The Q&A returns this week with a chat with Tar Heel Blog, the SBNation UNC community. We chatted with their writer Jake Cowden about all things UNC. And did you remember that Mack Brown came out of his cushy ESPN gig to take on another coaching gig at 68 years old? There’s some wild things happening up in Chapel Hill, and that’s in addition to scaring the hell out of Clemson last week. Jake also gives an interesting answer as to the role and ceiling of Mack Brown’s current tenure. How are Tech’s odds looking against these Tar Heels this week? ... not good.
1. I know I wasn’t alone in wondering what in the world UNC was doing in bringing back Mack Brown, but UNC looks better than we thought? You guys scared the hell out of Clemson and beat SC and Miami... so despite the 3 losses, it seems like it’s working out okay? How is everyone in Chapel hill feeling about this hire so far?
Mack Brown’s hiring (again) was met almost exclusively with optimism, both in Chapel Hill and here at the Tar Heel Blog. I was extremely pessimistic because I couldn’t help but remember how poorly things ended at Texas. What Brown has done that I didn’t anticipate is rebuild a lot of bridges that had been burned under the previous staff. Countless high school football coaches in Charlotte have talked about how happy they are that they’re seeing Carolina recruiters again, and Brown is making a concerted effort to recruit Charlotte heavily. This off season he brought a lot of alumni and other connections he’s made into Chapel Hill. Carolina sold out both the Clemson and the App State game before the season even started, that wouldn’t have been a possibility a couple of years ago. I thought Carolina would be 1-4 after the Clemson game, so big picture wise being 2-3 and all five of them competitive games is huge for Carolina’s bowl eligibility hopes. More than anything, Brown has brought new energy into a program that’s been flat for a while.
2. What did you see UNC improve upon to hang with Clemson in the 1 point loss that you didn’t see against Wake or App State?
The linebackers played out of their minds. Especially in the Wake game, but all season, missed tackles and missed assignments by the linebackers had been the biggest issue defensively. Former quarterback turned linebacker Chazz Surratt looked athletic but unsure of himself at the beginning of the year, which meant he often ended up going backwards. Dominique Ross, the best returning linebacker from last season, looked uncomfortable in defensive coordinator Jay Bateman’s new scheme. I don’t know if playing the #1 team in the country flipped a switch, but they looked aggressive and confident against the tigers. Both Surratt and Ross played well in coverage and flew to the ball. Hopefully that will be a theme going forward the rest of the year, because they both played fantastic.
3. Sam Howell has looked pretty solid at QB so far this season, who else should we be looking out for on offense this weekend?
Right Guard Marcus McKethan has been one of my favorite players on offense so far, but I’m aware most folks aren’t lining up to watch guard play. Running back Javonte Williams and receiver Dyami Brown have been the two most explosive skill players on offense. Williams is a violent runner, against South Carolina he had over 100 yards after contact. The Tar heels have three running backs in the rotation, but Williams has been the most productive so far, as well as the funnest to watch. Receiver Dyami Brown has been the most explosive receiver. He scored touchdowns against Clemson and Miami on identical hitch n’ go routes. He has the best footwork on the team from a route running perspective, and has a great feel of how to adjust mid route to create separation. Javonte Williams and Dyami Brown are turning into the go to guys for Sam Howell and the offense.
4. As far as football rivals go, who are UNC’s biggest? Is Duke still #1, or is that only basketball and someone surpasses them in your football rivalries?
Now that is a fun question. I grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah; so the last couple of years getting a feel for Carolina’s rivals has been a blast. Duke is always going to be a huge game in any sport. It’s special in basketball because both programs are historic, but the rivalry with Duke certainly carries over to football and other sports. However, folks in Chapel Hill have a special level of disdain for NC State. I’d even go as far as saying that Carolina football wants to beat Duke, but they hate losing to State. I actually asked a Carolina athlete about the Duke/State rivalries, and they’re answer was really interesting, there is absolutely a little brother complex with State:
”While the rivalry is so strong with Duke, even though we hate Duke you can’t not respect the caliber of players they have, even if you don’t like the way they do things sometimes. Not that NC State doesn’t have that, but if you get beat by Duke it sucks but they’re a good team. Sometimes you can’t say the same for NC State, as bad as that sounds - if you lose to State there’s no excuse.”
5. Georgia Tech’s offensive line was thin and inexperienced to start the year before being plagued by injuries, so what defensive players will we be seeing in our backfield this Saturday?
As far as who’s in the backfield, linebackers Chazz Surratt and Dominique Ross are the best bet. Carolina loves to bring pressure from the secondary, and free safety Myles Dorn had some missed sacks but was in the backfield pretty frequently against Clemson. The names that might not get called though are defensive tackles Aaron Crawford and Jason Strowbridge. They’ve both been the most consistent players all season, and their ability to take up blocks is what’s allowing for the linebackers to create defensive pressure.
6. At 68 years old, how long do you think Brown is looking to coach for? What’s his ceiling in Chapel Hill?
If I were a betting man, I’d say at most two recruiting classes will come and go and only have Mack Brown as their coach. I’d put the over under at five years for coach Brown staying in Chapel Hill. It’s unrealistic to expect an ACC Championship while Dabo is still at Clemson. However, the Coastal Division is year after year as open a division as there is in college football. This season there’s an outside shot that Carolina can win the division, but one and maybe two division championships is a realistic possibility. The most important thing Brown is going to do in his second tenure is build up a lot of the program infrastructure within the program that had been neglected. Local recruiting ties, alumni relationships, and just pride in the program have all been going down hill, and Brown’s already begun rebuilding those.
7. And finally, how do you see this game going? Who wins and how?
Carolina should win, but they’ve only won once in Atlanta since like 2001 or something so who knows. Carolina’s secondary has multiple players missing with injuries, so if Georgia Tech wins I think their receivers will be attacking some of Carolina’s inexperienced defensive backs. Every single game, except Clemson, Carolina has gotten off to a terribly slow start and been forced to play from behind. If Georgia Tech can maybe get a turnover early and play with the lead that’s how the Yellow Jackets will win. If Carolina can take care of the football and create some explosive plays early then Carolina will get back to .500. I think the Tar Heels get the win, but being honest I don’t feel as confident about it as I’d like to. I think Georgia Tech can be dangerous and Mack Brown has said to the media that his players don’t have the same level of focus that they did for Clemson last week. I’m expecting a closer game than a lot of my colleagues.
Thanks again to Jake for the illuminating answers and insight into the Tar Heels ahead of Saturday’s game. Kickoff is at 4pm in Atlanta (thank you, ACCN). We’ll see you there.
You can check out my answers to Tar Heel Blog’s questions here.