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On the Heels-A North Carolina Football Preview

Imagine, if you will, Tobacco Road in the fall. The cool crisp air, the leaves changing colors, the breathtaking scenery, and the baby blue of North Carolina football. The Tar Heels posted a 9-5 record last season. In 2023, UNC looks to stamp their tar-covered footprint on the behinds of their opponents on the Tar Heels' way to another ACC Championship Game appearance.

To aid in that endeavor, the Tar Heels and head coach Mack Brown return 15 starters from last year’s squad and are ranked #21 in the preseason AP Top 25 poll.


The North Carolina Quarterback

The Tar Heels will be led on the field this season by sophomore quarterback Drake Maye. Maye accounted for 5,019 yards and 45 touchdowns for a Tar Heel offense that scored 34 points per game. He passed for 4321 yards and 38 TDs and only seven interceptions (on 517 pass attempts) and completed 66% of his passes.

In addition, Maye rushed for 698 yards and added seven more scores. In his first college start against Florida A&M, Maye completed 78% of his passes for 294 yards and five touchdowns, and zero INTs. He threw for over 300 yards in five consecutive games. Three times last season Maye threw five TD passes in a game and threw multiple-touchdown passes in 11 of the 14 games he played in last season.

Maye accounted for five touchdowns in a 41-10 win over Va. Tech.

Maye led an UNC total offense that ranked #2 in the ACC and #19 in the FBS at 462 yards per game and a passing offense (309 yards per game) ranked #2 in the conference and #11 in the FBS.

For his stellar performance, many accolades were bestowed upon Maye:

· ACC Player of the Year

· ACC Offensive Player of the Year

· ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year

· FWAA Freshman All- American

· FWAA Freshman of the Year

· 1st Team All-ACC

And that recognition has continued into this preseason, with Maye being named on several national award watch lists:

· Davey O’Brien Award

· Maxwell Award

· Walter Camp Player of the Year

· ACC Preseason Player of the Year

· Manning Award

Maye and his passing and rushing totals accounted for 77% of the Tar Heels' offensive production. However, the Tar Heels will be without offensive coordinator Phil Longo, who left to take the same position on Luke Fickell's staff at Wisconsin. So it remains to be seen what impact that will have on Maye and the North Carolina offense.


North Carolina Running Backs

The Tar Heels have a talented running back room. Omarion Hampton rushed for 401 yards and six touchdowns. He posted two games of over 100 yards rushing, and two games with multiple rushing touchdowns.

Elijah Green rushed for 558 yards and eight touchdowns and scored at least one rushing touchdown in six of the final eight games.

Also in the mix is George Pettaway. As a freshman last year, Pettaway scored two rushing touchdowns and saw action mostly on kickoff and punt returns.


The Tar Heels Wide Receivers

With Josh Downs now catching passes in the NFL, Maye needs a reliable target or targets to throw to. The receiving corps looks like this:

· WR Nate McCollum: (a transfer from Georgia Tech) caught 60 passes for 655 yards and 3 TDs. He recorded three games of over 100 yards receiving.

· WR Gavin Blackwell: 18 catches for 239 yards and a touchdown.

· TE Bryson Nesbit: 35 catches, 507 yards, 4 TDs (3rd on the team).

· Tez Walker: twice transferred; ruled ineligible by the NCAA. UNC has appealed the decision.


North Carolina Offensive Line

The Tar Heels do return four of their five starters on the offensive line. But they must get better at pass protection, having allowed 40 sacks last season, bad enough for #115th in the FBS. If they can improve on that, maybe Maye would not have to rush for nearly 700 yards this season.

In addition, the Tar Heels get C Willie Lampkin to transfer in from Coastal Carolina. Lampkin was a three-time All-Sun Belt Conference selection.


The North Carolina Defense

Gene Chizik arrived in Chapel Hill for a second stint as defensive coordinator after being out of the game for five years working in the media for the SEC Network and ESPN.

The Tar Heels' defense had more holes than a golf course. The numbers speak for themselves:

· 116th in Total Defense

· 116th in Pass Defense

· 86th in Rushing Defense

· 102nd in Scoring Defense

· 120th in Sacks

· 126th in Tackles for Loss

· 79th in INTs

· 97th in Opponents 3rd Down Conversion Percentage

However, a couple of players stood out in this unit. LB Cedric Gray was a tackling machine, racking up 146 stops. In addition, he made 12 tackles for loss, two INTs, one sack, six pass breakups, and three forced fumbles. Gray has been named to the Lombardi Award, Nagurski Trophy and Butkus Award watch lists this preseason.

Gray’s running mate is LB Power Echols (great name!). Echols recorded 104 tackles, two sacks, five tackles for loss, two pass breakups, one INT, and one forced fumble.

Also returning to this unit are FS Giovanni Biggers (69 tackles), NG Kevin Hester (49 tackles), DE Desmond Evans (26 tackles), and DT Myles Murphy (29 tackles and a blocked kick).


The Schedule/Predictions

North Carolina must win in week one against South Carolina at a neutral site in Charlotte to set the tone for the rest of the season and beat the Gamecocks they will. As far as the rest of the schedule goes, the Tar Heels will lose to Pitt, Clemson, and NC State to finish 9-3.

And Drake Maye will make a trip to New York in December with his eye on the most coveted prize in college football.


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