Opponent Preview: 5 Things to Know About North Carolina

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Jackson Pugh

#1. The Emergence of Michael Carter
After the Tar Heel’s rushing attack had struggled for much of the year, in came Freshman RB Michael Carter. Last week against Virginia- the nation’s 18th ranked defense yardage-wise- Carter exploded for 157 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Carter, an ESPN 4-star recruit out of Navarre, FL, showcased his potential on a 56 yard run, and then a 47 yard TD dash shortly after. On both runs, Carter showed great patience by waiting for his offensive line to pave a hole, then displayed acceleration to gash the Cavs’ defense. UNC coach Larry Fedora had nothing but praise for Carter after his stellar performance.
“(He’s a) great kid,” Fedora said, “comes to practice every day with a smile on his face, works his butt off, has a great attitude and he made some plays. So we kept him in there and kept giving him the ball.” (Jones). If that’s Fedora’s attitude, then Virginia Tech can expect the Florida native to carry the football a lot more than he did last week.
Thankfully, the Hokies have seen a top rushing attack before this season; the Clemson Tigers average 220 rushing yards per game, but the Hokies held them to just 146 yards on the ground in their September matchup. However, if any linebackers get out of place, one mistake could be just enough for the speedster Carter to explode and break off a big run. Carter’s emerging role gives the UNC offense a dimension that was not present for most of the season. It will be interesting to see if Tar Heels find other ways to utilize their new superstar, such as an increasing role in the receiving game.
#2. The Passing Game Struggles
To put it kindly, the North Carolina offense has been bad this season. The Heels have been scoring like a four-corners basketball offense, ranking 124th in third down conversion percentage and 97th in turnovers lost. The main culprits: the quarterback position and the receiver position. Replacing the production of former QB Mitch Trubiski, WR Ryan Switzer, and WR Mack Hollins has been no easy task.
That has caused Larry Fedora to flip flop between his two quarterbacks in LSU transfer Brandon Harris and Freshman Chazz Surratt. Neither has worked out thus far. Last week, Harris was woeful, throwing for a measly 46 yards and putting up three head-scratching interceptions. Surratt is 1-5 as a starter thus far, and threw one of the most befuddling interceptions of the year against Duke, in which he attempted to throw a pass with two hands late in the fourth quarter.
Despite the struggles, both quarterbacks have some skills to offer. Surratt has a respectable 6-3 TD-INT ratio, and Harris has some running ability. Fuente will refuse to take these signal callers lightly, as he had this to say: “I feel like in general terms they are running the same offense with both guys. Both of them are athletic guys, they’re not afraid to run the football. Big picture wise, they’re pretty similar in their skill sets.”
#3. Tackling…. Or Lack Thereof
As much as the UNC offense has struggled, the defense has not done much to pick up the slack. The Heels rank 114th in rushing defense, and much of that has been due to poor tackling. For instance, UVA RB Olamide Zacchaeus turned what should have been a five yard catch into an 81 yard touchdown, as the Tar Heels missed two open field tackles to let him streak free.
Facing a shifty running back in Traevon McMillian does not look good for UNC, nor does facing elusive receivers in Sean Savoy and Cam Phillips. Perhaps the best hope for the Heels will be putting Josh Jackson on the ground. The Heels rank 51st in sacks this season, and may have some hope after the Hokies surrendered five sacks against Boston College.
#4. Fountain of Youth Emerging in Chapel Hill
As mentioned earlier, the Tar Heels have had to deal with departures to the NFL. According to SB Nation, the Heels returned only 19% of their offensive production from 2016, which is the second lowest behind Western Michigan. Combine that with the numerous injuries UNC has faced thus far, and we have one of the most inexperienced teams in the nation.
Fedora has liked the growth he has seen thus far with his young players. When asked how he felt, Fedora stated: “I’m excited about the way these young guys are growing and learning. I’ve said it before and I strongly believe that every rep a player gets is a learning experience that can’t be replicated in a meeting room. Whether it’s a mistake or a great play it has tremendous value in their development. What we’re seeing now is more of the great plays and less mistakes. That has everybody on the staff excited for what these guys can be.” (Jones).
Fuente also understands the young talent that is beginning to take place in Chapel Hill. “We have a tremendous amount of respect for Coach Fedora and the program they have at North Carolina, the history, and the talent that they have on that roster”, said Fuente. “That’s certainly got our guys’ full attention.”
UNC’s ability to compete with Virginia, and show signs of life with Michael Carter, proves the point that the Heels are making progress. In that case, the Hokies can expect the young Tar Heels to continue to make improvements in their game on Saturday.
#5. Star Player: Cole Holcomb
After not receiving any FBS scholarship offers, few saw Cole Holcomb continuing the sport that he loved. Three years after walking on to North Carolina, Holcomb has improbably become one of the best linebackers in the ACC. Through seven games, Holcomb leads the conference in tackles at 68, has two tackles for loss, and a fumble recovery. Without question, Holcomb’s effort makes him an inspirational leader on this UNC defense.
Facing elite defenders has been a major problem for Virginia Tech; last game, Boston College DE Harold Landry had a field day with three sacks. While Holcomb may not be as good as Landry, the Hokies should be concerned about how Cole will impact their often inconsistent run game. However, he has not been at 100% all season; it will be interesting to see how his injury plays a role in the game Saturday.

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