last season, when UNC allowed 34.5 points per game, which was 106th in the country. This season, UNC is allowing 24.3 points per game, which is 52nd in the country.

The Tar Heels’ have confidence that they can get a stop whenever they need it. Opponents are 0-for-3 against them in fourth down attempts.

5. There is still room for growth

The Tar Heels have a tendency to give up some big plays. UNC has given up 28 plays that have gone for 20 or more yards, which is ranked 100th in the country out of 130 FBS teams. These are called explosive plays, and they can be a back-breaker for any team.

Those plays have defined UNC’s defenses in recent years.

Some of those explosive plays have been due to blown coverages.

For instance, Clemson’s game-winning 38-yard touchdown from quarterback Trevor Lawrence to wide receiver Tee Higgins was a blown coverage. The 51-yard second-quarter touchdown pass from Wake Forest’s Jamie Newman to Sage Surratt on Sept. 13, was also due to blown coverage.

Part of that can be contributed to youth, but with so many guys out, that can no longer be an excuse. Those players have to grow up fast during the last stretch of the season if the Tar Heels want to win the Coastal Division.

6. The Tar Heels have a tendency to fall asleep in games

Before last Saturday’s game against Georgia Tech, UNC had been outscored in the second quarter of games 52-20. But the Tar Heels played well in the second quarter against the Yellow Jackets, outscoring them 14-0.

But that was only one game. The Tar Heels have to continue that trend so they won’t fall behind in the first half. The Tar Heels are 2-0 when leading at halftime.

After the loss to Appalachian State on Sept. 21, UNC realized that it had to play hard all four quarters in order to be the team that they wanted to be. They couldn’t rely on fourth quarter comebacks to win games.

7. The Tar Heels are good enough to win the Coastal

The Tar Heels have five ACC opponents left on their schedule — Virginia Tech, Duke, Virginia, Pittsburgh and N.C. State. Virginia is currently the only undefeated team in the ACC Coastal Division at 2-0.

But the Cavaliers appear beatable. They beat Florida State, 31-24, on Sept. 14, and Old Dominion, 28-17, on Sept. 21.

If the Tar Heels were to win the rest of their ACC games, they would win the Coastal Division outright. The Tar Heels’ 21-20 loss to Clemson, arguably the best team in the country, shows that they are capable of beating any team if they play their best.

8. UNC has little room for error

The Tar Heels have struggled most when they’ve committed turnovers. A first-quarter fumble in the game against Wake Forest put them in an early hole, and they lost 24-18. Two first-half interceptions against Appalachian State put UNC in a hole again, before it lost 34-31.

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Appalachian State’s Ryan Huff (21) and Demetrius Taylor (48) sack North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell (7) for a loss of three yards and force a fumble which North Carolina recovered in the third quarter on Saturday, September 21, 2019 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

Against Clemson, the Tar Heels did not commit any turnovers. However, they failed to convert on a key fourth-down attempt in the fourth quarter near midfield. Then Clemson scored on its next possession.

Those one or two possessions have made a difference in the outcomes of UNC’s first few games.

9. Chazz Surratt better than anyone expected

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the season is how well Chazz Surratt has played at linebacker. Just last year, he was a quarterback for the Tar Heels. He gained 15 pounds of muscle in the off-season and has been a force.

He leads the team in tackles with 46. He is tied for the team lead in pass breakups with three. He also has 5.5 tackles for loss and three sacks.

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North Carolina linebacker Chazz Surratt (21) pressures Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) in the third quarter on Saturday, September 28, 2019 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

Entering the season, Surratt was a backup, who was expected to make a contribution. He was thrust in the starting role in the season-opener because of a few suspensions at linebacker, and he immediately performed well.

“And I think football makes sense to Chazz,” UNC defensive coordinator Jay Bateman said last week. “You can explain things to him and he’s like sure I understand how that works together. I think his ceiling is extremely high.”

When asked if Surratt had performed better than expected, Bateman said, “Yeah, I think so.”

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Jonathan M. Alexander has been covering the North Carolina Tar Heels since May 2018. He previously covered Duke basketball and recruiting in the ACC. He is an alumnus of N.C. Central University.
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