The Notre Dame Fighting Irish close out their September schedule with a road contest against the North Carolina Tar Heels. This series has been dominated by the Irish, with the last Tar Heel victory coming on the home turf in 2008.
Tar Heels head coach Mack Brown is in the fourth season of his second stint at North Carolina and still seeks a breakthrough campaign after the disappointment of last year’s 6-7 record. Brown, who turns 71 next month, needs to fill in some key gaps and find a way to tighten up his team’s play on both sides of the ball.
North Carolina Offense: New Signal Callers in Search of Better Protection
The Tar Heels have a gaping hole to fill behind center with the departure of Sam Howell, who threw for 92 touchdowns and over 10,000 yards in his three years at the school. The duo of Jacolby Criswell and Drake Maye have the unenviable task of trying to replace Howell, with the prospect of the pair being used on an alternating basis a strong possibility. Both have minimal game experience, with the Maye the son of former Tar Heel quarterback Mark Maye.
North Carolina’s running game will no longer have Ty Chandler around but still has talent at the position. That includes British Brooks, an explosive runner who averaged 9.5 yards on his 31 carries last year, junior D.J. Jones and true freshman George Pettaway, who could provide some immediate impact.
Regardless of whether Criswell or Maye is throwing the ball, their chief target will undoubtedly be wide receiver Josh Downs, who emerged last season with 101 receptions, including eight touchdowns. Another option is Antoine Green, who reached the end zone five times among his 31 grabs last year and can deliver the big play. Tight end has either Kamari Morales or big man Bryson Nesbitt holding down the position
Improving the pass protection is a priority for the Tar Heels, who allowed 49 sacks last year. Left tackle Asim Richards has to step up his game, with either William Richards or Zach Rice likely to handle the right side. The guard slots will likely see Quiron Johnson and Ed Montilus in the trenches, along with center Brian Anderson.
North Carolina Defense: Holes All Around Need Filling
A rough 2021 for the Tar Heels defense resulted in former defensive coordinator Gene Chizik returning to again take that role. Clear evidence of last year’s flaws can be seen in the numbers. These include giving up an average of 32 points and 418 yards per game, not to mention more than six yards per play,
The North Carolina defensive line has Myles Murphy back after he had nine stops behind the line, including four sacks. Other returning pass rushers include Chris Collins, Desmond Evans and Kaimon Rucker, while Noah Taylor arrives after transferring from Virginia. Stopping the run would benefit from having a healthy Ray Vohasek around all season.
Among the Tar Heel linebacking corps, the departure of Tomon Fox will put added pressure on the team’s leading tackler from last year, Cedric Gray. A hard hitter who collected two interceptions last year, Gray is expected to be joined by a pair of sophomores, Power Echols and Rara Dillworth, who got their first taste of action last year. One key absence is Fox’s bother, Tomari, who is suspended for the 2022 regular season over the use of a banned substance.
In the North Carolina secondary, big plays have been a rare commodity. Cornerback Storm Duck has struggled to stay healthy, while fellow corner Tony Grimes is hoping to bounce back after a disappointing season. At safety, the fact that Giovanni Biggers and Cam’Ron Kelly were among the team’s leading tacklers last year is telling. Kelly led the Tar heels last year with four picks.
North Carolina Special Teams: Gamebreakers Needed
Downs and Jones will likely handle the punt and kick returns, respectively, though breaking off a long run is still a rarity. Punting will again be handled by Ben Kiernan, while Jonathan Kim will now handle all the kicking duties after previous just kicking off.
The Last Time Notre Dame Played North Carolina
Last October at Notre Dame, these two teams engaged in a wild shootout in which the Irish finally emerged with a 44-34 victory. The two teams combined for more than 1,000 yards worth of offense on the night, which led to the 78-point scoreboard explosion. Notre Dame’s continued efforts to put the game away were stymied until the last two minutes of the game.