Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!
The first time North Carolina hired Brown, he was an up-and-comer. A 36-year-old former Oklahoma offensive coordinator, Brown had just eked out Tulane’s first bowl bid in seven years (and its last for another 11).
Already a high-level recruiter, Brown aced the interview enough to get the call over a hell of a list of candidates: Arizona State head coach John Cooper, Air Force head coach Fisher DeBerry, and Broncos offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan, who would respectively win 10-plus games five times at Ohio State, engineer three ranked finishes at Air Force, and win 170 games and two Super Bowls.
Brown built slowly at UNC. He won two games in his first two years, 13 in his next two, and 16 the two after that. In years nine and 10, he went a combined 20-3, and late in 1997, he made what appeared to be the final move of his career, accepting the Texas job, where he would 158 games in 16 seasons, winning one national title and nearly winning a second.
The second time North Carolina hired Brown, it just sort of happened. After winning just five games in two years, Larry Fedora was fired on November 25, 2018, and within two days UNC had scooped the 67-year-old out of the ESPN booth. There were some interesting candidates who could have become the Next Mack — Appalachian State’s Scott Satterfield (who ended up at Louisville), Troy’s Neal Brown (who ended up at WVU), etc. — but they went with the old one instead.
There are two things I’ve come to realize about coaching hires:
1. They are complete crap shoots.
Moves that seem like they should absolutely work sometimes don’t. Rich Rodriguez enjoyed massive success at West Virginia, and Alabama pursued him before settling for Nick Saban. He went 15-22 in three seasons in Ann Arbor, suffering the school’s first two losing seasons since the 1960s.
Moves that seem fishy or confusing sometimes work like gangbusters, too. Just two years ago, Fresno State scooped Jeff Tedford off of the scrap heap without pursuing anyone else. The timing was odd, the name recycled, but it turned out to be the best hire of the 2016-17 coaching carousel.
2. Since anything could work or fail, my initial reactions lean more toward process and aesthetics.
Let’s just say I didn’t love the aesthetics of this hire. Brown underachieved dramatically for most of his last four seasons at Texas, then spent five as a gregarious color commentator. Then UNC swooped in like he was the most coveted prize in college football.
His first offseason has gone about as one would have predicted. He brought in some energetic young assistants and soon added a few four-star prospects. He has the makings of a pretty good class this year, too.
His charisma also paid off with a series of spring puff pieces. If you’re a college football writer, and you visit Chapel Hill right now*, you’ll likely leave town charmed and believing that he’s about to perform miracles. Such is the power of a one-on-one chat with Brown.
And to be sure, this hire could work. OC Phil Longo fielded back-to-back top-10 offenses (per S&P+) at Ole Miss the last two years, and DC Jay Bateman fielded two top-75 defenses at Army (great considering the recruiting rankings) and has the reputation of an innovator. Plus, UNC returns a top-40 level of returning production, and even if Fedora had remained the head coach, the Tar Heels would have been projected to improve by three or four wins and about 30 spots in S&P+ this fall.
Whether I liked the hire or not, Brown inherits a coach-friendly situation, and he’ll have solid odds of getting the Heels back to seven or eight wins — maybe more, since they reside in the ACC Coastal — before he again retires. This wasn’t a hire with long-term aspiration (which also stuck in my craw), but maybe it didn’t need to be.
* If you visit Chapel Hill for any reason, you should enjoy a night at the Crunkleton. Do it, and report back to me with what you ordered. But that’s neither here nor there.
Granted, Longo inherited quite a bit of talent when he came to Oxford two years ago. Ole Miss just had two linemen and three members of the receiving corps drafted, after all. But he drastically improved an inconsistent Rebel run game (even if he didn’t use it much), and with blue-chip quarterback Shea Patterson out, Longo didn’t miss a beat with unheralded replacement Jordan Ta’amu.
The guy can coach, in other words. He’s going to spread opponents from sideline to sideline, operate at a top-30 tempo, and wing the ball around. We’ll see how long it takes to find the pieces in Chapel Hill.
Back in March, incumbent QB Nathan Elliott announced that he was leaving the program to start a career as a graduate assistant at Arkansas State. With veteran Chazz Surratt transitioning to defense, that left three quarterbacks to choose from this fall: redshirt freshman Cade Fortin, redshirt freshman Jace Ruder, and four-star freshman Sam Howell, whom Brown flipped from FSU in recruiting.
Both Fortin and Ruder saw action last year; Ruder threw five passes against Georgia Tech, while Fortin played in losses to ECU, Virginia Tech, and NC State. Howell was in for the spring. Still, whoever wins the job will be among the greenest QBs in the league.
They’ll inherit a receiving corps with experience. UNC basically underwent back-to-back youth movements on offense, and even with the departure of top WR Anthony Ratliff-Williams, seven players with at least 10 receptions in 2018 are back.
It’s hard to say any have A.J. Brown’s or D.K. Metcalf’s levels of explosiveness, though. Of those returnees, only tight end Carl Tucker and 10-catch WR Rontavius Groves averaged more than 11.7 yards per catch, and even with Ratliff-Williams UNC ranked only 78th in passing marginal explosiveness. Ole Miss ranked 16th.
If Longo finds himself wanting to lean on the run, that should work out pretty well. Antonio Williams, Michael Carter, and Javonte Williams combined for 20 carries per game, 6.1 yards per carry, and a 46 percent success rate last season. Carter had huge games against Virginia Tech and Duke, and Williams thrived in an extended look late last season. UNC had a pretty all-or-nothing run game (seventh in rushing marginal explosiveness but 114th in stuff rate), but there were some alls, at least.
The trio also combined for 49 receptions and could be used as nice bailout options for their young QBs.
Seven linemen ended up starting at least one game, and five return, including two-year starting tackle Charlie Heck. This line was very leaky in terms of run blocking, but QBs rarely got sacked because of the quick-passing nature of the offense. We could see quite a bit more quick passing this year.
Offense was not the problem for Fedora. At least, it wasn’t the biggest problem. While the Tar Heels did fall from 21st in Off. S&P+ in 2016 to 58th last fall, they also fell from ninth to 90th in Def. S&P+ in that span.
Injuries were a spectacular issue last year. Only two regular linemen, one regular linebacker, and three regular defensive backs played in all 11 games. The detonated front particularly struggled; UNC ranked 109th in rushing marginal efficiency, and while the Tar Heels had a lovely pass rush, opponents rarely had a reason to pass.
While the secondary could end up benefiting from last year’s injuries because of all the returning experience (six of seven players with at least 11 tackles return), the line can’t even boast that. Only two of last year’s six return.
The two are pretty good, at least. Tackle Jason Strowbridge and end Tomon Fox combined for 16 tackles for loss and eight sacks, and youngsters like tackle Xach Gill and ends Chris Collins and Jake Lawler could contribute enough to make sure the pass rush is still potent without leader Malik Carney (6.5 sacks).
Carney and departed tackle Jeremiah Clarke were among the best defenders against the run, though, with the loss of stalwart linebacker Cole Holcomb as well, there’s no immediate guarantee the run defense will improve.
If opponents pass, though, UNC could thrive. Corner Patrice Rene and safeties Myles Dorn and Myles Wolfolk are seasoned, and sophomore Trey Morrison (5.5 TFLs, four pass breakups) could be a weapon as either a cornerback or a nickel. UNC was 57th in passing marginal efficiency and returns most of the reasons why.
At Army, Bateman could throw a whole bunch of stuff at the wall. His Black Knights defense was versatile and unpredictable, especially in pass defense, and ranked 24th in passing-downs marginal efficiency (and, yes, 105th on standard downs). He’ll have higher-caliber athletes in Chapel Hill, and he might not have a choice but to work lots of youngsters into the rotation in the front seven. That might not be great for 2019, but it’ll probably pay off down the line.
Dazz Newsome has not yet emerged as an explosive wide receiver, but his punt return prowess suggests he could. Newsome averaged 15.1 yards per return with the best success rate in the country (79 percent). If you didn’t force a fair catch, he was punishing you for it.
So at least UNC has one special teams weapon. Kicker Freeman Jones and punter Hunter Lent are both gone, and while Appalachian State transfer Michael Rubino does come to town, the Heels’ legs are mostly unknown.
2019 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk||Proj. Margin||Win Probability|
|31-Aug||vs. South Carolina||18||-11.7||25%|
|12-Sep||at Wake Forest||62||-2.4||44%|
|5-Oct||at Georgia Tech||89||4.1||59%|
|19-Oct||at Virginia Tech||30||-9.9||28%|
|30-Nov||at N.C. State||47||-5.6||37%|
|Projected S&P+ Rk||61|
|Proj. Off. / Def. Rk||30 / 88|
|Five-Year S&P+ Rk||7.6 (42)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||29|
|2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||-6 / -3.0|
|2018 TO Luck/Game||-1.4|
|Returning Production (Off. / Def.)||71% (81%, 61%)|
|2018 Second-order wins (difference)||3.8 (-1.8)|
Second-time hires are usually disappointing. The promise of past glory is rarely fulfilled, and if it does, it doesn’t tend to last very long. But hey, when you hire a 67-year-old retiree as your head coach, you’re not worrying about the long-term anyway.
While I’m sure Brown has visions of a Bill Snyder-level extended tour, UNC would be best-served to think short-term. If Brown can give the Heels four solid years or so, leaving the program in good enough shape to hand the baton to a Longo or a Bateman, then maybe the hire will end up worth it. Granted, Brown has to let his young assistants cook without panicking and bringing in an old hand — something he struggled with at Texas — but he’s taken the right steps so far.
With a freshman quarterback and a rebuilt run defense, it’s hard to feel too excited about UNC’s prospects this fall, but if the Tar Heels can weather a rugged early stretch — their season begins with projected S&P+ top-20 teams South Carolina and Miami, and Appalachian State and Clemson come to town later in September — they could at least maintain bowl contention into November.
In all, UNC is a projected favorite in just three games, but seven games are projected within a touchdown. Brown was typically a pretty good close-game coach at UT, so maybe some of those games will flip the Heels’ way.