Notre Dame’s Opponents: North Carolina & Sam Howell on the verge of national notice

Sam Howell
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North Carolina may have done Notre Dame a favor in 2020, one that will pay off in 2021. When the Tar Heels matched the Irish touchdown for touchdown in an explosive fourth quarter on last year’s Black Friday, Notre Dame needed to find some defensive help.

It brought in freshman cornerback Clarence Lewis for then-junior Tariq Bracy. North Carolina would not score another touchdown.

Lewis finished the year strong and will start on Labor Day Eve, a long-term defensive piece uncovered partly because the Tar Heels were so explosive. The same would have been said about linebacker Marist Liufau — another defensive substitute in that second quarter, one who interrupted North Carolina’s run-pass option reads — until he reportedly suffered a leg injury in practice this week, something that may sideline him deep into the season, if not for all of it.

With or without Liufau, the Irish will lean on Lewis this year, including and especially in primetime on Oct. 30 when Sam Howell & Co. arrive in South Bend.

2020 REVIEW
A decent amount was expected of the Tar Heels entering last season — at least as much could be expected from anyone leading into that uncertain season — and they simultaneously exceeded those expectations and fell short of them. Falling too far behind to stage a fourth-quarter comeback at Florida State cost North Carolina any hopes of greatness, but anyone watching knew the Tar Heels were the better team in that 31-28 defeat, two dropped passes on a late drive dooming them.

Playing Notre Dame close and disassembling No. 9 Miami in the regular-season finale — the 62-26 final score suggests that game was far closer than it was — showed what North Carolina was capable of at its peak, a peak that further raised expectations moving forward.

Then the Tar Heels showed up in the Orange Bowl without many of their top players. Running backs Michael Carter and Javante Williams and receiver Dyami Brown all sat out the game, knowing their NFL draft prospects were well established. Without them, North Carolina played Texas A&M respectably, losing 41-27.

For a season with no massive accolades, it built up the Heels moving forward. In the chaos that was 2020, that is hardly something to fault.

WHAT NORTH CAROLINA LOST
Obviously, that offensive quartet, and that is rather impossible to diminish. They were the sparks of an offense that averaged 41.7 points per game.

Carter: 1,245 rushing yards and 9 touchdowns with 267 receiving yards with 2 more scores.
Williams: 1,140 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns with 305 receiving yards with 3 more scores.
Brown: 1,099 receiving yards and 8 touchdowns.
Newsome: 684 receiving yards and 6 touchdowns.

Junior quarterback Sam Howell gets and deserves much praise, but in 2020, his success was as much his own doing as it was those skill position players’ excellence.

When they all opted out of the Orange Bowl, they did this year’s team a favor. Of the 22 players who started that night, 21 return.

The Tar Heels also lost their defensive leader in linebacker Chazz Surratt, who had 91 tackles and six sacks last year.

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
If Howell is not the country’s best quarterback, he is behind only Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler, the Heisman favorite. The two will almost certainly be the first two passers drafted in 2022.

Howell can do little more statistically — an ACC-record 68 touchdowns in his first two years along with 7,227 passing yards — but orchestrating this rebuilding offense will be its own challenge. He should be able to do it, partly because of those Orange Bowl auditions and partly because of the transfer portal.

The Air Raid offense does not ask too much of its receivers. The routes are simple and clear-cut, usually headed deep downfield. Speed and decisiveness can go a long way. Josh Downs showed as much as a freshman in the Orange Bowl, taking four catches for 91 yards and two touchdowns. Senior Beau Corrales averaged 18.3 yards per reception last year and at 6-foot-3, he should continue that trend. Once upon a time a high school teammate of Howell’s, Gavin Blackwell enrolled early this past winter and roundly impressed. Sophomore Khafre Brown may be faster than his aforementioned brother, the one who averaged 20 yards per snag last year.

Howell will have options, presuming he has found chemistry with them, and he will have time to find them playing behind an offensive line returning fully intact with 112 starts throughout it.

The other beneficiary of that offensive line will be Tennessee transfer running back Ty Chandler. He ran for more than 2,000 yards in four seasons with the Volunteers, thus filling an anticipated hole in North Carolina’s attack.

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
Giving up 29.4 points per game and then losing the keystone is not usually a reason to think a defense will improve the following year, but the Tar Heels defense may surprise a bit.

Personnel-wise, it has finally developed some defensive line depth to better support tackles Ray Vohasek (8.5 tackles for loss with 3.5 sacks last year) and Tomari Fox (6 tackles for loss with 4 sacks) and has three linebackers with enough experience to possibly compensate for Surratt’s departure.

Jeremiah Gemmel: 78 tackles last year with 2.5 sacks and seven more quarterback hurries.
Tomon Fox: 35 tackles with 7 sacks and seven more quarterback hurries, back for one more season courtesy of the universal pandemic eligibility waiver.
Eugene Asante: A reserve last season who made 10 tackles in the Orange Bowl as Surratt’s replacement.

Yet, North Carolina’s defensive strength will be its secondary, namely its cornerbacks. Junior Storm Duck played in only two games last year due to injury but was considered one of the best pass defenders entering the season. To the Tar Heels’ delight, reclassified freshman Tony Grimes emerged as an equal option at cornerback in the second half of the season.

If the two are not the best cornerback tandem in the country, they are near the top.

North Carolina defensive coordinator Jay Bateman joined head coach Mack Brown’s staff after spending five years at Army, where his defense hardly had to play opposite the Black Knights’ triple-option offense. There was some philosophical adjustment necessary to complement the high-octane offense led by Howell, but establishing depth in the front seven will make the defense and offense better fits.

2021 OUTLOOK
Howell alone makes the Tar Heels a top-tier team. For all his prolific numbers, perhaps the most impressive one may be that he has thrown only 14 interceptions in his career. A free-wheeling maverick at times, Howell rarely puts North Carolina in bad positions while frequently dazzling with how-did-he-do-that moments. The latter half of that thought applied to the likes of Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston, but their recklessness often caused problems, too.

Nonetheless, the Tar Heels will probably not score touchdowns on 43.4 percent of their possessions again (No. 6 in the country) or gain at least 10 yards on 30 percent of their snaps. Incorporating the new set of receivers may take some time.

That improved defense should provide that time, and thus raise North Carolina’s ceiling.

Hence, PointsBet sets the Tar Heels’ season win total over/under at a lofty 9.5, and the schedule sets up in North Carolina’s favor.

If it can get past Virginia Tech in the opener, it will have five weeks of routs to find a groove before facing Miami and traveling to Notre Dame in October. Somewhere in there, though, some fourth-quarter magic will undoubtedly be necessary. It has been a staple of Howell’s career.

In 2019, the Tar Heels went 3-6 in one-score games. That luck did not flip in 2020, only evening out to 2-2. Some fortune in a closing drive or two could be all the Heels need to dream bigger than the Orange Bowl.

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NOTRE DAME’S OPPONENTS
Despite influx of transfers, Florida State looking at another ugly season
With nearly the entire roster returning, Toledo set to rocket
Purdue’s 2020 slide a sign of worrisome trends
Wisconsin looks to recapture the magic of Mertz’s debut throughout 2021
Cincinnati’s Playoff hopes hinge on two trips to Indiana
Virginia Tech and Justin Fuente need to bounce quick to avoid a big change
Clay Helton remains on the perpetual hot seat at USC, despite offensive stars

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