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Florida State football opponent Q&A: North Carolina Tar Heels

Getting a UNC perspective on Saturday’s battle at Doak

Virginia Tech v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

We’re very fortunate to have the SB Nation network of team sites to work with during game weeks. This week we’re chatting with Brandon Anderson, writer and staff editor at Tar Heel Blog, SBN’s North Carolina site. We talked about Mack Brown, FSU having to face Sam Howell, dirty feet, and roundball.

TN: I have to admit, I thought Mack Brown would flame out badly in Chapel Hill, but so far that’s clearly not the case. Last season Brown flipped the Heels from 2-9 to 7-6, and this season the Tar Heels are 3-0 and ranked 5th! in the country. Why is Mack Brown having success at UNC when he couldn’t right the ship at Texas? What do you attribute it to — experience, the staff he’s hired, or talent?

THB (Tar Heel Blog): That’s a great question. I think one take that I’ve heard that I agree with is that time off from coaching and covering football for ESPN likely helped him a lot in what he’s doing now. He got to watch all kinds of film, see some more modern-day schemes than maybe he was even familiar with at Texas, and so forth. It’s not a luxury that a whole lot of active coaches have on such a large scale because they are constantly focused on their team, and so I definitely think that helps in some way.

I think the other thing about Mack Brown that can never be taken away from him is that he is a charmer. No matter what work he’s doing, what recruit he’s talking to, what media member he’s talking to, people just love him. That’s helped tremendously in recruiting, and perhaps more currently relevant I think it helped turn this team into what it is.

There are still some Larry Fedora holdovers on this team (Michael Carter, Dazz Newsome, Dyami Brown) and it was extremely hard to see them being able to produce at the level they are now under his helm. I think he knows how to get the most out of players, but it also helps that he brought in coaches that were passionate about getting Carolina back into the national spotlight.

TN: Florida State let Sam Howell slip through their fingers in recruiting. Just how good is Howell, and has he gotten better than his electric freshman season a year ago, or are you expecting a sophomore slump? In your opinion, what makes him and the UNC offense so good?

THB: Sam Howell is a really smart kid that has a fantastic arm. I think he started off this season trying to force too many big plays downfield, but we have yet to figure out if it was the play-calling that was to blame or if maybe his killer instinct got the best of him. Either way, the game he had against Virginia Tech is the best representation of who Howell is. In my opinion it’s been hard to see if he’s improved from his freshman season because of how he was playing in the first couple games along with the issues they were having on the offensive line, but I think the next couple of games should tell us everything we need to know now that left guard Josh Ezeudu is back.

As far as what makes him and the offense so good, I think it’s the fact that it’s so balanced. Michael Carter and Javonte Williams have had strong performances running the ball, and I think it’s helped give Howell more real estate to work with when defenses load the box. UNC also has some talented wide receivers in Dazz Newsome, Dyami Brown, and Beau Corrales. This is very much a “pick your poison” offense, and I think as long as the offensive line can find a way to stay healthy, they’ll only get better and better.

TN: What’s going on with UNC’s defense? We heard their front is good but their secondary is a little soft. Is it a talent issue or a scheme issue with coordinator Jay Bateman?

THB: One of the biggest problems with the defense right now is that they are missing key guys from the beginning of the year. We learned that Myles Wolfolk has entered the transfer portal, who showed a lot of promise in the game against Syracuse. Storm Duck also missed the Virginia Tech game, who is another guy who has been doing a lot of good things so far. So I’d say the short answer as to why the secondary is struggling is attrition.

When it comes to what is going on with the defense as a whole, I’d say it’s a talent issue combined with some confusing moments from Bateman. The defensive line is OK, but a lot of pressure is having to be generated by linebackers Chazz Surratt, Tomari Fox, and Jeremiah Gemmel. I think when you combine the defensive line needing help and the secondary being in the state it’s in, it might be attributing to some of Bateman’s failings but it’s hard to tell. For what it’s worth, however, I don’t know that his scheme has ever been the best at dealing with the run and Virginia Tech was a bad matchup in that regard. I’m hoping we don’t see the Heels get gouged that badly in the run game for a while.

Military Bowl Presented by Northrop Grumman - North Carolina v Temple
Storm Duck #29 of the North Carolina Tar Heels celebrates after returning an interception for a touchdown against the Temple Owls in the Military Bowl Presented by Northrop Grumman at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium on December 27, 2019 in Annapolis, Maryland.
Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

TN: Wait, you guys have a player with the name Storm Duck? That’s amazing. I get the meaning behind what a Tar Heel is. But why is the mascot a ram?

THB: The answer is as random as you would expect. Back in the 1920s one of the cheerleaders decided that the school needed a mascot similar to how NC State has the wolf and Georgia has the bulldog. There was a fullback on the team named Jack Merritt whose nickname was the “Battering Ram”, so then the cheerleader ordered a live ram and started bringing it to games. The more you know.

TN: That’s a pretty wild backstory. Mail-order catalogs must have been insane back in the day. Let’s look at the big picture here, since it’s an exciting time to be a Tar Heel football fan. How far can Mack Brown take this Tar Heel program, especially as long as Howell is under center? What’s the ceiling here, in your opinion? Competing for ACC titles? A College Football Playoff berth?

THB: Honestly, I think a lot of what Mack Brown is going to be able to do depends on if he can beat Clemson both on and off the field. So far Brown has done an excellent job of “building the wall” around the state of North Carolina and has kept some of the more talented recruits in the state from running off to NC State, Virginia Tech, and Clemson. I think as long as Brown’s in Chapel Hill UNC is going to be the team to beat, which may or may not be an honor shared with Miami. If he can get one over Clemson, which the potential is absolutely there after last year’s game, then I think the Playoffs are possible in maybe another year or two.

Unfortunately I’m not sure where Sam Howell fits into that equation, and for his sake I hope I’m wrong and that all of this happens sooner than later. As far as a potential national championship goes? My brain hasn’t even begun to ponder that yet. UNC’s never won it before so it’s really hard to have any kind of opinion on if that could actually happen.

TN: I know this is a football blog thing we’re doing here, but we have to ask - what on earth is going on with Roy Williams and UNC’s men’s basketball team?

THB: Hopefully the answer is getting better than last year’s team hahaha. Seriously though, I think a lot of bad luck combined with a lot of bad execution pretty much explains the entire 2019-20 season. There were lots of injuries, but also it seemed like there just weren’t enough shooters on the court. It’s a weird thing to say considering we landed Cole Anthony, but he was just never the same after he got injured early in the season and there wasn’t anybody around him that was any better. In hindsight, having Coby White, Cam Johnson, and Luke Maye on the perimeter spoiled us greatly and I miss that team all the time.

This year should be better. Williams managed to bring in two big-time scorers in Caleb Love and RJ Davis. He also brought in Cam Johnson’s brother Puff (his real name is Donovan), who should be a good backup for Leaky Black at the shooting guard spot. That combined with five-star bigs Day’Ron Sharpe and Walker Kessler, and I feel good about things not being as terrible as they were. You will not, however, see me talking about the Final Four this year. I am still recovering from the craziness and would just like them to make the tournament again haha.

TN: Good luck in roundball next season! So, it’s pretty clear you guys are a football school now while FSU is a basketball school haha. Last I checked, the Tar Heels were 13.5 point favorites in Tallahassee this weekend, but the last three matchups between the teams have been decided by a total of just 7 points, though UNC won the last two. What do you think happens in this game, and what’s your final score prediction? Do the ‘Noles have a chance at an upset?

THB: If I had to guess, UNC will get out to a 21-0 lead in the first half that will start to evaporate somehow in the third quarter. For some mysterious reason we’ve been an outstanding fourth quarter team, so that will be when the Heels start to pull away. I’m going to make my prediction that the Heels win 35-20. I also will say this: I feel like UNC could beat most teams in the country right now, but I also think they’re beatable. I definitely think it’s possible that FSU can get the upset, I just don’t know what that looks like. I think maybe if they can make the Heels one-dimensional by taking away the run game, I feel like that’d be the best place to start. I know, that’s a scary thought considering who the quarterback is, but perhaps this is why I am not a football coach haha.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 02 Cal at North Carolina
Aw, look how cute it is.
Photo by Brian Utesch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Thanks to Brandon for his time and insight! Head over to Tar Heel Blog for all things North Carolina.