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Despite an initial hiccup, Mack Brown’s second term as North Carolina’s head football coach is off to an encouraging start. First, multiple outlets reported that Brown was poised to hire former Syracuse head coach Greg Robinson, with whom he had worked at Texas, as his defensive coordinator. But after immediate and decidedly negative backlash, Brown decided to go another direction. Based on the ultimate hire, Carolina fans are likely to be grateful for that decision.
Shortly after the completion of the Army-Navy game, Army defensive coordinator Jay Bateman took the same role on Brown’s new staff. Widely regarded as one of the brightest defensive minds in the game, the 41-year-old Bateman was a key component in the resurrection of a previously moribund Army program, including a new three-game winning streak against rival Navy, and was a finalist for the 2018 Broyles Award, given to the nation’s top assistant coach.
Despite an obvious talent deficit, Bateman’s Black Knights held Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Kyler Murray and Oklahoma to its lowest point total on the season, giving up only 21 points in regulation before falling 28–21 in overtime.
Bateman is best known for his innovative “positionless” approach to defense, countering modern spread offenses with varied looks and numerous interchangeable players able to rush the passer, cover, or fill against the run. In terms of personnel, this approach will place special value on rangy athletes who can play multiple spots, lining up on the edge of the line of scrimmage on one play and at deep safety on another.
This approach seems to be an especially good fit for North Carolina high school talent, where numerous talented athletes grow up playing multiple sports, (particularly basketball) rather than being groomed year-round for one football position, as often happens in more football-focused states.
Bateman also established strong ties in North Carolina while coaching at Elon from 2006–10 and remains a highly respected recruiter in the state, particularly the talent-rich Charlotte area. Army’s roster featured 13 players from North Carolina, largely thanks to Bateman’s efforts.
EXPERIENCE, RECRUITING PROWESS
Former Minnesota head coach Tim Brewster was Brown’s first hire, leaving his role coaching tight ends at Texas A&M for the same role at Carolina. Brewster was quickly joined by Dre’ Bly, who will naturally coach the position at which he starred at UNC and in the NFL. Tim Cross, who worked with Brown at Texas and has earned particular respect for his work at Air Force, will coach the defensive line. Tommy Thigpen will remain on staff, moving from safeties coach to linebackers, with Bateman coaching the safeties to function as the quarterbacks of the defense.
The two major roles that have yet to be filled are the offensive coordinator role, where former Western Kentucky head coach Mike Sanford, Jr. and former Texas Tech offensive coordinator Kevin Johns appear to be among the frontrunners, and the strength and conditioning coach, arguably the most important hire for any head coach. In any case, Brown has made it clear to recruits that he intends his new offense to emphasize the passing game, preferring an Air Raid-style foundation similar to that employed by Lincoln Riley at Oklahoma.
Such an approach should fit well with the talent presently on the UNC roster and will employ spread formations familiar to Carolina fans, though it will mark a departure from the more option-based approach used under Larry Fedora.
RECRUITING HEATING UP
Early indications suggest that Brown hasn’t lost his touch as a recruiter, as UNC landed six 2019 verbal commitments over the weekend, led by consensus four-star receiver Khafre Brown (brother of current Tar Heel Dyami) from West Mecklenburg.
Brown and staff also landed two other receivers, flipping Emery Simmons (Hope Mills South View) from Penn State and landing North Mecklenburg star Justin Olson. (Note: I coached against both Simmons and Olson this high school season at Durham Jordan and was impressed by both — Carolina fans should be excited to land them.)
Other recruits landed over the weekend include Hiram, Georgia defensive end Kristian Varner, 6’5, 270 pound offensive tackle Wyatt Tunall (Chester, South Carolina) and elite punter Ben Kiernan (Raleigh Wakefield).
HOWELL BACK INTO PLAY
Brown’s offensive coordinator hire will be of special interest to Monroe Sun Valley quarterback Sam Howell, the state’s top prep quarterback. Howell has been a longtime Florida State commitment, but the departure of Walt Bell, the Seminoles’ offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach, has opened the door for Carolina. The respective coordinator hires will surely have a significant impact on Howell’s final decision. Howell intends to be a spring enrollee at whichever school he chooses.
HOOPS YET TO FIND ITS STRIDE
On the basketball side, Carolina enters its final exam break with plenty of work to do before resuming play against No. 4 Gonzaga on Saturday. The Heels have dominated inferior competition, but are only 2–2 against major conference foes after getting blown out at Michigan 84–67 last week.
Through the first 10 minutes of that game, Carolina looked like a potential Final Four team, calmly knocking down shot after shot on the way to a 21–11 lead just eight minutes into the game. The Heels then managed only 46 points in the remaining 32 minutes, unable to match Michigan’s intensity once the Wolverines turned up the defensive pressure.
Last season’s problems defending the pick-and-roll and 3-point shot have reemerged against better competition, and the Heels have struggled at times in halfcourt offense as the youngsters and veterans have yet to carve out clear roles at this stage of the season.
This space would be remiss to neglect mention of the Tar Heel women’s soccer team’s run to the national championship game, played at the WakeMed Soccer Complex in Cary. After a beautiful goal in the second extra period to beat previously unbeaten Georgetown, the Heels fell 1–0 to Florida State in a hard-fought championship game.
STAT OF THE WEEK
Sixteen. Jay Bateman’s Army defense gave up 16 fewer points in regulation than OU scored in any other game in 2018. The Sooners’ next-lowest output was 37 against Iowa State, which also employs a scheme similar to Bateman’s approach.
Jason Staples has covered college football since 2007. You can follow him on Twitter @DocStaples and check out more of his work at InsideCarolina.com.