2022 Football Season Preview Last Season North Carolina came into last season off of a 2-10 season. They had endured five losing seasons in the past six years and had not won more than eight games since 1997. Enter new head coach Mike Austin. Austin was coming off of three consecutive national championships as TCU and had posted four-straight 11 win or better seasons. The Tar Heels improved from 2-10 to 10-4 in their first year under Austin and reached the ACC conference championship for the first time ever. They also reached the Chick-Fil-A Bowl (top non-BCS bowl for the ACC) for the first time since 2001. Although the Tar Heels fell short in both of those games, the precedent was set for the type of success fans in Chapel Hill can expect for years to come. What To Expect This Season North Carolina finished with the 5th best recruiting class this year according to ESPN. Austin expects many of those recruits to start and contribute right away. Given his track record at TCU, and Kent State prior to that, Austin has proven that he can win with young players. His 2020 national championship team was led by a redshirt freshman quarterback who was playing cornerback the year before. The Tar Heels will certainly endure some growing pains this year but another 10-win season is not out of the realm of possibility. What Is Different The Tar Heels installed a pistol offense last season that used a lot of two tight end and three wide receiver sets. The idea was to enhance the team's strengths (running the ball) while minimizes it's weaknesses (depth, especially at receiver and the offensive line). This season, Austin and his staff are implementing some of the spread principles that were used at TCU. UNC will still feature a lot of two tight end sets and pistol formations but will employ more four and five wide receiver sets as well. Freshman Jared Gross also gives the Tar Heels a running threat that they were lacking at quarterback last year. Fans can expect to see more zone read play this year to complement their oneback running game. What Is The Same The 4-3 defense returns this year and Austin says he has no plans to change it. Considering he had one of his best statistical defenses using it without a lot of top tier talent, its hard to blame him. Although the Tar Heels lost seven starters from that defense, the remaining talent has a lot of similarities to last year's group. The defensive ends will be expected to generate a pass rush while the linebackers and safeties support the run. The cornerbacks will be expected to play a solid, containment zone coverage and not give up the big play. Again, Austin has a history of putting players in a position to be successful so a large drop off on defense is not to be expected. Top Newcomers QB - Jared Gross, Fr The offense will live and die by the play of Gross. The 6'3", 246 pound freshman was a late target of the Tar Heel coaching staff but was immediately given a shot to start. He won the job in the spring with his unique athleticism and slightly better than average arm strength. Gross isn't the most polished passer and will have his share of mistakes, but the threat that he adds to the run game should allow the Tar Heels new passing game more room from which to work. WR - Blake Powell, Fr Powell was the #1 recruit in the country and comes right from Austin's back yard. While coaches all over the country wanted the North Carolina native to play cornerback, Austin saw an opportunity where Powell could thrive in his diverse offense as a receiver. Powell (6-1, 187) will join Max Mean (6-3, 199) and Nate Hart (6-4, 231) as the primary wide receivers in the upgraded offense. Combined with monstrous tight ends Patrick Burke (6-8, 249) and John Carr (6-7, 268), Powell should get an opportunity to use his sub-4.4 speed in space and could become the game-breaker that the Tar Heels lacked on offense a year ago. DT - Alonzo Culp, Jr The loss of two starters at defensive tackle is hard to overcome for any defense. However, Culp (a JUCO transfer) will help to immediately fill the large hole that was left in the middle of the defense. While he is not the most imposing defensive lineman (6-1, 281), Culp brings elite pass rushing skills from the middle to go along with solid run stuffing capabilities. The addition of Culp could pay huge dividends for the Tar Heels against the pass where they struggled to generate consistent pressure last season. Key Returnees HB - Shane Kemp, Jr Kemp was redshirted a year ago after suffering an ankle injury during the spring. While he does not have much experience (10 carries for 31 yards in two seasons), Kemp has 4.4 speed and a great balance of power and finesse moves when carrying the ball. He has big shoes to fill with the loss of Vandermeulen but compares very favorably to the three-year starter but with better athleticism. How well Kemp can move the chains and protect the ball will dictate the success Gross will have as a running option and in the passing game. TE - Patrick Burke, Sr Burke had a breakthrough season a year go (88 catches, 1,014 yards and 10 touchdowns) and teamed with Means (92-1,087-6) to form a dangerous pas catching duo. With the addition of Powell and the threat of a running quarterback, Burke appears destined for another big season as the team's #1 tight end. At 6'8" he is the team's biggest red zone threat. His reliable hands also make him one of the team's top targets on third down. Burke's ability draw attention in the middle of the field will be a big part of opening up this offense on the perimeter allowing the Tar Heels to uses some of their new skill players in space. FS - Jarod Young, Sr Not only was Young the team's best big play threat (62 kick returns, 30.0 average and two TDs) but he was also their most active defender (58 tackles, six tackles for a loss and seven passes defensed). Young does no possess the best hands for a defensive back (zero interceptions last year) but his range (sub 4.4 speed) and nose for the ball make him one of the ACC's top defenders. With two new starters in the secondary and seven overall on defense, Young's leadership and example on the field will be needed to help that young unit come together. Predictions The Tar Heels have an extremely difficult schedule this year. They start the season on the road at #23 Wisconsin and then play host to defending national champions UCLA and perennial power LSU (who beat them handily last year). Those three non-conference games game alone could account for 2 or three losses for North Carolina. Couple that with the usually tough conference games and it is easy to see how the Tar Heels could take a step backward this year. However, Austin has always seemed to get more out of his teams than almost any other coach in the country. Therefore, a drop to a nine win season could happen but that should be good enough for another trip to the ACC title game. That is a game the Tar Heels could win (falling just seven points shy a year ago). They also could win their bowl game (Austin is 5-3 in bowl games). Those possibilities leave the Tar Heels with yet another chance to win 10 games and put together their best back-to-back seasons since the Mack Brown era.