What to watch for: UNC QB Howell envisions home-field disadvantages
CHAPEL HILL — From his perspective as a quarterback, North Carolina standout Sam Howell sees some plusses to playing college football games on the road in empty or sparsely populated stadiums during this era of coronavirus.
But not at home in Kenan Stadium, where Syracuse visits the No. 18 Tar Heels on Saturday afternoon to kick off this season without spectators in attendance.
“I think it’s all kind of disadvantages,” Howell said. “I think when you go on the road it’s going to be easier to hear each other talk on the offensive side of the ball. I think at home there really are no advantages to no crowd noise, I think it’s just straight disadvantages.
“But at the end of the day it’s what we’ve got to do this year. So if that’s what it takes to play football this year, then that’s what it takes.”
Here’s a glance at more that awaits North Carolina in Saturday’s opener:
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
— ORANGE SQUEEZE? Syracuse became one of the new opponents on the Tar Heels’ schedule under the Atlantic Coast Conference’s revised structure for this fall. Syracuse has a new defensive coordinator in Tony White, formerly an Arizona State assistant under Herm Edwards. White’s addition has provided a regular talking point during the preseason for North Carolina coach Mack Brown, who figures the Orange to be a blitzing bunch that will test the depth concerns on the Tar Heels’ offensive line.
North Carolina returns a combined 42 starts from last season on the offensive line in the form of right tackle Jordan Tucker, right guard Marcus McKethan, center Brian Anderson and left guard Josh Ezeudu. Asim Richards joins the group at left tackle this season and Ed Montilus is viewed as the line’s top reserve, giving the Tar Heels six trusted big bodies up front. Brown wants more and would prefer an eight-man rotation among the five offensive line spots.
— LOFTY EXPECTATIONS: North Carolina enters a season holding a national ranking for the first time in four years. The Tar Heels return 10 starters on offense, seven starters on defense, feature star players in Howell at quarterback and linebacker Chazz Surratt, and could emerge as a factor in the ACC race behind projected frontrunners Clemson and Notre Dame.
There’s high-powered potential on offense with Howell, who threw for 3,641 yards and 38 touchdowns last year, the most touchdown passes by a true freshman in Football Bowl Subdivision history and fourth-best total nationally on the year. Howell is settled in at the controls of coordinator Phil Longo’s up-tempo attack for his sophomore season. North Carolina features veterans weapons in running backs Michael Carter and Javonte Williams (who combined for 1,936 rushing yards and eight touchdowns last season), and receivers Dyami Brown (1,034 yards and 12 touchdowns last season), Dazz Newsome (1,018 yards and 10 touchdowns last season) and Beau Corrales.
— SACK RACE: Can the Tar Heels generate pass-rushing pressure on opposing quarterbacks this season without forcing defensive coordinator Jay Bateman to dial up blitz packages? That’s a specific question that Brown has asked aloud repeatedly during the preseason. The responsibilities in that area begin with defensive end Tomari Fox and outside linebackers Tyrone Hopper and Tomon Fox.
North Carolina also has put the playmaking Surratt on the move during the preseason, shifting him out of his inside linebacker spot and working him in an edge-rushing role for passing situations. Surratt led the Tar Heels with 15 tackles for lost yardage last season, including 6½ quarterback sacks, part of the 115 tackles he produced overall to rank second in the ACC in that department.