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Notre Dame’s Opponents: New QB Drake Maye not the only change for disappointing North Carolina, Mack Brown

North Carolina v Pittsburgh

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 11: Josh Downs #11 of the North Carolina Tar Heels makes a catch as Erick Hallett #31 of the Pittsburgh Panthers defends in the second half at Heinz Field on November 11, 2021 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)

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Before Notre Dame faced North Carolina last October — at a point when the Irish were ranked No. 11 but favored by just a field goal against 4-3 Tar Heels — head coach Mack Brown criticized the media for hyping up North Carolina so much in the preseason.

Indeed, the Tar Heels began 2021 ranked No. 10, and then they promptly lost, 17-10, at Virginia Tech on the first Friday of the season, a moment which nearly all of the college football world watched. Per The News & Observer’s C.L. Brown in an interview just before Notre Dame beat North Carolina, 44-34, Mack Brown had spent the preseason trying to lower expectations from that top-10 post.

“In the beginning of the year, to a large extent, (Mack) Brown tried to temper the expectations, and he said often that he felt they would be better next year than they are this year, but they just won’t have Sam Howell,” C.L. Brown said. “They’ll be better in experience at just about every position, but obviously they are going to lose a program-changing kind of quarterback.”

Well, now it’s about to be next year, and it is hard to believe the Tar Heels are going to be much better than last year’s disappointment.

2021 was inarguably a disappointment for North Carolina. With a record-setting quarterback in Sam Howell, there were hopes of a conference championship, especially once Clemson appeared weakened. Instead, the Tar Heels limped to a 6-7 showing, finishing the dud of a season with a 38-21 loss to South Carolina in the Mayo Bowl.

Going 4-5 in the conference does not quite describe how frustrating it was for North Carolina. Georgia Tech — Georgia Tech routed the Tar Heels, 45-22. North Carolina State beat them to end the regular season. So not only did North Carolina lose to both its rivals, it also got blown out by the dredges of the conference.

Howell, first and foremost. He may have been the best quarterback it Tar Heels history, simply enough.

They also lost three starting offensive linemen, but that may not be as concerning, given that the offensive line was a sieve the last two years.

North Carolina ranks No. 75 below at 62 percent returning production.

Sophomore Drake Maye will succeed Howell, per a Monday announcement from Mack Brown. Maye was a five-star prospect who originally committed to Alabama before flipping to his homestate power. The Gatorade Player of the Year in North Carolina, his commitment encapsulates why there is still optimism around Brown’s second stint in Chapel Hill, even if he is only 21-17 these last three seasons. (Brown went 69-46-1 in his first run at North Carolina.) Brown continues to pull in touted recruits and highly-ranked classes.

At 6-foot-5, Maye will be a very different presence than Howell (listed at 6-foot-1). That will change the offensive line’s task a good bit, no longer constantly adapting to Howell’s scrambles. With additions from Miami and Harvard, the Tar Heels may not be simply promoting last year’s backups along the line, a good sign given how porous it was.

Maye’s primary target will be junior Josh Downs (pictured above), a first-team All-ACC receiver last year after catching 101 passes for 1,335 yards. Typically viewed as a slot receiver, Downs will likely move around in 2022 to both keep defenses guessing and to limit the easy double-team opportunities presented by lining up on the inside.

Downs and Howell combined to help North Carolina score 35.2 points per game last year, a number that Phil Steele projects to fall to 30.7 this season.

Undoing the success of that high-scoring offense, the Tar Heels gave up 32.1 points per game in 2021, leading to defensive coordinator Jay Bateman’s firing this winter. His replacement, Gene Chizik, hasn’t coached since the 2016 season, so there remains some public skepticism in Brown tapping a past assistant to revive what should be North Carolina’s strength.

Chizik inherits a strong defensive line, though it will be without senior Tomari Fox after he tested positive for a non-approved supplement late last season.

What may most determine the success or failure of that defense is not Chizik, though, but the performances of cornerbacks Tony Grimes and Storm Duck. They both flashed in 2020 before hardly impacting in 2021; in Duck’s case, that was mostly due to injury.

This will be the third year in a row the Irish face the Tar Heels, with the 2020 contest added due to improvised pandemic scheduling. They are not scheduled to meet again until 2026, so Notre Dame should miss either the peak of Brown’s second act or the nadir that forces in a new coach.

With a wins total Over/Under of 7.5 this season, per PointsBet, and the odds favoring the Under, that new coach may not be too far off.

The Irish should be favored by at least 10 points when they travel to North Carolina to end September, and if Maye has not matured rapidly, Notre Dame’s defensive line alone could condemn the Heels’ season.

By that point, North Carolina should be 3-0, but two road games at Appalachian State and Georgia State could trip up the Heels. If so, a loss to the Irish to reach 2-2 before beginning conference play would make a second straight losing season very likely.

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