CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WNCN) – With the blink of an eye summer has slipped away and the college football season is rapidly approaching.
On Thursday, the University of North Carolina will report to camp with Fall Camp officially beginning on Friday morning.
UNC enters the 2022 season with plenty of question marks after falling short of the high expectations that surrounded it this time one year ago.
Here’s a look at three keys to have an eye on as the Tar Heels enter camp and gear up for its season opener against Florida A&M on August 27.
Battle for QB1
Let’s be honest, this is top of the list for a reason. It’s what everyone has wondered since the Duke’s Mayo Bowl ended last year (probably before that) and what everyone will be talking about throughout fall camp. Who will start at quarterback for North Carolina? Drake Maye? Jacolby Criswell? A wildcard?
“We’re going to have a great quarterback,” UNC wide receiver Josh Downs said. “I’m not really worried about that position like a lot of people are. They were just sitting behind Sam (Howell) but they got talent. You can’t beat out a guy that’s in the NFL and that was already established here. They were just waiting their turn.”
Sam Howell was the Tar Heels’ rock offensively last season, but that also led to the quarterback doing more than his fair share to help the team. Namely, in the ground game, is where Howell led UNC in rushing attempts in 2021.
With either redshirt freshman Drake Maye, redshirt sophomore Jacolby Criswell, or maybe even a combination of both orchestrating the Tar Heels offense this season, UNC won’t have the luxury of relying on an experienced, NFL-caliber signal caller to compensate for any offensive shortcomings this season.
“This year it’s going to be more of a group effort,” Josh Downs said. “We know they don’t have a lot of experience, so everyone is going to be rallying around them and it’s going to be a lot of people making plays.”
Let’s start with Criswell.
He played in four games last season with the majority of his action coming in his lone start of the year against Wofford — a game that ended in a 34-14 UNC win.
He went 11-for-19 passing for 125 yards. He also carried five times for 66 yards and finished with one touchdown.
Criswell has the edge over Maye in experience, both in games played and years in the offensive system, but he’s approaching this offseason just doing what he can to put the team in the best spot.
“I don’t question my abilities,” Criswell said during UNC’s summer media days. “I’ve been doing this since I was eight years old, I feel like I’m prepared to make any throw.”
He continued, “This summer I’ve been working on making sure my hamstring is fully healthy. If the role does come to me, I’m able to not only use my arm but use my feet as well.”
Maye was described by Downs at the Atlantic Coastal Conference Kickoff as a “Tom Brady type of guy” and a leader in the locker room. The North Carolina Gatorade Player-of-the-Year played in four games last season, with Wofford also being his most productive game. The then true freshman went 7-for-9 passing for 89 yards and a touchdown.
“We’re (he and Jacolby) pushing each other every day,” Maye said during UNC’s summer media day. “It’s good for both of us. He’s very talented and we’re just trying to battle it out and make each other better and only time will tell.”
Head coach Mack Brown has said throughout spring ball, and the summer, that the two young quarterbacks haven’t done enough to separate one from the other. He also said several times he could potentially operate the team with two quarterbacks, something he did during the early days of his tenure at the University of Texas.
Separation in the running backs room
With Ty Chandler having graduated, and Sam Howell moving on to the NFL, UNC lost its top two leading rushers from 2021.
The good news is it has a talented and deep enough running back room to replace their offensive productivity. The bad news is realistically it’ll operate with just three running backs and no one, aside from British Brooks, has separated themselves enough to secure one of those spots.
“I got my eye on everybody,” British Brooks said at the ACC Kickoff. “Knowing that there are other guys behind you, you’ve always got to stay on your toes and just compete every day.”
There is junior D.J. Jones, redshirt sophomore Elijah Green, sophomore Caleb Hood, redshirt freshman Kamarro Edmonds, along with four-star freshmen George Pettaway and Omarion Hampton all vying for the next two spots.
“It’s a good problem to have,” Offensive Coordinator Phil Longo said during UNC’s summer media days. “It’s hard to get reps for all those running backs that have shown signs of being able to execute and be productive.”
North Carolina led the conference last season in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns, as well as had a healthy competition in that room throughout fall camp to establish depth at the position.
“It’s too fun (a running back room with that much depth),” Brooks said. “Competing can turn into you going back and forth with your brother, or you just sitting right there having fun competing. It goes day by day.”
Improvement on the offensive line
It’s a new-look unit for a reason, UNC’s offensive line a year ago wasn’t great. To rectify that problem it brought in Jack Bicknell to take over the position group duties.
“I think it’s a tall order for Coach Bicknell in terms of taking the youth,” Longo said. “But there was a lot of progress. There’s great morale in that room right now. There’s great momentum in that room.”
The Tar Heels have fewer returning starters on the offensive line than they’ve had the last few seasons, and Bicknell is tasked with replacing the likes of Joshua Ezeudu, Marcus McKethan and Jordan Tucker.
It won’t be a completely new group, though.
Asim Richards is back and with 24 starts under his belt, and he’s now one of the more veteran players on the offensive line. There’s also Ed Montilus and Brian Anderson returning to the fold.
“We are thrilled about those three,” Longo said. “We know those guys have proven reps and proven starts. They know the system really well. They’re playing with a lot of confidence.”
The goal for preseason training camp will be figuring out the other two starters and building a necessary depth chart.
The Tar Heels want, at minimum, three tackles, three guards and two centers, coaches said.
With Corey Gaynor transferring to the team they’re taken care of the center position, though that leads to the question of who will start there come Aug. 27 with Gaynor surely going to compete against Brian Anderson for that job.