This week's edition of The Opposing 5 focuses on North Carolina with veteran college footballl reporter (and now reporter for Heels Maven, associated with Sports Illustrated) Brant Wilkerson-New joining us to break down the Tar Heels.
We are very appreciative to Brant for joining us and encourage you to give him a follow @BrantHeelsMaven. With that said, here's our Q&A with Brant on this week's Virginia Tech opponent, North Carolina.
1. Why has North Carolina looked significantly improved under Mack Brown to start this season?
Culture can be overused when it comes to college sports, but if there’s ever been one, this is it.
Brown is truly the CEO-type when you think of a big-picture guy running a program, going as far as coaching his assistants on their body language on the sideline. He quickly earned the trust of his team by delivering the renovations in the football facility on time.
From the first days of August camp, the atmosphere has felt lighter and more optimistic, but at the same time, there’s a different air of accountability, whether it’s on the field or cleaning up the locker room.
2. Why has Sam Howell been successful, and what weaknesses does he bring that opposing defenses should try to attack?
Howell’s arm talent is obvious, whether it’s an NFL-level throw to the outside or putting a deep ball on the money, but what truly sets him apart is his preparation. Teammates and coaches have raved about his work ethic, from extra throwing with receivers or the amount of time he spends watching film both in the facility and in his room.
Offensive coordinator Phil Longo has full trust in Howell’s reads and gives him plenty of freedom on inside/outside zone and even some true speed option stuff on the outside.
He’s finding a better understanding of when to run and when to use his mobility to move in the pocket to allow receivers to keep working.
The biggest negative in his game has been his competitiveness. Howell claims he never once slid in high school, and that’s been obvious in his physicality on runs. He’s getting better at avoiding contact, but he’s taken some big shots, and sometimes, he holds the ball a bit longer than he should in hopes of making a play.
3. What has UNC's offensive approach and style been this season?
As well as Howell has played this season, the true strength of the offense is running back, where Javonte Williams and Michael Carter are both capable of putting up a 100-yard game every time out.
Williams is used more inside, but has an excellent mix of physicality and speed. Carter is a bit smaller and has been exceptional as a receiver out of the backfield, using his speed and quickness to make plays on the outside.
Dyami Brown has been the most reliable deep threat for Howell, while Beau Corrales is his big red zone target.
Toe Groves and Dazz Newsome are both speedsters that see their share of balls over the middle. Newsome, a native of Hampton, is the fastest player on the roster.
4. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the UNC defense?
The Tar Heels are playing a 3-4 under coordinator Jay Bateman, and they’ve gotten excellent play up front from Aaron Crawford and Jason Strowbridge.
Crawford commands double-teams routinely, freeing up ultra-athletic linebacker Chazz Surratt to cause havoc in the backfield while Jeremiah Gemmel has emerged as a solid stopper at linebacker, too.
Dominique Ross and Tomon Fox fill the hybrid outside linebacker roles, which are mostly used for pass-rushing, and both are having excellent seasons. Fox is more disruptive in the backfield, while Ross has taken care of business when he’s asked to cover a receiver or running back.
Right now, the secondary is down three starters and then lost one of the replacement starters. Both cornerbacks began the season as backups, but true freshman Storm Duck has performed well since being forced into action.
Safety Myles Wolfolk, who is out indefinitely, led the nation in interceptions before an injury, then his replacement, Cam Kelly was lost for the season with a knee injury, too.
Senior safety Myles Dorn is shouldering a massive load, both in run support and against the pass.
5. What are the keys to this game for North Carolina?
Largely, the same they’ve been every week.
The Tar Heels beat South Carolina and Miami when they came out playing with emotion, and even took Clemson down to a 2-point conversion attempt.
For some reason, they showed up looking like they didn’t take Wake Forest or Appalachian State completely seriously, and by the time they got in gear, they’d fallen far too behind to finish comebacks.
Running quarterbacks have caused some damage, so that will certainly be a point of emphasis with Hendon Hooker back there.
Really, it comes down to emotion and playing a complete game, but North Carolina will certainly like its chances if it wins the turnover battle.
I think UNC plays its second-best game of the season (Clemson will be tough to top this year) and wins 31-27.
Given that emotion has been such a factor in every game, I think the Tar Heels come out with plenty of it on Saturday. Plenty of guys were around for the 59-7 debacle in the last visit to Blacksburg, while others are still holding on to what happened last year in Chapel Hill in a game that basically ended any hope of turning things around.
I’m expecting another excellent, hard-fought game that comes down to the fourth quarter. The Tar Heels are plenty comfortable there, and Howell makes a late play to finish it off.
We once again thank Brant for joining us for this week's edition of The Opposing 5 and encourage you to give him a follow @BrantHeelsMaven.