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 UNC’s struggles with replacing talent, the development of Sam Howell, and of course a little roundball as UNC begins a new era on the court.
TN: Let’s look at the big picture real quick. North Carolina is 3-2, with tough losses to Coastal opponents Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech. It feels like the Tar Heels are taking a step back this season after the growth they’ve shown over the last two, and it seems like the obvious answer as to why is that UNC is feeling the loss of talent to the NFL, such as running backs Javonte Williams and Michael Carter, along with receivers Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome. Is that the case, or is it something else?
THB: I think when answering this question, it’s important to start with the two most important players that you just mentioned: Javonte Williams and Michael Carter. Last season, UNC’s run game was so ridiculous that I think we were caught off guard by just how far the drop was from them to what would eventually be this season’s depth chart. We ended up getting Ty Chandler from Tennessee, who was supposed to be the guy going into that first game against Virginia Tech. Unfortunately he got off to a really slow start this season, and he’s just now starting to show some decent production.
One other thing that was underestimated about Carter and Williams is how well they disguised the problems along the offensive line. We brought back every starter from last season, which was thought to be a strength and...it...hasn’t been. Not even close. Howell has been getting pummeled because of it, and running backs haven’t been nearly as productive. The wide receiver situation is definitely a thing, but honestly if I’m listing issues in order, I’m also leaping right over that and looking at the defense. Jay Bateman has taken a while figuring out how to use which players where, and in general the run defense has been abysmal. So yeah, I think that best explains why the Heels have a 3-2 record so far.
TN: This is Mack Brown’s third season (again). Last time we spoke you were pretty high on Brown’s ability to recruit and take the UNC program places. In this context it means replacing lost talent and continuing to build the program to possible ACC titles and ten-win seasons. Has that belief wavered at all?
THB: I think everyone is still high on Brown’s ability to recruit, but it also doesn’t look so great that he’s landing all of this talent and starting off the season like this. Perception indeed is not reality, however, because I actually do feel like a lot of the young guys are playing well. Let’s go back to the offensive line just as an example: all of those guys are upperclassmen. We thought that was going to work in our favor, and honestly I think it’s done more harm than good. So yeah, I feel like belief in what he’s doing recruiting-wise is still high, it’s just really hoping that all of the pieces start getting used properly so that it doesn’t look like we just recruited a bunch of talent but don’t know how to use it. OC Phil Longo said something similar this week when he admitted that they need to do a better job of scheming to players’ strengths and weaknesses. Not exactly the easiest thing to hear from coordinators that have been there for a few years now, but it is what it is.
TN: There’s a chance this is Sam Howell’s last season in Chapel Hill. Last year you told me you thought the balance on offense helped Howell. You kind of touched on this already, but is Howell being asked to shoulder much more of the offense’s production this season? If so, how is he handling that, and what are your thoughts on his development as a QB and his career? Has he been everything Tar Heel fans hoped he’d be?
THB: I definitely think the lack of balance has created a tough situation for Howell. I wrote a week or two ago that he is having to throw the ball, run the ball, protect himself because the offensive line is so bad, etc. Once again, it all goes back to Michael Carter and Javonte Williams making his job a lot easier, but I definitely think his wide receivers just aren’t as talented as Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome were, with the exception being Josh Downs.
When looking at how he’s developed to this point, I think there’s still some nagging issues that I thought he would’ve worked on by now. His vision is still not great when it comes to reading all of his passing options, he doesn’t like throwing the ball away, and because of it he makes some very bad throws into traffic. The flip side, of course, is that he is still extremely talented, has an incredible arm, and I feel like he’s even able to run the ball way better than he ever did before. I would say that Howell has been 90% what we hoped he would be, but it’s pretty disappointing that for both internal and external reasons, that Heisman conversation is pretty much an afterthought.
TN: Last year you told me you weren’t sure if defensive coordinator Jay Bateman’s scheme was great at dealing with the run. Why is that, and schematically how do you think Bateman will try to slow down Florida State’s explosive rushing attack with Jashaun Corbin and Treshaun Ward?
THB: My easy answer is tackling. It hurts me to have to give such a simple answer, but last week against Duke was the best that I’ve ever seen this team tackle, and I still feel like I haven’t seen as many solo tackles in space as I’d like to. I don’t know what it is about this team and missing tackles, but I feel like until they can show consistent improvement in that department, they are going to keep getting destroyed in the run game.
Schematically, I do feel like I’ve seen Bateman try throwing a few more looks at teams as of late. At the beginning of the season it seemed like he was hesitant to rush more four at any given time and then he wondered why the team wasn’t getting any sacks. We’ve seen him be a bit more aggressive with his play calling lately, so I’m hoping that’s enough to slow down Corbin and Ward. We’ll just have to see how things go.
TN: Fan mailbag hypothetical —
Let’s say Howell sticks and plays at FSU and doesn’t enter the transfer portal. Does he make any difference in success for the Noles? Is Willie still around?— kapplegate1 (@kapplegate1) October 5, 2021
Also, how many wins a year do you think Howell would have been worth to FSU?
THB: I feel like 8 wins a year is a safe number, but it could’ve been more. I’ll be honest: Florida State has been one of the more confusing teams I’ve witnessed in a while, but I also know that it has been quite the revolving door due to discipline issues and transfers (if I’m wrong, I’d appreciate the correction but I thought that’s what I had heard). Maybe that would’ve hurt Howell some, but I also feel like he’s such a good player that he would’ve at least kept the Seminoles over .500 over the last couple of seasons.
TN: Last time we spoke I asked you a basketball question and I think it’d be fun to continue that tradition. Roy Williams finally retired and UNC elevated long-time assistant Hubert Davis. What are the expectations for Davis’ first season, and do you think there will be any notable differences on the court from how UNC operated under Williams?
THB: I think what’s exciting about expectations for Hubert Davis is that there really aren’t any as far as success goes. So far what we know is that he wants to play a more modern scheme, would love to attack the perimeter more, and plans to make some much needed corrections on defense. He brought in Justin McKoy, Brady Manek, and Dawson Garcia as transfers, all of whom were loved with their previous programs. I definitely think this team is built to make the NCAA tournament if Davis figures out how to properly use this roster, but it’s far from a guarantee. Will he be able to highlight players’ strengths properly? Will Caleb Love and RJ Davis be able to take enough steps forward in their development? Do we finally see the Leaky Black we’ve been told exists but we still haven’t seen? I personally am going into this season with zero expectations, but a lot of hope. If nothing else, Davis has a fun roster, and his energy as a coach is a breath of fresh air. We’ll see what results that produces.
TN: North Carolina opened as 18-point favorites over Florida State (last year they were 13.5 pt. favorites and lost by 3). How do you see this one playing out? Does UNC take care of business, like Vegas thinks, or do the Seminoles have the ability to shock the Tar Heels again?
THB: I feel like playing this game in Chapel Hill will probably help the Heels quite a bit. What probably isn’t talked about enough is that Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech were really tough teams to play on the road, with Blacksburg especially being an insane environment. I feel like UNC pulls it off this time, but because of how well Florida State is running the ball right now I don’t know that it’s by much. I’m going to say maybe they win by seven, and anything above that will be a pleasant surprise. I will say: what makes me nervous is how well the Seminoles played against Notre Dame and Louisville. Shutting out the Cardinals in the second half is no small feat, so for what it’s worth I think Florida State is more than capable of winning. Best of luck to you guys!
Thanks to Brandon for his time and insight! Head over to Tar Heel Blog for all things North Carolina.