Panther-lair - Around the Coastal: The North Carolina Tar Heels
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Around the Coastal: The North Carolina Tar Heels

North Carolina had to be the most hyped 7-6 team in the nation last season. The Tar Heels opened the season with four wins in the first 10 games before beating Mercer, N.C. State and Temple to close the schedule on a winning streak. But their hype is less about the team's season-long performance and more about an individual:

Sam Howell.

As a freshman, Howell was sensational leading UNC at quarterback, and his name is being listed right behind Trevor Lawrence's as being among the tops at that position in the ACC.

In today's installment of Around the Coastal, TarHeelIllustrated.com publisher Andrew Jones gives us an early look at UNC in 2020.

3 Prominent Storylines

Returning Offensive production
The Tar Heels return prolific quarterback Sam Howell (3,641 yards, 38 TDs, 7 INTs, 61.3 percent), it’s top two running backs (Michael Carter, 1,003 yards, Javonte Williams, 933 yards), and its top nine receivers, including 1,000-yard guys Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome.

Four starters back on the OL
Charlie Heck is off to the NFL, but UNC returns its other four starters and the staff believes it will have more depth in the unit that the program has had in years.

Defense still marked by questions
UNC’s defense was solid last season but it lost by far its two best interior linemen and was so-so at best at end, so questions abound up front, and for Jay Bateman’s defense to work it must at least be dependably solid up front. Depth at linebacker is also a question. The secondary will be the strength on that side of the ball.

3 Biggest Departures

Charlie Heck, LT
He was the leader of a young, untested group and is also an NFL-caliber player. The new left tackle will be a true sophomore who only played on extra point and field goal teams.

Jason Strowbridge, DL
Strowbridge was so good he lined up at end a lot, too. He was a vocal leader of the defense and also led by example. And he just made plays. He had a terrific NFL combine elevating his stock.

Aaron Crawford, DT
Crawford was an anchor in the middle of the defensive line. He consumed blockers and was a constant, often playing nearly 85-90 percent of the snaps in games. He will be extremely difficult to replace.

3 Key Returnees

Sam Howell, QB
You will see Howell’s name pop up on plenty of preseason awards lists for good reason. He posted ridiculous numbers as a true freshman and wasn’t the product of a system. He makes key throws, deep throws and proved early in the season he could rally the Tar Heels to late wins. The Baker Mayfield comparisons are becoming more frequent, but Howell needs to do it as a sophomore before we’re jumping on board with anything like that.

Dazz Newsome, WR
Speed, quickness, dart ability, breakaway ability, and a knack for making huge catches aptly describe Newsome, who is already getting mention as one of the top receivers in the nation for next season.

Chazz Surratt, LB
The former QB had an outstanding season making first-team All-ACC and that’s while he was learning how to play the position. Surratt misread at times, but also made some of the biggest plays of the season on defense and racked up tackles each week. A full offseason understanding the position will do him a lot of good.

3 Big Additions

Kyler McMichael, DB
The transfer from Clemson was the No. 53 player in the class of 2018 but played just 101 snaps as a true freshman for the Tigers so he moved on. UNC has plenty of depth in the secondary but is looking for some game changers to emerge, and McMichael could be that guy.

Kedrick Bingley-Jones, DE
The true freshman has already been generating a buzz as an early enrollee, and with so much opportunity for players to step forward at the defensive end and hybrid positions, he could end up a regular in the rotation. Bingley-Jones was the No. 98 player in the class of 2020, including No. 5 at his position.

Clyde Pinder, DT
Generally, interior linemen don’t make splashes as true freshmen, but the Tar Heels have plenty of questions up front, so there’s an opportunity for Pinder to earn a spot in the rotation. He was the No. 152 player overall in the class of 2020, including No. 14 at his position.

Expectations for 2020
Mack Brown expects his team to win the Coastal Division and has made no bones about it. With recruiting going extremely well, the mission here is to eventually contend for a national championship. Can it be done at UNC? Perhaps, but it can’t without taking each of the necessary steps, and there’s quite a bit of room between 7-6 and being nationally relevant, so the program has a great deal of work to do.

This year’s team can win the Coastal, hit the 10-win mark and get some national attention with its first two games at Central Florida and versus Auburn in Atlanta. It also has some players (Howell, Newsome, etc) who will contend for individual honors. Whether the interior on both sides of the ball are ready for such a push is to be determined, but expectations in Chapel Hill are high and getting higher.