Tar Heels aim to contend in ACC with QB Drake Maye. Defensive improvements would help, too
North Carolina didn't make things easy last year, surviving a shaky defense on a wild ride that reached the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game.
Mack Brown would love his team to take a steadier route this season as an ACC contender led by a star quarterback in Drake Maye.
The 21st-ranked Tar Heels (9-5, 6-2 ACC in 2022) had a six-game winning streak that ultimately helped them claim the final Coastal Division championship before the ACC's move to a division-less format this season. But UNC lost its last four games, including the ACC title game against Clemson and the Holiday Bowl against Oregon.
Brown, in Year 5 of his second stint here, has eight returning offensive starters — including Maye as a possible Heisman Trophy candidate — and seven on defense. That's enough to have the Tar Heels picked to finish third in the ACC behind ninth-ranked favorite Clemson and No. 8 Florida State.
“You want expectations,” Brown said. “And if you don't want expectations, you haven't done a good job. And this is what we came back here to do.”
The four-game skid sent the Tar Heels into the offseason on a down note. Brown is quick to point out the team reached nine wins for only the second time since the end of his first UNC coaching stint in 1997.
“Really proud of the guys for what they did last year. We've just got to be better,” Brown said, adding: “I've told every team I've ever coached: ‘Don’t talk about it, do it, I want to see it.'"
Maye rose to stardom last year and enters this season as the preseason ACC player of the year. The third-year passer ranked sixth nationally in average passing yards (308.6) and tied for fifth with 38 touchdown passes.
Maye will run the offense under a new coordinator in Chip Lindsey after Phil Longo's departure to Wisconsin.
“Coach Longo was great, but just hearing somebody else’s voice, you pick up new things,” Maye said.
Top receiver Josh Downs is gone after hauling in 11 touchdowns in 11 games, along with No. 2 receiver Antoine Green (seven TDs). The Tar Heels dipped into the transfer portal to restock, adding Devontez Walker from Kent State and Nate McCollum from Georgia Tech.
Walker's status was in question with the school appealing to the NCAA for an immediate-eligibility waiver. He was a first-team all-conference pick last year after catching 58 passes for 921 yards and 11 touchdowns, and appeared in line to be Maye's top target.
McCollum had 60 catches for 655 yards and three touchdowns last year.
Things must improve defensively in Gene Chizik's second season as coordinator. The Tar Heels allowed 30.8 points and 436.5 yards per game, the lowlight being when they allowed 40 fourth-quarter points in a shootout win at Appalachian State.
UNC played better as the season wore on, cutting the scoring average to 25.8 points in league play.
“It definitely leaves a bad taste in my mouth when people kind of talk about our team and talk about how bad of a defense we've been sometimes,” said linebacker Cedric Gray, who led all power-conference players with 145 tackles.
The Tar Heels dipped into the portal to boost their kicking game, adding Ryan Coe as a graduate transfer from Cincinnati. He made 19 of 23 field goals with the Bearcats last season with a long of 52 yards, along with hitting all 44 of his PATs.
Noah Burnette, last year's starter, returned to UNC. He stumbled down the stretch, missing two kicks in the double-overtime loss to N.C. State and another in the one-point loss to Oregon.
The Tar Heels get "College GameDay” treatment from ESPN with a season-opening game against South Carolina on Sept. 2 in Charlotte.
UNC's non-conference schedule also includes home games with Appalachian State and Minnesota before opening Atlantic Coast Conference play against Pittsburgh on Sept. 23. A tough finish awaits in November, starting with the home finale against rival Duke (Nov. 11). From there, the Tar Heels visit Clemson (Nov. 18) and then close at N.C. State on Nov. 25.