2018 Record: 2-9 overall, 1-7 ACC, No. 7 in the Coastal Division
2018 Game Result: Virginia Tech 22, North Carolina 19
Returning Offensive Starters: 7
Returning Defensive Starters: 7
In 2018, UNC concluded its second consecutive losing season, and head coach Larry Fedora was promptly fired. Over seven years in Chapel Hill, Fedora compiled a 45-43 record, which included a breakout 2015 where the Tar Heels went 11-3 (8-0 ACC). In Fedora’s final season, UNC’s only two wins came against Pitt and Western Carolina. Of course, the Hokies escaped from Kenan Memorial Stadium with a 22-19 victory over the Tar Heels last year when Ryan Willis led an 18-play, 98-yard game-winning drive.
The Tar Heels made a splash with the national media, whether the results pay dividends or not, by hiring Mack Brown as their head coach this offseason. Brown previously coached UNC from 1988-1997, where he compiled a record of 69-46-1. He retired from Texas in 2013, where he was an outstanding 158-48, including a National Championship in 2005.
S&P+ Offense: No. 58
Total Offense: No. 31
Despite using five different quarterbacks last year, UNC still gained 442.1 yards per game (compare that to Virginia Tech’s 428.2). Almost all of the questions surrounding the Tar Heels’ offense this year revolves around to whom first-year offensive coordinator Phil Longo will hand over the reins of the offense. Longo was previously at Ole Miss for two years.
Nathan Elliott, who led the team with 11 touchdown passes last year, left the program and is now the assistant quarterback coach at Arkansas State University. Manny Miles transferred to Kansas, joining his father there, and Chazz Surratt transitioned to the defensive side of the ball at linebacker.
That leaves Cade Fortin, a redshirt freshman who appeared in four games last year, including the game against the Hokies before he left in the first half with an injury. Also on the roster is redshirt freshman Jace Ruder, a former four-star prospect who appeared in one game in 2018. The most intriguing option for the Tar Heels may be true freshman Sam Howell. Howell represents the future for UNC as the No. 3 pro-style quarterback in the 2019 class. The Tar Heels pried him away from Florida State.
The biggest loss for UNC on the outside is all-around playmaker Anthony Ratliff-Williams. Ratliff-Williams earned All-ACC First Team honors as a return specialist in 2017 and had his best year as a receiver last year with 689 yards. Dazz Newsome, brother of former Hokie Deon Newsome, offers the biggest threat that’s returning. Newsome posted 44 receptions for 506 yards last year while also handling kickoff and punt return duties at times. Tight end Carl Tucker also returns after torching Virginia Tech for 123 yards on two catches last year.
On the ground, the Tar Heels had three backs who all had over 80 carries last year in Michael Carter, Antonio Williams, and Jordan Brown. Of those three, only Williams is back, and he will likely receive a bulk of the carries behind an offensive line headlined by senior Charlie Heck and coached by former Hokie OL coach Stacy Searels.
S&P+ Defense: No. 95
Total Defense: No. 105
UNC’s defense was porous at times last year. Despite all the struggles from Bud Foster’s unit in 2018, the Tar Heels still allowed 8.9 yards more per game than the Hokies.
Jay Bateman and Tommy Thigpen will operate as co-defensive coordinators for UNC. Bateman spent the last five years as the defensive coordinator at Army, where the Black Knights ranked eighth nationally in total defense in 2018. Thigpen was on Fedora’s staff last year, and Brown elevated his former player to co-defensive coordinator for this upcoming season.
UNC’s biggest disruptor on defense last year was defensive end Malik Carney. Despite missing four games to suspension, Carney still led the Tar Heels with 12.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. He’s now looking to make the roster of the Detroit Lions. Jason Strowbridge has the best chance to pick up where Carney left off, tallying 7.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks in 2018.
Also gone from UNC is linebacker Cole Holcomb. He led the team with 105 total tackles in 2018, 41 more than the player who finished second. A former quarterback coming over to play the position shows the holes in the linebacker unit. The biggest playmaker returning for the Tar Heels is safety Myles Dorn. Dorn collected 55 tackles last year, along with two interceptions and three pass breakups, in just eight games.
This is another defense that Ryan Willis and Co. have a real shot to attack and put up good numbers.
Why This Game is Important
North Carolina: The Tar Heels will be coming off a bye week before facing the Hokies and looking for payback after last year’s heartbreaking loss in Chapel Hill. In year one of the Mack Brown era, every ACC game represents another chance for Brown to put the team back on the map.
Virginia Tech: Before last year’s nail-biting victory over UNC, the Hokies had beaten the Tar Heels by a combined score of 93-10 in the previous two years. Even if he won’t say it, this game means a little bit more to head coach Justin Fuente, and he’ll be wanting the result to look more like the first two years of his tenure in Blacksburg.