Mack Brown enters his fifth season, in his second stint in Chapel Hill. He has made a bowl each year and won the Coastal in the last season with divisions, but ended the season on a low note, losing the last four games.
Phil Longo leaves Chapel Hill for Madison and in comes Chip Lindsey from UCF. Lindsey comes from the Gus Malzahn tree, it will be interesting to see how Lindsay is able to tailor his offense to the skill set of a quarterback who is known more for his arm than his legs. The Tar Heel offense was one of the best in the ACC last season. They finished 3rd in the ACC in points per game with 34.4, 2nd in total offense with 432.8 yards per game, 6th in the ACC in rushing with 153.5 yards per game, and 2nd in the ACC is passing offense with 309.3 yards per game. They return nine starters on offense, the biggest losses being at the wide receiver position.
Quarterback Drake Maye enters the 2023 season as one of the top rated QBs in the country and considered by scouts as a top 10 pick in the next draft. He is coming off his first season as a starter, where he completed 66% of his passes for 4321 yards with 38 touchdowns to 7 interceptions. He added 184 carries for 698 yards and 7 touchdowns on the ground and was named first Team all-ACC, ACC player of the year, ACC offensive player of the year, ACC Rookie of the year, and ACC offense rookie of the year, sweeping the conference awards he was eligible to win.
Lindsey has talked at length about the Tar Heels trying to be more balanced and to work the run game. They return every player who had more than 20 carries last season. Maye is the leading returning rusher, with Elijah Green; 131 carries, 558 yards, and 8 touchdowns the leading retuning running back. He will share carries in the backfield with the 3rd leading rusher from last season, Omarion Hampton; 88 carries, 401 yards, and 6 touchdowns. The depth continues with Caleb Hood and DJ Jones, who both averaged over four yards per carry last season.
The biggest loss on offense for Carolina is at the wide receiver position. They lose their top two receivers from 2022, Josh Downs (2nd round to the Colts) and Antoine Green (7th to the Lions). The good news is that the next nine receivers from last season, including four players with 20 or more receptions. The Heels also dipped into the portal to bring in two players who were starters at their previous schools: Devontez Walker from Kent State, 58 receptions for 921 yards with 11 touchdowns, and Nate McCollum from Georgia Tech, 60 receptions for 655 yards with 3 touchdowns. Those two will step into Green and Down’s shoes respectably. The leading returning player for the Tar Heels is tight end Bryson Nesbitt, who had 35 receptions for 507 with 4 touchdowns and was an all-ACC honorable mention last season. The Heels also returned their #2 tight end, Kamari Morales who chipped in 29 receptions for 358 yards and 4 touchdowns, to give Carolina a strong one two punch at the tight end position. They also return solid contributors in wide receivers JJ Jones, 24 receptions for 434 yards and 2 touchdowns, and Kobe Paysour, 29 receptions for 324 yards and 4 touchdowns. Two young players that may work their way into the rotation are R-FR Andre Green Jr, who started in the bowl game and was rated 74th nationally and 11th as a WR, and true freshman Chris Culliver, ranked 150th nationally and 25th as a WR.
The UNC offensive line struggled at times last year, giving up 40 sacks ranking them 3rd worse in the ACC. They return four of five starters from last season’s line and will start four seniors on the line. They also brought in a new offensive line coach, Randy Clements from North Texas.
Gene Chizik enters his second season in his second stint with the Tar Heels. Carolina returns 8 starters from a defense that struggled last season. They finished last in the ACC in points given up with 30.8. They also finished last in the ACC in total defense, giving up 436.5 yards per game. They were 12th in the ACC in rush defense, giving up 165.2 yards per game, and last in passing defense giving up 271.3 yards per game and a 65.8% completion percentage.
The positive for the Heels is that they only lost 3.5 sacks off last year’s defense. The bad news is that they only had 17 sacks last season, that placed them last in the ACC. They return four starters from last season’s defensive line. Much of their sack production came from the linebacker position. Kaimon Rucker returns after leading the team in sacks with 3.5 last season. Their top two leading tacklers return in Cedric Gray, 145 tackles with 11 for a loss, and Power Echols, 103 tackles with 3 for a loss.
The Carolina secondary is a group in flux. They lost three starters off last year’s team in the portal, safety Cam’Ron Kelly to Louisville, cornerback Tony Grimes to Texas A&M, and cornerback Storm Duck to Louisville. They also replaced cornerbacks coach Dre Bly with Charlton Warren. There is good news, they return two starters in safety Gio Biggers, 69 tackles and 2 pass breakups, and cornerback DeAndre Boykins, 67 tackles with 2 sacks and 7 pass breakups. The Heels hit the portal to bring in two talented secondary players from ACC opponents; Derrik Allen from Georgia Tech, 29 tackles with 1 interception and 1 pass breakup, and Armani Chapman from Virginia Tech, 22 tackles with 1 interception and 5 pass breakups.
Carolina returns 3rd team all ACC punter Ben Kiernan. They also returned place kicker Noah Burnette, who handled kickoff and field goals last season. They lost Josh Downs as their main punt returner, but George Pettaway and Omarion Hampton return as their leading kick returners.
The Heels are the defending Coastal champions, going into a season without divisions. The offense’s biggest questions are how quickly the players adapt to the new Chip Lindsey called scheme and how quickly Drake Maye can build a rapport with his new weapons at wide receiver. The other question mark is how much progress the defense makes in year two of Chizik, there really is only one way to go and that’s up. The schedule does no favors, with an opening weekend in Charlotte against a resurgent South Carolina team, followed by home games against always tenacious Appalachian State and a Minnesota team coming off a 9-4 season and picked to finish 3rd in the Big Ten West. The ACC schedule opens with a trip to Pitt and ends with back-to-back trips to Clemson and NC State. The Jackets have won 2 out of the last 3 and 4 out of the last 5 against the Heels, but it will be a tough challenge Tech this October.