Counting Down the 2021 Notre Dame Football Schedule: #2 North Carolina

To close out their second month of action on the Notre Dame football schedule, the Irish will host the North Carolina Tar Heels on October 30 . Brian Kelly’s unit looks to continue its domination in a series that dates back to 1949. While this contest marks only their sixth meeting in the past two decades, the Irish hold a commanding 19-2 lead in the series and have yet to lose in the 12 previous matchups at Notre Dame.

Tar Heels head coach Mack Brown is in the third year of his second tenure at the school, having compiled a 15-10 mark during his first two seasons back at the helm. He had previously served as North Carolina’s head coach from 1988-97 before beginning a memorable 16-year run at the University of Texas, where he won a national title. Last season’s 8-4 Tar Heels squad reached the Orange Bowl before falling to Texas A&M, fueled by an offense that averaged 41.7 points per game.

North Carolina Offense: Back in High Gear

The good news for the Tar Heels is that potential Heisman candidate Sam Howell returns at quarterback after a 2020 campaign in which he threw for 3,586 yards and 30 touchdowns. Those numbers largely matched what he did in 2019, with Howell a player who doesn’t make too many mistakes, given that he’s only thrown 14 interceptions in 770 pass attempts. In short, his fortunes will likely mirror those of the entire North Carolina squad.

The North Carolina running game needs retooling will have to find replacements for the rushing duo of Javonte Williams and Michael Carter. Each of them rushed for 1,000 yards last season and figure to be sorely missed in the lineup. A new addition to this unit will be Tennessee graduate transfer Ty Chandler, who averaged over 500 yards per season while with the Volunteers. Others in the mix will be British Brooks and D.J. Jones, both of whom look to supplement Chandler’s contributions.

Another area that took a hit was the receiving unit, though Khafre Brown and Josh Downs give the Tar Heels a pair of deep threats with potential. They could turn into a potent pair with a signal-caller like Howell, with possession receiver Beau Corrales and tight end Garrett Walston also serving as targets.
Experience up front is a key asset for North Carolina, with all five line starters returning. Pass protection does need to improve, given Howell’s passing frequency and his overall importance to the offense. While that improvement hopefully commences, Howell will be making a concerted effort to get his passes off more quickly. As far as the players that make up this integral facet of the offense, they include guards Josh Ezeudu and Marcus McKethan, along with right tackle Jordan Tucker.

North Carolina Defense: Needing a Bigger Bang

The Tar Heels’ 3-4 defense does have a solid pair of returnees in defensive end Tomari Fox and nose tackle Raymond Vohasek, Both players can make stops behind the line, with the duo combining for 7.5 sacks last season. Myles Murphy will be at the other end, with a host of developing talent also competing for playing time.

At linebacker, Tomon Fox led the team in sacks and was the only North Carolina to reach double-digits in tackles-for-loss. While he’s a threat in opposing backfields, Jeremiah Gemmel is the leading returning tackler and that pair will most likely be joined by players such as Eugene Asante and Tyrone Hopper.

In the secondary, a need to create big plays is necessary since no defensive back had more than one pick for the entire year. Don Chapman did force a pair of fumbles and should start at safety along with Cam’Ron Kelly. Meanwhile, cornerbacks Tony Grimes and Kyle McMichael will be challenged by the return of Storm Duck from injury.

North Carolina Special Teams: Keeping Their Fingers Crossed

This area had plenty of struggles last season, with placekicker Grayson Atkins perfect on extra points, but missing one-third of his 18 field goal attempts. Jonathan Kim has a booming leg for kickoffs. Ben Kiernan is back at punter, though his misleading 43.7 punting average was countered by the Tar Heel’s ACC rank of eighth in the areas of net punting. The return units are in limbo until training camp, though Brown and Downs are solid candidates for this group.

The Last Time Notre Dame Faced North Carolina

On the day after Thanksgiving last year, the Irish took control in the second half to win 31-17. The two teams each scored two touchdowns in the opening quarter, but the Notre Dame defense then settled down and effectively limited the effectiveness of Howell. On offense, Kyren Williams rushed for 124 yards, including a 47-yard backbreaker in the fourth quarter.

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