Special thanks to Isaac Schade of Locked On Heels for joining me on the Quack 12 podcast to discuss North Carolina’s roster. LISTEN HERE
Nota bene: I charted all twelve of UNC’s FBS games this season, which provided about 810 offensive and 775 defensive snaps outside of garbage time. The Tar Heels’ two-deep will have several absences in the bowl game due to transfers, injuries, and an opt-out, including their leading receiver, three starting defensive backs, and the two most experienced outside linebackers. When selecting film clips for the video compilations in this article, I’ve used plays that are representative of season-long trends in terms of play selection, performance, offensive and defensive structure, etc. However, I’ve tried to focus on the players who will be available for the upcoming game and have minimized clips featuring players who won’t be.
North Carolina’s offense is led by the Heisman-caliber redshirt freshman #10 QB Maye in one of the most impressive debuts by a quarterback I’ve ever seen. On the podcast, Isaac and I discussed at length how much the Tar Heels’ season was defined by — and in a sense was wholly dependent on — Maye’s incredible performance.
While UNC will be without its offensive coordinator Phil Longo, who’s taken the Wisconsin OC job and will be joined by former UNC OL coach Jack Bicknell as well, I expect that the spread offense that the Tar Heels operated will continue to perform nominally because it runs through Maye’s decision-making and reading the field, which are excellent. His accuracy, arm strength, and confidence in his receivers are so exceptional, at such a young age, that I would be surprised if he doesn’t win the Heisman by the end of his career. (I said the same thing after reviewing Caleb Williams’ film at Oklahoma last year before he transferred to USC.)
Maye has a very talented set of passing targets as well, and this offense uses designed passing plays on a 2:1 basis compared to designed runs. While I think he will miss leading receiver Josh Downs, sitting out to prepare for the NFL draft, for Downs’ near-miraculous ability to turn desperation plays into conversions, he’ll have seven highly experienced targets (four WRs, three TEs) whom he’s perfectly comfortable throwing to for the bowl.
The leading wideouts are tall outside receivers #3 WR A. Green and #5 WR JJ Jones, and shorter inside receivers #8 WR Paysour and #2 WR Blackwell. Isaac also suggested that true freshman Andre Greene (not to be confused with the senior wearing #3), who’s the most talented in the room on paper, may take the field for the first time in the bowl. Paysour is the most likely to replace Downs’ production given the way they were used during the regular season, and he’s very effective as a possession receiver as plays targeting him have the highest success rate on my tally sheet. I think Jones has a bit of a drop problem but Maye still has full confidence in him and will target him regardless if that’s where the play is.
The starting tight end is #88 TE Morales, who’s in on most plays as a blocker in their typical 11-personnel structure. He rotates with backup #81 TE Copenhaver in that role, but both are capable pass-catchers with 53 targets during meaningful play between them. #18 TE Nesbit is more of a receiving TE who’s frequently split out when he’s in; he’s got the most targets and the highest play success rate on my tally sheet, and towards the end of the year seemed to be a preferred target on desperation plays with Downs missing some time.
By far the most effective aspect of the entire team is UNC’s explosive passing offense. On my tally sheet, they averaged 8.2 adjusted YPA and almost 17.5% of attempts gain 15+ yards. Here’s a representative sample of successful passing plays:
(Reminder - after pressing play, you can use the left button to slow any video to 1⁄4 or 1⁄2 speed)
- :00 – Maye knows the throw the instant the field safety steps wide to cover the sweep man; Jones is going to burn the corner in single coverage. The ball is perfectly placed, Jones really should be running under it instead of slowing up and jumping, but it’s a great catch regardless.
- :12 – Rollouts are fairly common in this offense, and Maye’s accuracy doesn’t really suffer on the hoof. Tricky throw, slightly behind Paysour but he makes a nice adjustment and secures it prior to contact.
- :27 – Underneath throws like this are the bread & butter of the offense, the biggest single category of plays by a large margin. Some teams use the run to set up the pass; UNC uses vertical stretch plays to clear out the coverage and set up stop routes, hitches, crossers, and dumpoffs. Good YAC by Morales here, typical of his physical style.
- :43 – Explosive plays, particularly to Green, are the truly lethal aspect of this offense. It’s eight-man protection with just two in the pattern, and a contested throw. A lot of freshmen with Maye’s numbers are “system” quarterbacks who are only throwing to wide-open guys; quite the opposite with Maye who has the accuracy and confidence to frequently connect on these.
The major limitation on UNC’s offense is that their offensive line play has been shockingly poor, something that Isaac and I discussed with mounting alarm over the course of the podcast. That contributes to a remarkably high rate of pocket pressure on Maye – I tallied 37.5% of all dropbacks for downfield passes resulting in a sack, scramble, or throwaway due to pressure – and frequently having to dump the ball down to shorter and even unproductive throws even though promising longer routes were developing.
As a result, this isn’t a particularly efficient passing offense, even though it’s quite explosive when it does connect. I tallied 269 successful designed passing plays vs 261 failures, given the down & distance, barely over a 50% success rate. There are the typical range of reasons for failed passes of course – some drops, miscommunications, or break-ups, and Maye as a young QB occasionally makes an unwise decision — but what’s well outside the normal range for teams I chart is how often the play is affected by pressure. Some examples:
- :00 – By midway through the season, defenses had figured out that rushing three with a spy was pretty viable. They’re actually slightly more likely to generate pressure vs rushing four, and better able to turn a scramble into a sack.
- :13 – The other good option is blitzing, which opponents did more towards the end of the year. The center and right tackle (interestingly both are transfers, from Miami and Harvard respectively) have the lowest grades in pass protection on my tally sheet and they fall off further against the blitz.
- :26 – NC State’s defense really impressed me for their film study, they had effectively cracked the hot routes for each pattern, blitzed to force them, and generated a quick tackles all night.
- :41 – Another effective strategy is to use Maye’s willingness for a contested throw against him. Here a three-man rush still defeats a seven-man protection and affects Maye’s throwing motion, the ball drifts a bit and the CB has effectively worked the WR out of bounds.
Maye does a lot to salvage those broken plays, however, as a remarkable athlete who keeps his eyes downfield as he breaks the pocket. He averages about three successful scrambles – either running it himself or making an improvised throw – per game, well above the normal rate. Defenses which had him pegged as a pocket passer due to his size had to adjust over the course of the year to containing his threat to run and good recognition of when to do so. Some examples:
- :00 – I can count on one hand the number of QBs I’ve studied who would attempt this throw after breaking the pocket and reliably complete it.
- :16 – Maye is not a blazing fast runner but he’s such a big guy that he can break his way out of sacks and long strides let him cover a lot of ground.
- :25 – A mistake in an otherwise excellent defensive performance in Georgia Tech’s upset win, the backer shouldn’t green dog but instead stay back and wait for Maye to break, then run him down.
- :42 – I’m not a big fan of five quick hitches on 2nd & short, I think that’s time for a run or play-action deep shot, but it was typical of Longo’s playcalling this season. Clemson drops three deep safeties regardless, so Maye just picks it up himself.
UNC used five running backs during the 2022 season. In the first half of the year, true freshman #28 RB Hampton split time with sophomore #4 RB Hood, with a few carries going to backups #26 RB DJ Jones and #23 RB Pettaway. After the week 8 bye, Hood (who had the highest adjusted yards per carry on my tally sheet) got injured and will probably miss the bowl game, and #21 RB E. Green completely took over, with only a few carries for Hampton and practically none for the other backs. Isaac expects Green to continue to be the primary back for the bowl. This chart shows the changing percentage of carries over the season:
While no doubt fun for Tar Heels fans to watch, there’s an odd statistical distortion with this room – each one of them has one and only one enormous play that’s double or triple the gain of his next longest run. Just those five plays combine for 272 yards and, in my opinion, misleadingly inflate their raw stats in terms of yards per carry. If they’re excluded, the YPC numbers fall back to earth pretty hard – with that control each of the five backs average between 3.8 and 4.2, with Green having the lowest.
I think this running back room is pretty solid and the silver lining for the Heels in losing a productive back like Hood is that their numbers don’t really change given all the other capable ballcarriers in this unit. However, this team clearly has a pass-to-win philosophy - 2nd & short is the only situation in which they run more often than they pass, with just 45% run rates on 1st & 10 and 2nd & medium, and practically no running in other situations. Between that and an offensive line that grades out even worse in run blocking than they do in pass protection, they just aren’t given much time to shine.
On the whole, the rushing offense had 128 successful designed runs vs 150 failed ones, given the down & distance, or a 46% efficiency rate which is below average for a Power-5 team in my experience. Almost 40% of rushing successes are coded as “yaco” on my tally sheet, meaning that the back had to power through a tackle and use yards after contact to flip the play from a loss to a win, which typically correlates with a strong RB unit but weak OL unit. Some examples:
- :00 – Whether it’s analytically informed or simply long experience, I appreciate how often Coach Brown makes gutsy 4th down playcalls. The RG plain whiffs here but Hampton has the power to make the line to gain.
- :13 – There are quite a few toss plays in this offense, which I think is generally smart because outside running away from the line is more successful than trying to go up the middle.
- :26 – I believe that Green’s burst and ability to break tackles like this is what won him the job in the second half of the season, it lets them capitalize on what few holes there are.
- :41 – Defenses at the end of the year started redirecting their resources to stop the pass almost exclusively. This is the optimal tactical scenario for UNC’s rushing, the OL can handle this many guys in the box, but the defense is strategically correct in that such rushes top out at maybe 8 yards.
Most of the time, however, the backs just don’t have any holes to run through. I’m genuinely puzzled why such an experienced offensive line has such a hard time with basic run blocking assignments, and I frequently see plays that I’m sure have been miscommunicated to the line or drawn up unwisely. It’s also the case that the tight ends, regardless of their merits as pass catchers, are uniformly overmatched when it comes to blocking. Some examples:
- :00 – Starting in week 7 UNC incorporated some option pitches into the run game; they enjoyed some brief success for the same reason as the toss plays, but defenses clued in quickly that every time it’s been a pitch and the hesitation just ensures more time for the defender at depth to gain outside leverage.
- :08 – I had quite a range of options for plays in which every blocker fails his assignment; I chose this one because it also includes an illegal leg whip by the TE. UNC was frequently penalized for wham-cuts which were banned a couple of years ago but nobody in Chapel Hill seems to have gotten the memo.
- :16 – I debated creating a separate video for run plays that had me baffled because no one with a firm grasp on blocking basics would draw them up this way. Here the LT is uselessly tracking the read defender so UNC loses their numbers advantage, there’s no one at the second level, and everyone is sliding in the wrong direction.
- :23 – This one came up several times, the RT’s assignment is the backside end and no one else, but he goes inside on the C’s guy instead. The read defender is the backer, the end needs to be picked up.
UNC’s yardage and explosiveness figures in the designed run game are pretty mediocre; overall they’re getting 4.5 adjusted YPC and about 12.5% gain 10+ yards. But there’s one interesting wrinkle: the frequent use of quarterback draws. These represent about 12% of all designed run playcalls, and help make Maye the team’s leading rusher in raw stats (though that includes scrambles, and it’s no longer the case when those are put in the designed pass play bucket as I do when computing the stats in this article). QB draws are by far the Tar Heels’ most effective called run play – on average they gain 2.1 yards more, are 2.75 percentage points more efficient, and 6.35% points more explosive than the rest of the run game. Some examples:
- :00 – The defense takes the bait on the OL dropping into their pass blocks. Maye’s acceleration gets him most of the way there and his moxie gets him over the line despite the LT not turning his man and the C losing his.
- :15 – Whether it’s a scramble or a draw, this is the best way to defend Maye using his legs – eyes in the backfield and watch for the RB releasing up the middle. It’s virtually never to catch a pass but rather blocking the draw.
- :23 – Nice patience by the QB here in selling it. I don’t know how wild his coaches are about how eagerly he takes contact but it was pretty late in the season before I saw him slide the first time.
- :31 – QB draws are even more likely when they go empty, the defense is well clued into it by now and four defenders in zone have a bead on him.
North Carolina finished the season ranked 116th in defensive F+, the third lowest of any Power-5 team in advanced stats. On my tally sheet for all plays against FBS opponents outside garbage time, the Tar Heels came in at an overall 43% defensive success rate, allowing 6.9 yards per play and 16.5% of opponents’ snaps to gain explosive yardage. Those are significantly below-average figures for a Power-5 team, but they don’t usually correlate with a defense ranked so poorly in advanced stats … in my experience, I’d have expected such a defense to be ranked more like 85th.
Isaac and I discussed the discrepancy on the podcast, since the both of us think that UNC has some good defensive players and pretty decent talent ratings, and neither of us felt this team looked like a group of total incompetents when watching their film. We both concluded that the reason for the maybe 30 ranks worth of difference between F+ ranking and eyetest stems from heavy opponent adjustments from adv stats, as the seven ACC opponents that UNC plays every year — six Coastal division teams plus NC State — would have constituted the worst offensive division in the entire FBS, G5 teams included, with five of those opponents ranking 92nd or worse in offensive F+.
According to my calculations, only nine of the 66 Power-5 teams faced a weaker slate of FBS offenses in F+ than UNC did (all ACC and Big Ten teams, interestingly). Essentially, the offenses the Tar Heels defended against were so weak that a merely below-average defense should have been nearly shutting them out, not allowing 31.6 points per game.
Structurally, DC Chizik’s defense plays an even-surface 3-3-5, with two tackles, an end, and a Jack OLB on the line of scrimmage, two ILBs at depth, and a nickel defense with a STAR safety. It’s a fairly familiar set of roles to Pac-12 fans (and really any fanbase used to seeing modern spread-informed offenses, which is just about everybody these days). The most significant wrinkle that Isaac and I discussed is that they stay in their nickel package regardless of down & distance, except sometimes on the goalline, and don’t personnel match when the opponent brings in heavy personnel in obvious running situations. Several teams, most notably Notre Dame, exploited the mismatch and repeatedly ran the ball in 12- or 13-personnel right at UNC for long, methodical drives.
I think that contributed to UNC’s pretty poor rush defense numbers on my tally sheet. In 12 FBS games outside garbage time, I charted them successfully defend 137 designed rushes vs 223 failures given the down & distance, a 38% success rate and substantially below average for a Power-5 team. The two biggest issues I note in rush defense are that the front doesn’t excel at block destruction and so once engaged tend to be cleared out, and that they aggressively slant early in the snap and can be washed down by counters and other misdirection plays. Some examples:
- :00 – Other than the DTs, the single biggest problem I see with the front is simply size. Here the end and backer are both getting pretty easily handled by a G5 line.
- :07 – The nose and playside backer are both running themselves out of the play, this kind of overaggression got taken advantage of a lot by teams that really like to run.
- :24 – It’s 12-personnel in the redzone and UNC is still in nickel (the Z and boundary CB are cut off by the camera). The front all slant the wrong way, and the back simply has to run through a DB or two.
- :42 – I don’t have a single successful defense of this wide zone cutback run all season long. The front is simply too willing to turn their shoulders to the line of scrimmage and get cleared out.
In terms of personnel absences from the front for the bowl game, one position has been hit very hard – the Jack OLB – while the DTs, DEs, and ILBs have more manageable situations. I expect to see starters #98 DT Hester and #8 DT Murphy, with primary backup #4 DT Shaw (a borderline 5-star true freshman, massive at 355 lbs though carrying a bit of bad weight in my opinion) and a couple of lightly used sophomores behind him. UNC should be out #10 DE Evans who I’d describe as the starter for most of the year, but they have #25 DE Rucker (who started as a pass-rush only guy but later in the season has been in on standard downs too; Isaac had an interesting story about him singing the national anthem on the podcast) and swing player #5 DL Ritzie who I’ve seen at tackle and end.
For the linebackers, #7 OLB Taylor was unfortunately lost to injury midseason just when I thought he was starting to play really well, and his replacement #17 OLB Collins has now transferred out. That only leaves true freshman #24 OLB Hamrick, who I’ve seen play practically no meaningful snaps. Isaac and I think as a result they’ll probably cut out the more complicated pressures where the OLB drops into pass coverage and replace with ILBs or DBs, which had been the most successful on my tally sheet. The defense funnels everything to the inside backers and both primary guys are in for this game, #23 ILB Echols and #33 ILB Gray. The latter grades out substantially better than the former on my tally sheet. Isaac thinks these three will likely ironman the entire game as there’s basically no depth behind them. The most experienced remaining backup transferred out, and no one else has played a meaningful snap that I saw (the one who recorded the most tackles is a walk-on, and I think they all came on special teams).
In my opinion, Gray is the heart of the defense and his high football IQ and good tackling form — essential for the position in this structure – contributed to him being the Power-5’s leading tackler and also gave the Tar Heels pretty good numbers on my tally sheet in terms of containing opponents’ explosive rushing. UNC allows 4.9 adjusted yards per carry, which is a little better than expected given their poor efficiency numbers, and only 11% of opponent runs gain 10+ yards, which is better than average. In other words, they’ll give up enough yardage to let the opponent continue long drives when running the ball (and their rush defense success rates are absolutely abysmal on 2nd & short, 2nd & medium, and 3rd & short), but they tend not to give up big explosive rushing yards that result in quick scores.
Here’s a representative sample of successful rush defenses:
- :00 – Nice penetration by Ritzie here, his versatility to play any of the three fist-down DL spots may make him the most valuable of the linemen.
- :07 – I don’t have any film on Hamrick playing contain like this so it remains to be seen if he can do it as soundly as the guys he’s replacing on the outside, but Gray lowering his shoulder and getting past the RG was typical of his doggedness.
- :23 – Gray routinely impressed me with his sound technique, here’s an example of him flowing to the play properly with square shoulders and eyes up.
- :37 – The starters at DT are pretty far ahead of the backups. Here’s a good contrast between Hester and one of the sophomore tackles. Note how this time Ritzie is at end.
Pass defense finished the season comparatively much better for the Tar Heels, at least in terms of per-play success. I charted them successfully defending 193 designed passing plays vs 216 failures, or a 47% defensive success rate – a little below average for a Power-5 team, but not as staggeringly so as the rush defense performance. I think the major contributor was a reasonably effective pass rush, generating a sack, scramble, or throwaway on about 22% of opponent dropbacks, a pretty decent number. Rucker was the most effective at getting to the QB on my tally sheet when rushing four, though they were more effective when blitzing an inside backer or DB, or using a sim with the OLB dropping out. Some examples:
- :00 – This is the aspect of Echols’ game in which he grades out the best – when the edge rush forces a quick throw, he pays it off by making a sure tackle in space.
- :07 – I’m not sure how much of these more exotic rushes we’ll see in the bowl with Collins and Taylor out, but it was a big and effective part of their pass defenses to drop the OLB out and rush a DB and/or ILB. The signal to watch for is the stacked DBs, look at the FS and STAR’s alignment pre-snap. The secondary graded out better in the offensive backfield than the defensive.
- :20 – Isaac and I agreed on the podcast that at this point Rucker is the only guy likely to generate pass pressure rushing four, he’s a couple inches undersized but more than makes up for it with motor.
- :28 – Aggressive handfighting is a hallmark of these corners and it pays off with quite a few PBUs, even from the younger backups.
Transfers have hit the secondary pretty hard for the bowl game. They’re losing both starting corners, #3 CB Duck and #1 CB Grimes, plus starting safety #9 DB Kelly, and a couple of backup redshirt freshmen I didn’t really see but might have been depth options in #14 DB Balfour and #21 DB Nash.
The three safety spots had five guys rotating through, and four should be available for the bowl: #27 DB Biggers, #16 DB Boykins at STAR, and then an interesting rotation of true freshman #31 DB Hardy and senior #2 DB Chapman at free safety. I think the loss of Kelly is relatively manageable for this group, though they’ll be able to rotate even less than they were during the regular season.
Towards the end of the season we got to see the two backups at corner, #6 CB Cavazos and #29 CB Allen. I have enough reps on Cavazos during the rest of the year that I can grade him on my tally sheet, which isn’t great but at least he has the confidence of the staff. However, I’ve got maybe a half-dozen looks at Allen all year since bizarrely ACC opponents didn’t test the true freshman very often. Some of those reps look very promising for his future, including a gorgeous break-up against Clemson, but he tried to repeat it later in the same game and missed, giving up basically the game-sealing touchdown … in other words, typical freshman stuff, and it remains to be seen how quickly he can get over it. The only other guy in the room I think can play corner is #15 CB Hollins, who got into the portal but then back out, though he’s a low 3-star senior who hasn’t played much and I don’t know how valuable he’ll be.
Unfortunately I think those personnel departures will compound the real problem in pass defense all season long, which has been explosive plays. The Tar Heels surrendered 8.6 adjusted yards per opponent pass attempt, with over 21% gaining 15+ yards, significanly below-average figures for a Power-5 team in my experience. Both the starting and backup corners use a peculiar alignment against the sideline and tend to get their hips badly flipped when backpedaling then having to break (I’d previously seen current USC DC Grinch’s teams use this technique throughout his career, to equally poor results), and the entire secondary has problems with taking appropriate angles in space and finishing tackles. Some examples:
- :00 – Vertical RPOs had a very high success rate against this defense, the backers tend to bite pretty aggressively. Intermediate throws like this slant routinely got significant yards after catch on the safeties not breaking down properly to ensure the tackle.
- :14 – Some of this is clinic tape on how not to tackle or play with leverage.
- :36 – An odd choice I’d tend to see in short yardage was playing with big cushions.
- :45 – Watch the CB’s leverage in relation to the sideline, and how he turns his inside shoulder then outside hip on the receiver’s inside move. He needs to be opening up instead, but leverage like this was typical of both the starters and backups.