2021 North Carolina Tar Heels Football Preview

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  1. majesty95

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    Offseason

    North Carolina has seen a steady decline in performance the past few years under former coach Jimmie Dougherty. After winning seven games in his first year including a bowl win, the team fell to 4-8 and then to 2-10 a year ago. Doughery was fired and the search for a coach to resurrect the program was underway. University officials had hoped to bring in a coach with ties to the program and who could instill the values of the school into it's program. Little did they know that a former player and three-time National Championship coach would be waiting for their offer.

    Mike Austin had just come off of wining three-straight National Championships as Texas Christian University. Most people figured he would either stay with TCU until a major program like Texas, Alabama or Ohio State came open. However, Austin wanted a new challenge. He wanted an opportunity to rebuild a program like he had with TCU and Kent State before it. Austin also wanted to bring a winning tradition back to Chapel Hill.

    So, on January 10 Austin contacted North Carolina Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham and expressed an interest in returning to Chapel Hill where he played in the late-90's. Two days later the university announced Austin as their new head football coach.

    Coaching

    Austin is primarily known as an offensive guru having led his teams to several Top 5 finishes in total yards, total offense and scoring over his career. However, his teams are generally very good on defense as well. Austin's TCU teams were generally ranked among the Top 20 in the country and peaked as high as #2 last year. Austin said he plans to bring that same level of success to his teams at North Carolina.

    There will be a change in philosophy though for Austin on both sides of the ball in Chapel Hill. For seven of the past eight seasons, Austin has run a spread option-type offense. However, he says the talent currently on the Tar Heels roster dictates a shift in philosophy, if only temporarily. Austin indicated that his intent is to return to a spread-type offense in a season or two but that UNC will run a pistol offense this season focusing on two-tight end sets and emphasizing the running game.

    Defensively, Austin will depart from the 3-4, which he has run every season as a head coach, for a hybrid 4-3 defense. Austin said the defense will still retain some 3-4 principles but that the talent currently on the team is better suited for the 4-3. He did not indicate whether he would look to return to a 3-4 in the future or stick with the 4-3, however.

    Austin is a master motivator and considered one of the best strategists in the country. His teams are usually very disciplined and very precise in executing their roles. Fans of North Carolina can expect the same from Austin's teams in Chapel Hill. However, until Austin is able to recruit the type of players he wants to fit his systems, there may be some growing pains along the way.

    Offense

    Austin has indicated that he will use a running, ball control offense in his first year at UNC. That means halfback Cole Vandermeulen will be the focal point of the offense. Vandermeulen has been very consistent the past two seasons posting back-to-back 800+ rushing yard, eight touchdown seasons. While Vandermeulen has been the primary back, he has shared carries and topped out with 144 and 140 carries the past two season. Expect that to increase dramatically this season as Austin looks to win with power running and defense. It is conceivable that the fifth-year senior could see nearly 250 carries. If his career 6.2 yards per carry average holds up, he could be in for a big season.

    At quarterback, another fifth-year senior will take the reigns. However, this one has considerably less experience. Lance Bowie has served as a backup the past two seasons and only has 96 pass attempts (and a 46.9% completion percentage) so far in his career. However, he's by far the most talented and experienced quarterback on the roster and will look to lead the Tar Heels to their first winning season in three years.

    Bowie will have to get creative with his targets this year as only one receiver has seen significant playing time. Max Means started as a sophomore a year go at wide receiver and totaled 37 catches for 485 yards and 4 scores. He along with tight end Patrick Burke (42-506-5) figure to be Bowie's favorite targets throughout the season. There just isn't a lot to get excited about behind them which is a big reason Austin is departing from his successful spread option offense.

    The offensive line returns three seniors in what is likely to be the strength of the offense. However, the unit will also feature first-year starters at left guard (sophomore) and center (freshman) so there will likely be some growing pains.

    Defense

    The talent at defensive line led Austin to change his philosophy in regards to defense. North Carolina returns Paul Williams at defensive end who has tallied 3.5 sacks as a backup the past three seasons. Williams has always been regarded as a skilled end who has 10 sack ability and now he gets his chance to show it. At the other end will be senior Dennis Williams (no relation), a converted linebacker. Dennis was primarily a special teams player the past two years but the Tar Heel coaching staff saw enough of him in spring practice to move him to end and insert him into the starting lineup. While undersized (6-0, 248) Williams has displayed tremendous pass rush skills and an ability to shed blockers.

    Defensive tackle is a concern for Austin and his staff behind returning starter Daryl Peters (17 tackles, 1.5 sacks). Three freshman will compete for the other starting tackle slot with monstrous Tyrone Barrett (6-3, 323) likely to get the first crack at the starting job.

    Linebacker is a spot with hope and concern all wrapped together. All three starters are upperclassmen but none have starting experience. Strong-side linebacker Spencer Robinson has great speed and quickness and has shown good football IQ but has not played a down on defense or special teams. The same can be said for weak-side linebacker Kent Baker. While not great at any one aspect of the position, the senior Baker has shown a well-rounded skill set and could emerge as the leader of the unit. Middle linebacker Trey Rust (junior) will be the key to the defense, though. Rust was moved from strong-side linebacker to the middle because he had the most experience (60 tackles in '20). However, his is undersized (6-0 215) for the middle so his ability to hold up versus much bigger linemen will dictate the success of this unit.

    The defensive secondary is by far the most talented and most experienced unit on the defense. Senior strong safety Matt Bowman has been primarily a backup the past three season but has flashed tremendous potential when given the opportunity. Bowman has all-conference talent and is already on the radar of some NFL scouts. Bowman will be teamed with Jarod Young, a junior, at free safety. While Young has served mostly as a special teams player and kick returner in his time at Chapel Hill, he has displayed the most athleticism on the team. That does not always translate into a great player, but the Tar Heel coaching staff feels confident that they can put him in a position to succeed in this defense.

    Junior cornerbacks Johnny Johnson and Darius Allen are both first-year starters but have displayed tremendous ability in workouts. They are both among the fastest defensive backs on the roster and also have show good ball skills. The coaching staff is excited about the prospects of having these two lead the secondary for the next two years. Behind them are junior Adam Temple and freshman Paul Herring. Herring is possibly the most talented cover corner on the roster but is very raw and therefore will likely only see action in dime situations. Temple has a great nose for the ball and can chase ball carriers from sideline-to-sideline but needs to improve his route recognition in coverage. He will serves as the team's nickel back this season.

    Special Teams

    Jarod Young is the star of the special teams. Last season he averaged 23.5 yards per return and took one kickoff 104 yards for a touchdown. The coaching staff is concerned about his durability so they will only use him on kickoffs but his presence back there can alter the mindsets of opposing kickers. Johnny Johnson is expected to handle punt returns this year. He has never returned a kick at UNC but was an all-state kick returner in high school.

    Junior Dennis Hall will handle both the kicking and punting duties for the Tar Heel in '21. Hall was the team's placekicker a year ago and converted on 14-0f-20 field goal attempts. This year he will add punting and kickoffs to his duties as the staff felt he was the best at all three jobs among players currently on the roster.

    Outlook

    The Tar Heels have a somewhat favorable schedule as they face two of their three ranked opponents at home (#17 Iowa and #14 Georgia Tech). They also get Florida State, NC State and Duke at home. On the other hand, road games to #11 LSU, Clemson and Louisville will be no easy task for this young and inexperienced team. UNC should be able to manage six wins and a bowl appearance in Austin's first season. A win or two against Iowa or Georgia Tech at home or Clemson or Louisville on the road and fans in Chapel Hill will be more than happy with the new regime and the prospects that they bring.
     

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