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The UNC football team begins the second half of its schedule at Virginia Tech on Saturday after this weekend’s open date, making this as good a time as any to assess the progress of Mack Brown’s rebuilding job so far.
Obviously the Heels already have one more win than they managed in 2018, but given the number of close outcomes in both seasons and the role of luck in such results, it’s worth taking a closer look to see just how much (and where) the 2019 team has improved over last season.
A closer look at more granular data reveals that Carolina has indeed improved by as much as their record suggests. According to Bill Connelly’s SP+ ratings, which use granular play-by-play data and then adjust to account for strength of opponent, UNC has improved from 88th to 56th overall, with modest but significant improvements on both sides of the ball, the offense going from 58 to 44 and the defense from 95 to 72.
ESPN’s Football Power Index suggests an even larger improvement, from 88 to 36th, with the offense going from 81 to 44 and the defense from 95 to 38 — a staggering 57 spots. That’s despite not (yet) getting a major defensive talent infusion and yet another rash of injuries on that side of the ball, including a season-ending injury to CB Patrice Rene and starting safety Myles Wolfolk out for over two games so far.
Just in case those numbers weren’t enough to show just how valuable defensive coordinator Jay Bateman has been to Carolina so far this year, just note how Clemson obliterated a Florida State defense — on which it’s doubtful a single UNC defender would start — two weeks after getting frustrated by the Tar Heel defense in Chapel Hill.
MIDSEASON QB REPORT
Defensive improvement notwithstanding, the most obvious improvement over last season is at the quarterback position, where true freshman Sam Howell has more than lived up to the hype.
Howell’s Pro Football Focus grade of 77.6 (out of 100) ranks him 32nd in the nation (minimum 60 attempts) and second among freshman signal-callers. (Much like coaches or scouts, PFF grades each play based on how well a player does his job while accounting for game situation; scores in the 70s are considered above average.)
Howell ranks 33rd using the NFL’s passer rating formula, 34th using the NCAA’s formula, and 56th using ESPN’s Total QBR metric. Last year’s primary starter, Nathan Elliott ranked 106/80/82 in those three metrics, respectively, illustrating just how much improvement Carolina has seen at the game’s most important position in 2019.
But it’s Howell’s performance in more difficult situations that has been especially noteworthy: when throwing downfield, under pressure, in the fourth quarter. As for the first of these, Howell’s (NFL) passer rating jumps to 19th nationally (from 106.4 to 125.5) when targeting a receiver 20 or more yards downfield. When pressured, Howell’s ranking jumps even higher to 12th in the nation. When his team is trailing by between 8–14 points, Howell’s numbers are even better, ranking eighth nationally (NCAA rating: 164.43).
But it’s been the fourth quarter where Howell has been at his best. Through six games, Howell is completing 72% of his attempts for a healthy 10.2 yards per attempt and a 7-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Altogether, those numbers are eighth-best in the country, and it’s entirely justifiable to wonder whether Carolina would have more than one win so far in 2019 with anything less than that level of play in the final frame of so many close games.
MORRISON HAS SURGERY
Trey Morrison underwent surgery for a broken arm last week after injuring it against Georgia Tech. Together with the loss of Rene, Carolina’s top two cornerbacks are now sidelined, though it is possible Morrison will return before the end of the season. While the timing for such a thing is never good, Virginia Tech’s wide receiving corps is one of the best in the conference, making the loss of Morrison especially painful at this point in the season.
BASKETBALL RECRUITING NOTES
R.J. Davis (White Plains, N.Y.), the seventh-ranked combo guard in the 2020 class, made his official visit over the weekend. Davis would be a solid addition to a 2020 class that is already on track to be Roy Williams’ best at UNC, with three top-21 players already verbally committed to play in Chapel Hill and several other top prospects in the mix to join them.
If Carolina manages to land 6-foot-7 small forward Ziaire Williams (Chatsworth, Calif.), who is considering the Tar Heels seriously enough to have visited twice already, the 2020 class would be the third in a row in which the UNC landed a top-5 player.
That’s a marked difference from the three-year span coinciding with the NCAA investigation (2015–17), in which the highest-ranked recruit was Tony Bradley, the No. 25-ranked player in 2016. That Carolina still managed to win the 2017 national title despite difficulties attracting top-tier talent to Chapel Hill in the three preceding years remains one of Williams’ most impressive coaching accomplishments.
Of note as Carolina tries to close the deal on its final targets: recruiting success tends to build on itself, and Carolina is likely to be the beneficiary of Zion-style national media hype thanks to freshman Cole Anthony’s presence this season.
STAT OF THE WEEK
4.49. UNC running back Javonte Williams has averaged 4.49 yards after contact so far in 2019. That’s more than preseason all-ACC RBs Travis Etienne (4.24) from Clemson and A.J. Dillon (3.32) from Boston College.
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.