What have we learned about the Tar Heels at the midway point of their season?

Brant Wilkerson-New

North Carolina arrived at its first open week of the season 3-3 and 2-1 in the ACC, getting a much-needed chance to recover before returning to action on Oct. 19 at Virginia Tech.

Here’s what we’ve learned about the Tar Heels at the halfway point of the season.

Things are different

Culture is a word that gets thrown around in college football to the point that it can lose meaning.

That’s not the case in Chapel Hill, where Mack Brown’s culture change is the biggest reason the Tar Heels are turning the corner faster than anyone could have expected.

It started with the locker room and lounge renovations that showed players that Brown and Carolina meant business about turning the program around as the coach delivered on his promises immediately. Those changes have helped build camaraderie in the Kenan Football Center, with guys more likely to hang around after practice and between classes.

The focus of Brown and his staff has centered on preparation rather than results, where simply good isn’t good enough, as he pointed out before the Georgia Tech game. In contrast to his honest words about his team, Brown is a player’s coach and has earned the respect of his new team based on his investment in personal relationships.

Fun certainly hasn’t been a word associated with Carolina football in recent seasons, but the current vibe of the program is exciting and optimistic with full buy-in from everyone.

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Michael Carter and the Tar Heels gave Clemson all it wanted in Chapel Hill.Nell Redmond | USA TODAY Sports

Jekyll and Hyde

From week to week, and sometimes, drive to drive and play to play, the Tar Heels are still figuring out how to become a good football team.

That was clear in getting pushed around up front by Appalachian State, then taking Clemson down to the last minute in a game that Carolina was seriously overmatched. Then, there are the 97-yard drives where the Tar Heels offense never skips a beat moving down the field that are immediately followed by a stretch of several three-and-outs.

Brown said it best last week, expressing that he was both frustrated with his team’s preparation but understood it was part of the process.

“They don’t know how to be continuously good at this point,” he said. “We’ve got to do that. I told them today, ‘Your life is going to be predicated on whether you can get up and create an edge and have energy every day. If you can’t do it out here, you’re probably not going to do it in your life, so this is a great week to learn to grow up.”

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Don Chapman got his first career interception vs. Georgia TechBrett Davis | USA TODAY Sports

Youth movement

One reason for that is the need for young players to take on major roles with 17 true freshmen playing this season, including nine that have consistently appeared in key spots.

While the Tar Heels deal with what can be frustrating freshman mistakes, the future is bright given the amount of experience youngsters are getting this season.

It was expected that Sam Howell would contribute this season, but the emergence of guys like Storm Duck, Tomari Fox and Don Chapman in starting roles have been pleasant surprises for the Tar Heels.

Howell are you

Speaking of Howell, it didn’t even take six weeks for the Tar Heels to realized they’d be set at quarterback through at least 2021. That’s a heck of a change from the past two seasons where the job has been a revolving door.

Howell’s been excellent in completing 123 of 195 attempts (63.1 percent) for 1,544 yards with 15 touchdowns and three interceptions, but perhaps more importantly, he’s earned the respect and trust of his coaches and teammates based on his commitment to preparation.

He’s clearly got the talent to become one of the top quarterbacks in the nation by the time his time is up at Carolina, but he also has the right work ethic and temperament to lead his team.

Walking the tightrope

Right now, Carolina doesn’t have the talent or the bodies to make mistakes.

The Tar Heels have proven that, at their best, they can beat everyone left on their schedule.

The Tar Heels have also proven that, when they’re just good or lacking emotion, they can lose to everyone left on their schedule.

Such is life during a rebuild, and that fact has only been magnified by injuries that have taken out key starters in the secondary and along the offensive line.

Failing to show up or a few more injuries could doom Carolina on any given Saturday.

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Chazz Surratt has gone from question-mark to Carolina's leading tackler.Brett Davis | USA TODAY Sports

Lucky at linebacker

The Tar Heels have struck gold at linebacker with Chazz Surratt’s transition to the position and Jeremiah Gemmel becoming a starter.

Surratt, who hadn’t played linebacker since his freshman year of high school, leads Carolina with 46 tackles to go along with three sacks and 5 ½ tackles for loss. Meanwhile, Gemmel, who played in just four games in 2018, is third on the team with 39 tackles with 2 ½ for loss.

Linebacker hasn’t exactly been a strength in recent years, and suddenly, the Tar Heels have two guys on the inside with perfect skills for Jay Bateman’s attacking style. 

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