ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Only minutes after North Carolina finished its offensive exhibition in Friday’s Military Bowl destruction of Temple did the focus become the future.
Dazz Newsome shook his head as he considered the possibility of the Tar Heels returning 10 starters from an offense that put up 534 yards in the game, with Dyami Brown, Michael Carter and himself all surpassing the 1,000-yard mark for the season.
“It’s gon’ be scary, for every defense out there next year,” Newsome said.
As of now, that’s the plan for Carolina, with all draft-eligible players expected to return to Chapel Hill next season, meaning that the Tar Heels will return a total of 92.9 percent of rushing and receiving yardage, plus four starters along the offensive line.
Antonio Williams’ departure is the biggest among the skill-position players, as the senior moves on after rushing 48 times for 332 yards and three touchdowns.
In all, 2,124 of 2,446 rushing yards (86.9 percent) and 3,604 of 3,716 receiving yards (96.9 percent) will be at the command of Sam Howell and offensive coordinator Phil Longo, looking to build on a season that currently has the Tar Heels ranked 12 nationally in total offense.
Brown, who like Newsome, joined the 1,000-yard receiving club on Friday had a similar description for how he’s looking at next season.
“It’s getting dangerous; you never know what to expect,” he said. “You can always expect big plays coming through, but with all of us returning, it’s something exciting for us to watch.”
If Friday was any indication, that will certainly be the case, as the Tar Heels exposed a few new wrinkles in an already-effective attack as Howell rushed for a season-high 53 yards on three carries.
All season long, Mack Brown and Longo have alluded to the need to give Howell more chances to run in order to make the offense function at its highest level, but until the bowl game, that wasn’t an option.
With two 24-yard runs, Howell proved just how effective he can be if defenses don’t account for his legs.
A few teammates joked about the freshman quarterback surprising them, but in honesty, the runs were something they’d gotten plenty used to in practice.
“Oh yeah, he’s got a little speed,” Brown said, smiling.
It all came together in the Military Bowl for Carolina, following the same recipe the Tar Heels have had for success all season, rushing 40 times for 238 yards and throwing the ball 35 times, with 26 completions for 296 yards.
In wins, Carolina threw the ball an average of 31.1 times and ran 41.5 times, and in losses, it attempted 36.6 passes and ran 37.8 times.
Longo’s offense is technically the Air Raid, but the power run is a major factor in setting up the big pass, and that was evident with five completions of more than 20 yards and four runs of more than 20 yards.
Howell played coy on whether it was a preview of how the attack will evolve.
“Obviously, I didn’t run a whole lot this year,” he said. “We’ll see what happens in the future.”
Regardless of whether Howell runs more, it figures he’ll build on what was one of the greatest seasons in college football history for a freshman, as he completed 259 of 422 attempts for 3,641 yards with 38 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
His numbers got even better when it mattered, as he completed 100 of 152 attempts (65.7 percent) for 1,552 yards with 16 touchdowns and two interceptions in four November games and vs. Temple.
Not only will Howell have two of the five receivers in program history to post 1,000-yard seasons back in Brown and Newsome, but he’ll also have the big-bodied Beau Corrales (40 rec., 575 yards, 6 TD) and speedy Toe Groves (27 rec., 250 yards, TD) in the stable or returners.
Throw running back Javonte Williams, who finished with 933 yards and five touchdowns in the mix, and there’s not a single spot that the Tar Heels don’t have talent and depth returning in the skill positions.
“We definitely have a lot of talent coming back, so I am definitely excited,” Howell said. “I’m ready to get to work in the offseason and see how much we can get better for next year.”