UVA Opponents Series: Tar Heels banking on Heisman candidate Maye to return to Charlotte

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the seventh in a 12-part series on Virginia’s opponents this season, compiled by interns Harry Farley and Clay Meeks. For the previous articles, check our football archives.

By Harry Farley
JerryRatcliffe.com Correspondent

Photo by Michael Bruder

Expectations for North Carolina are again sky-high as quarterback Drake Maye looks to be in a potential two-horse race for the Heisman trophy with Southern California’s Caleb Williams. Even despite finishing 9-5 last season and 6-2 in the ACC, North Carolina largely seemed to underperform its goals and will hope to undoubtedly be the best team in the ACC.

That underperformance came at the worst time — the final stretch — in which North Carolina ended the season with four-straight losses, including a gut-wrenching 2OT loss to in-state rival NC State at home.

That experience should serve North Carolina well this season, especially Maye, as he threw just one touchdown and four interceptions combined in the final two games of the regular season and the ACC Championship game. It may be an overstatement, but the outcome of the season truly rests on Maye’s ability to perform in the clutch. If he can do that, the Tar Heels could find their way back to the ACC Championship.

It is no secret that all the eyes will be on North Carolina’s offense.  A lot of pressure will be placed on wide receiver Nate McCollum, as well as wide receiver J.J. Jones, the returning player with the most receiving yards on the offense. The core receivers will need to support Maye as much as possible.

But defensively, the Tar Heels must show improvement to a unit that allowed the most yards per game (438.2) and the most points per game (31.0) in the ACC. Returning eight defensive starters is huge, as well as two defensive back transfers in Alijah Huzzie and Derrik Allen. Whether it is overall performance or scheming by defensive coordinator Gene Chizik, North Carolina has to support Maye and the star-studded offense to avoid games becoming shootouts. Linebacker play will be critical, and led by Cedric Gray, who had a monster junior season, being voted a second-team All-American (PFF) and first-team All-ACC. Despite putting up 144 total tackles, 6 pass deflections, 2 interceptions, and 3 forced fumbles, Gray will need to have another standout season to help lead the defense to better play.

The schedule looks tough for the Tar Heels, featuring road games at Pittsburgh, Clemson, and NC State. Yet they have just four true road games, as they started the season in a neutral site win over South Carolina in Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. With a somewhat favorable schedule in terms of location, ample defensive experience, and a Heisman candidate leading the offense, North Carolina looks primed for another strong year in the ACC and is aiming for national relevance once more.

North Carolina Tar Heels

Saturday, Oct. 21
Kenan Memorial Stadium
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Head Coach: Mack Brown
2022 W-L Record: 9-5
Conference Record: 6-2 (ACC)
Offensive Starters Returning: 6
Defensive Starters Returning: 8
All Time Record vs. Virginia: 65-59-4
Last Meeting: North Carolina won 31-28, November 5, 2022
Top 6 Players to Watch: QB Drake Maye, TE Bryson Nesbit, WR Nate McCollum, LT William Barnes, RG Willie Lampkin, LB Cedric Gray