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Opponent Q&A: North Carolina

We had questions, Tar Heel Blog had answers.

Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

The opponent Q&A is back in action for another season! This week, we sat down with Akil Guruparan from our sister site, Tar Heel Blog, about how the folks in Chapel Hill are feeling about the upcoming season and the big game on Saturday. His thoughtful responses are below.

What’s old is new again, and Mack Brown is back on the sidelines. What’s the general mood in Chapel Hill about his return? Is there skepticism, or are folks all revved up like it’s 1997 again?

The fanbase’s energy surrounding the Mack Brown hire has been maybe more of a roller coaster than the actual coaching transition. There was a ton of skepticism when the hire was first announced, particularly because whispers were that it was a hire made purely to appease boosters’ nostalgia rather than, ya know, maximizing the product on the field. It didn’t help that perception when Greg Robinson was leaked as the defensive coordinator hire, before that situation was murkily dismissed (Robinson might have been Schiano’d, we’re not entirely sure). Since that initial downer-heavy moment, though, Mack’s done basically everything right this offseason. He salvaged a recruiting class that was on track to be a legitimate program-sinker and is following it up with a really impressive 2020, hired one of the most effective offensive coordinators and one of the most sought-after defensive coordinators in the country, both of whom are known for innovative approaches to the sport, and built and rebuilt relationships with high schools across the state of North Carolina as well as with media, who Larry Fedora had at best neglected and at worst antagonized his whole career. Both the coaching moves themselves and the newfound media friendliness have combined for a high-energy fanbase that’s only compounded by an influx of positive press. We still don’t know what results he’ll get and what his in-game process will look like after 5 years away from coaching, so there’s still some hesitation there, but by and large we’re ready for a change and this one looks like it should be good.

Flipping Sam Howell from Florida State was a huge recruiting win, and now he’s already been named the starting quarterback. What excites you most about him?

If you’re ever feeling down about your quarterback, just pull up tape of Nathan Elliott’s 2018, because I’m not sure I’ve seen a worse QB at the P5 level in my life. The guy was apparently a great locker room presence, said all the right things to media about what he needed to do better, and worked as hard as anybody, but he just didn’t have the arm (especially the arm), the eyes, or the mental processing ability to execute UNC’s offense consistently: by three games into the season, our entire passing offense was swing passes, screens, and the occasional slant if we wanted to go... deep. So in a way, what I’m excited for with Howell is the ability to watch an actual quarterback wearing Tar Heel Blue. Howell particularly has a howitzer of an arm and a gunslinger approach to the position, so I’m really pumped to see him let it fly and have a chance at completing deep passes, opening up the offense in a way that we haven’t really been able to see the past year and a half. I think he’s also going to help his offensive line more than Elliott did; while the latter panicked pretty easily and also was probably coached to go down easily amidst a two-year injury rash, Howell is really patient in the pocket, good at buying time, and has the body and toughness to take hits while throwing. It’s just going to be a lot more fun to watch Howell than it was with the combination of Elliott and Chazz Surratt that took most of last year’s snaps behind center.

What’s UNC’s biggest strength heading into this game, and its biggest weakness?

UNC’s strength is definitely its run game. Michael Carter and Antonio Williams took the bulk of the load last year and did really well with a totally nonthreatening passing offense; Carter averaged over 7 yards per carry, which is still insane to me. Javonte Williams will feature really heavily too, and while he showed out pretty decently in his true freshman year last year, especially against State, but he’s been getting rave reviews in practice, and looked pretty unstoppable in our Spring Game, too, for whatever that’s worth. He and Carter are actually listed as co-starters on UNC’s depth chart from this week, while the senior Williams is listed as the second-stringer, but they’ll all get significant run and bring varying styles to the table: Carter is super shifty and explosive in the open field, Antonio’s a bruiser, and Javonte just runs angry.

Our weakness, young OL and QB notwithstanding (they’re talented, just unproven), is the off-ball linebacker position. Dominique Ross is a pretty good player, but he’s about all we can be confident in. Jeremiah Gemmel is the other likely starter for the season, and he’s... fine. After that, there’s Matthew Flint, who I liked as a recruit but who hasn’t played yet, and four-star true freshman Eugene Asante, who has great high school tape but I think will need some adjustment time to a new scheme and to college football. Oh, and there’s Chazz Surratt listed as the first-half starter while Ross serves a one-half suspension, who changed positions from QB to linebacker. He’s beefed up enough for it, but he hasn’t initiated contact in a football game since he was in 10th grade, so there will be some adjustment there, too. All in all, it’s a unit that maybe can be serviceable, but probably won’t stand out positively and needs the others to do their jobs really well, especially near the beginning of the season.

Outsiders seem to think of North Carolina and South Carolina as natural rivals, but the fans and athletic departments seem largely disinterested in each other. Do you think there’s any value or intrigue in these teams playing more regularly?

I think it’s fun. We don’t see too much of each other, sure, what with the different conferences and the preoccupation with bigger, more in-state rivals, but I like playing South Carolina at least every now and then. I’ve got some friends who graduated from there, jokes about the “Carolina” brand are always fun, and I’m a firm believer in cooperative efforts among public schools, especially those near each other, generally. I will say that with both programs’ uptick recently in recruiting the Carolinas, it feels like there’s a lot more meat to this rivalry now than, say, four years ago, when you guys were beaten down pretty hard and Larry Fedora wasn’t making much of an effort in-state, so the two programs didn’t cross paths on the recruiting trail that much. Just in the past few months, on the other hand, the two schools have been head-to-head finalists in a number of recruiting battles and both won their fair share, so I think this matchup’s got a little more flavor this year and has potential to stay that way in the near future. But without proximity or a shared conference, I don’t think it’s ever going to be a “rile up the fanbases” game, so to speak.

Finally, care to make a prediction?

I’m not expecting a UNC win, per se, though I think a two-possession spread is pretty harsh for a Week 1 game given the amount that UNC should have improved just at the sport’s most important position, let alone in conditioning and defensive scheme. But I just about never predict a UNC loss when I do these Q&A’s, so I’ll say the Tar Heels hold off the Cocks and take a stunner, 20-16.

Thanks again to Akil for taking the time to answer our questions, and be sure to keep an eye out for our responses on Tar Heel Blog!