Improvement Has Come Quickly at North Carolina

Improvement has come quickly at North Carolina

Less than a year ago, North Carolina’s football program seemed lost in mediocrity. Mack Brown inherited a program that had finished 2-9 in 2018. The Tar Heels weren’t in the mix for top recruits, and fan enthusiasm had declined. However, improvement has come quickly at North Carolina. The program is 2-3 through five games, losing to three good teams by a total of 10 points. The Tar Heels almost shocked the sports world this past Saturday with a near-upset of the top-ranked Clemson Tigers. Even in losing a nail biter, North Carolina gave a glimpse of just how bright the program’s future may end up being.

Improvement Has Come Quickly at North Carolina

The first five games were the toughest part of this year’s schedule. It wouldn’t have been inconceivable for North Carolina to start 0-5. The Tar Heels were starting a freshman quarterback, and the rest of the starters were holdovers from two previous unsuccessful seasons. Most college football pundits predicted a three of four-win season in 2019.

However, Brown had something else in mind. Shortly after returning to Chapel Hill for a second tenure, he signed Sam Howell, one of the nation’s top high school quarterbacks. Howell won the starting job during preseason, and his presence has changed North Carolina football. The freshman has single-handedly kept North Carolina in every game this season. It’s not often that a freshman in any sport develops the nickname “The Iceman.” Howell has earned the moniker as a result of his steel nerves, especially when games are on the line. This confident freshman has not even scratched his potential, and there is no reason to think he can’t be among the best players in college football.

North Carolina Was Prepared for Clemson

Last week, we discussed the fact that North Carolina had to play inspired football to have any chance against Clemson. The coaching staff had the Tar Heels ready, and against all odds, they outplayed the defending national champions. Las Vegas had Clemson favored by nearly four touchdowns. While many North Carolina fans gave their team little chance against the Tigers, Kenan Stadium was packed. The atmosphere in Chapel Hill was nothing short of electric.

Superb coaching evened the playing field leading up to last Saturday. Whatever Brown and his staff said to his team, the players bought into it and came out ready to attack Clemson. On the opening drive, Howell hit Dyami Brown with a 40 yard touchdown bomb, and it was clear the Tar Heels meant business.

The looming question was how North Carolina’s defense would hold up against Clemson’s NFL-caliber offensive talent. Defensive coordinator Jay Bateman’s unit responded with an outstanding effort. Quarterback-turned-linebacker Chazz Surratt led the way for the Tar Heels, recording seven tackles including a sack. Two of Surratt’s tackles were for a loss, and he has cemented himself as North Carolina’s on-field defensive leader. There were times the defense bent, but it never did break against Clemson. The Tar Heels held the Tigers to 331 yards of total offense. In the recent past, North Carolina needed to score nearly 40 points to win games against average teams. That is no longer case, as Bateman’s defense has taken a major leap forward this season.

Brown’s Aggressiveness Has Influenced His Players

The end of the Clemson game showed Brown’s aggressive approach to what he’s trying to accomplish at North Carolina. The Tar Heels scored a touchdown with just over a minute left, and instead of kicking a PAT to tie, Brown went for two and the lead. While the two-point conversion failed, it’s difficult to criticize Brown’s gamble. For those who have criticized the move, Brown doesn’t care, stating that at 68 years old, he wants to win, right now.

This mindset has rubbed off on Brown’s players, even before the Clemson game. In every game this season, the Tar Heels have trailed during the fourth quarter. They have also played their best football then, pulling out two wins. Even when they’ve been down, the players have fought and given themselves chances to win.

The Tar Heels have been bitten by the injury bug during the last three seasons, including this one. Against Clemson, offensive lineman Charlie Heck and defensive tackle Jason Strowbridge both played well despite not being fully healthy. The players’ willingness to battle it out, even when injured, is the direct result of Brown’s aggressive approach and desire to win football games.

Tar Heels Can’t Afford A Letdown Against Georgia Tech

The next step in North Carolina’s upward climb comes Saturday at Georgia Tech. This is a game the Tar Heels simply can’t afford to lose. Georgia Tech is undergoing a complete rebuild under new coach Geoff Collins, losing to The Citadel at home two weeks ago. It may seem drastic to call this game a must-win, but for North Carolina to have postseason chances, that is what game amounts to.

Georgia Tech lost 24-2 against Temple this past Saturday, committing three turnovers inside Temple’s 35 yard line. The Tar Heels will look to keep up the same defensive intensity we saw against Clemson. If they do, there’s a very good chance,we will see the “Turnover Belt” once again. North Carolina forced a fumble against Clemson, and the defense will have its chances against the Yellow Jackets.

Offensively, the key will be the play of North Carolina’s offensive line. Georgia Tech has been weak against the run, and the Tar Heels’ running backs should be able to do damage in Atlanta. If Howell gets adequate protection, he will be taking his share of shots downfield as well. Overall, this is a great chance for the Tar Heels to even their record.

The improvement has come quickly for North Carolina. With the aggressiveness Brown has brought to the program, the Tar Heels have shown they can compete with the nation’s elite teams. Now the question is one of how soon they can join those teams at the top.

Embed from Getty Images