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Virginia Tech has an opportunity to knock North Carolina completely out of the Coastal Division race when the Tar Heels travel to Blacksburg on Saturday afternoon.
It’s been a rough season for UNC. They were handled by South Carolina 27-10 in their opening game, and then beat Middle Tennessee State 40-20 the following week. Since then, they have blown a 13-0 lead to Georgia Tech and lost 28-20, and they were flattened at home last week by East Carolina 55-31.
The Tar Heels have weapons on offense, questions on defense, and with games against Virginia Tech and Miami coming, UNC could struggle to get bowl eligible. This UNC team and this VT team are both very different than the ones that met in Chapel Hill last year, when the Hokie defense was gashed by Giovani Bernard, and the Heels won 48-34.
Though the Heels struggled early, there is still talent on both sides of the ball, and they are very capable of beating Tech on Saturday if the Hokies don’t play well.
Byrn Renner and the passing game
North Carolina’s passing game is the strength of their team. They have a veteran quarterback, some talented receivers, and one of the best tight ends in the country. If UNC is going to win this game, they’ll need to do so on the strength of their passing game (and the weakness of the Virginia Tech offense).
Bryn Renner (6-3, 225, r-Sr.) is in his third season as UNC’s starting quarterback. The numbers he has posted throughout his career have been very good:
2011: 239-of-350 for 3,086 yards, 26 touchdowns, 13 interceptions, 159.4 rating
2012: 276-of-422 for 3,356 yards, 28 touchdowns, 7 interceptions, 150.8 rating
2013: 91-of-152 for 1,117 yards, 7 touchdowns, 3 interceptions, 132.8 rating
Renner hasn’t been quite as good to begin the 2013 season, and some of that could be because of a couple of freshmen on the offensive line and the loss of Giovani Bernard at tailback. The UNC running game isn’t as effective as it was a year ago, and that will obviously hurt the passing game.
Renner has some very good targets around him. Let’s go over a few.
Eric Ebron (6-4, 245, Jr.): Ebron is rated by many scouts as the #1 tight end prospect in the country. He caught 40 passes for 625 yards and four touchdowns last season, and he leads the team with 17 receptions for 262 yards and a touchdown in 2013. Ebron presents major matchup issues for every team he faces.
Quinshad Davis (6-4, 205, So.): Davis was a Freshman All-American last season who racked up 61 catches for 776 yards in 2012. He had 16 receptions against UVA last year, which tied the ACC single game record. Davis is a very talented player, but he’s off to a slow start in 2013, catching just 13 passes for 204 yards and three touchdowns through four games.
T.J. Thorpe (6-0, 200, r-So.): Thorpe has caught 11 passes so far this season. He was a top 100 player nationally, coming out of Durham, NC. He missed the 2012 season after breaking his foot, but he has been one of UNC’s most consistent receivers this season.
Ryan Switzer (5-10, 175, Fr.): Switzer lacks size, but he was the best high school player in West Virginia last year, and he had a great offer list coming out of high school (though VT didn’t pull the trigger). He has caught nine passes for 63 yards this year. He had an 82-yarder against Georgia Tech called back because of a holding penalty.
Sean Tapley (6-1, 185, r-Jr.): Tapley is a former SuperPrep All-American. He had two touchdowns against the Hokies last season, including a 94 yard kickoff return for a score. He’s a very capable player.
Mark McNeill (6-4, 215, r-Jr.): McNeill is a former lacrosse star who decided to play football at UNC. He caught 10 passes a year ago, and he has six catches for 117 yards this year.
Bug Howard (6-4, 195, Fr.): Howard is playing as a true freshman this year, and he has five catches for 73 yards and two touchdowns.
In addition, UNC will get tight end Jack Tabb (6-3, 240, Jr.) back this week after a two-game suspension. He’s a very good athlete, and he worked at both tight end and middle linebacker during the month of August. He will be yet another weapon for Bryn Renner and the UNC passing game.
All of those guys will play against Virginia Tech, and Renner also likes to involve his tailbacks in the passing game. More on them later.
The Offensive Line
LT James Hurst (6-7, 305, Sr.): Hurst is a guy who has lived up to the hype. He was a SuperPrep All-American and one of the top overall prospects in the country. He’s now an All-ACC player and one of the best offensive tackles in the country. He is the most experienced player on UNC’s offensive line.
LG Caleb Peterson (6-5, 300, r-Fr.): Peterson isn’t quite as experienced as Hurst. He’s started four career games at left guard. He was a highly-touted recruit from Alabama, but Virginia Tech’s experienced and talented defensive line could give him trouble.
C Russell Bodine (6-4, 310, r-Jr.): Bodine is one of Virginia Tech’s major recruiting misses along the offensive line. He has been a very good center for UNC, and he’s been in the playing rotation since his r-freshman season. He anchors the middle of the Tar Heel line.
RG Landon Turner (6-4, 320, r-So.): Turner chose UNC over Virginia Tech coming out of high school, even though he is from Harrisonburg. He moved into the starting lineup towards the end of last season.
RT Jon Heck (6-6, 300, r-Fr.): The son of former NFL offensive lineman and current Kansas City OL coach Andy Heck, Jon Heck has thus far been the weakest link of UNC’s offensive line. He’ll have a tough assignment on Saturday as he goes head to head with Virginia Tech’s excellent defensive ends.
For the r-freshmen on the OL, it’s far too early to project their NFL Draft standing. However, when we look at the other three players, we see that they are all talented guys.
James Hurst: #4 OT in the 2014 draft by NFL DraftScout.com
Russell Bodine: #2 C in the 2015 draft by NFLDraftScout.com
Landon Turner: #1 OG in the 2016 draft by NFLDraftScout.com
Obviously the Heels have some very good players up front. This will be one of the most talented lines Tech faces this year, though they certainly have a chance to take advantage of UNC’s two young r-freshmen.
Giovani Bernard is now a Cincinnati Bengal, and the Tar Heels have replaced him by committee.
Romar Morris (5-10, 185, r-So.): Morris starts for UNC, though he splits time with two other players. He has 36 carries for 167 yards (4.7 ypc) and three touchdowns on the season. He’s a capable receiver, and right now Morris is more effective as an outside runner.
A.J. Blue (6-2, 215, Sr.): Blue is UNC’s biggest tailback, and he’s also one of their better receivers. He has 43 carries for 176 yards (4.1 ypc), and he also has 11 catches for 93 yards. Blue is a good athlete, but he came to UNC as a quarterback, and he’s not a natural running back.
Khris Francis (5-9, 195, Fr.): Francis is a true freshman who has 18 carries for 69 yards (3.8 ypc). He doesn’t have great size, and he is an inexperienced player. I wouldn’t expect to see much of him against Virginia Tech.
There is talent in UNC’s backfield, though obviously there is no Giovani Bernard. I think Morris is a good back, but he missed last week’s ECU game with an injury. How healthy is he? He showed last season that he can be a major receiving threat, yet he only has five catches this season, so I think the UNC coaches need to find more ways to get him the ball. I also think he’s a better fit for the UNC spread offense than A.J. Blue.
The UNC running game hasn’t been particularly good this year, though it hasn’t been terrible either. Considering what the Tech defense is capable of doing, it’s hard to see the Tar Heels being able to run for 339 yards like they did last year. Of course, 262 of those 339 yards belonged to the best rookie running back in the NFL.
Here’s how the UNC running game has looked in their four games this year (includes Bryn Renner sacks).
South Carolina: 99 yards, 2.8 ypc
Middle Tennessee: 134 yards, 3 TD, 3.3 ypc
Georgia Tech: 102 1 TD, 4.2 ypc
East Carolina: 67 yards, 2.1 ypc
To beat the Virginia Tech defense, the opposing offense generally has to be balanced. The Tar Heels haven’t gotten any balance from their offense this season, and that’s not a good sign as they head to Lane Stadium.
The UNC Defense
Before we get into specific players, let’s take a quick look at some numbers. The UNC defense hasn’t been able to stop the run in their first four games. In fact, all four opponents have had a 100 yard rusher against this Tar Heel defense.
South Carolina: 228 yards, 6 ypc (Mike Davis, 12 carries, 115 yards)
Middle Tennessee: 159 yards, 3.9 ypc (Jordan Parker, 22 carries, 109 yards)
Georgia Tech: 324 yards, 4.6 ypc (Robert Godhigh, 9 carries, 100 yards)
ECU: 227 yards, 4.2 ypc (Vintavious Cooper, 35 carries, 186 yards)
Even ECU and their Air Raid offense managed to gash UNC on the ground. This Tar Heel defense has not been good in any phase of the game, as the numbers point out.
Pass Eff.: #81
Third down Def: #108
Redzone Def: #62
First downs Def: #103
I watched the UNC-ECU game, and here’s what stood out to me about the UNC defense:
1: The couldn’t cover
2: They couldn’t get off blocks
3: They couldn’t tackle
That’s a recipe for a disaster on defense, and ECU went on to drop 55 points and 603 yards on the Heels. All that said, there is still talent on this UNC defense, and you’ve got to believe that if they have any pride at all, they’ve had a very focused week of practice and they see this week’s game against VT’s struggling offense as a great opportunity.
UNC has talent and experience on the defensive line, though they haven’t always gotten consistency this year.
DE Kareem Martin (6-6, 265, Sr.): Martin picked UNC over Virginia Tech out of high school. He is rated the #4 defensive end in the 2014 draft, but he hasn’t been as productive as the Tar Heels hoped. He has three TFL and just one sack through four games.
DT Tim Jackson (6-5, 285, Sr.): Jackson is a former defensive end who started seven games at nose tackle last season. He has been in the playing rotation since he was a true freshman, but he’s never developed into a major playmaker for the Heels. He has no TFL this season.
DT Ethan Farmer (6-3, 285, r-Jr.): Farmer is in his first year as a starter after appearing in 12 games as a backup last season. He has no TFL through four games this year, and he has just 1 TFL for his entire career.
The Bandit position is a specialty position at UNC, and it’s the one position (besides free safety) where the Heels are getting good production this season. Norkeithus Otis (6-1, 240, Jr.) fits the DE/LB hybrid position well. He is UNC’s starter, and he has 4.5 TFL and three sacks so far this year. His backup, Darius Lipford (6-3, 245, Jr.), plays a lot as well, and he has four TFL and two sacks.
Overall, the UNC defense hasn’t been too bad up the middle. Most of their mistakes against East Carolina came when running backs bounced it to the outside and the secondary and linebackers weren’t able to come up with open field tackles. The Tar Heel defensive coaches said their players missed 21 tackles against Georgia Tech two weeks ago, and to my untrained eye it seemed like they missed even more than that against ECU.
UNC plays a 4-2-5 defense, meaning they only have two true linebackers (just like Virginia Tech). Travis Hughes (6-2, 225, Jr.) plays the weakside position, and he is the best linebacker on the team. He is tied for the team lead with 31 tackles, and he has two TFL, but overall he hasn’t become the player that was expected him when he selected UNC over Virginia Tech.
The middle linebacker is Jeff Schoettmer (6-1, 220, r-So.), who is a former walk-on who played safety in high school, as well as at the beginning of his college career. He is a brand new starter, and even though he got a little bit of playing time last year, I don’t think he’s particularly good at this stage of his career.
North Carolina’s RAM position is similar to Tech’s whip spot. The ideal player is a good run stopper who can also defend slot receivers. Malik Simmons (5-11, 190, So.), who is listed on the UNC roster as a cornerback, is manning the RAM spot right now, which means the Tar Heels are basically using a nickel package. Brandon Ellerbe (6-0, 220, Jr.) also plays that spot, but you are more likely to see Simmons on the field against passing formations.
Free safety Tre Boston (6-1, 205, Sr.) has been North Carolina’s best defensive player thus far. He leads the team with two interceptions, and the deep middle of the field is the last place you would want to attack the Tar Heel defense because Boston is their most experienced player. NFLDraftScout.com ranks him as the #2 free safety in the 2014 Draft.
Strong safety Dominique Green (5-11, 185, Fr.) is a walk-on, and though he had a few offers from some smaller conference schools, he elected to stay close to home and walk on at UNC. The decision turned out to be a good one, as Green finds himself in the starting lineup as a true freshman. It’s a good story. Nevertheless, that doesn’t change the fact that he’s a true freshman walk-on, and you can bet that Scot Loeffler will try and find a way to go after him.
Jabari Price (6-0, 200, Sr.) and Tim Scott (5-11, 190, Jr.) have been starting for the UNC defense since they were freshmen. These guys have a lot of experience, but they are also part of a secondary that was torched repeatedly by ECU last week, and that entire group wasn’t very good at wrapping up and bringing ball carriers to the ground.
North Carolina seems to have some chemistry and discipline issues, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. As a team, UNC is #101 nationally in penalty yards per game, but that’s only part of the problem.
Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning claims his defense has no leaders, going so far as to say that on camera in front of the video. Watch this video where Koenning throws his players under the bus. He criticizes everything from tackling, to leadership, to effort. And based on what I saw against East Carolina, he’s probably right. I didn’t see much want-to out of the UNC defense against ECU, and I’ve seen then struggle to get off blocks all season.
Senior free safety Tre Boston responded during his media session, openly disagreeing with his defensive coordinator about the leadership issues. Having players and coaches disagreeing with each other in front of the media is never a good thing.
If you watch that video, and you read that article, you’ll probably feel even better about Tech’s chances this weekend than you did earlier in the week.
Because they have talented athletes, North Carolina is dangerous in the return game. Sean Tapley returned a kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown against Virginia Tech last season, and he and Romar Morris form a nice combination on kickoff returns. Both guys are capable of big plays.
T.J. Thorpe is averaging 8.4 yards per punt return, and we could also see Ryan Switzer back there as well. Switzer has averaged 17.7 yards per return so far this season. The Hokies’ coverage teams will have to play well in this one.
Thomas Moore (5-11, 200, Jr.) is a perfect 4-of-4 on his field goal attempts this season, with a long of 39 yards. However, he was just 6-of-10 in 2011, and 2-of-3 in 2012, so nobody really knows exactly how good Moore is.
Tommy Hibbard (5-10, 190, Jr.) handles the punting duties for UNC, and he’s been UNC’s starting punter since he was a freshman in 2011. Hibbard is on the Ray Guy Watch List, but with a 41.5 yards per punt average so this season, he’s not even in the top ten in the ACC.
I don’t think UNC is a very good team, but Virginia Tech’s offense is so limited that the Hokies don’t have a lot of margin for error. If the Hokies don’t turn the football over, and they don’t mess up on special teams, I feel like they’ll win this football game fairly comfortably. However, if they throw the ball to UNC, or they give up special teams scores, then things will be a lot more difficult.
I have a lot of respect for Bryn Renner, Eric Ebron and the UNC offense. However, with the lack of a running game this year, I think they are in for a tough day against the Tech defense. Bud Foster’s unit is legit, and I think Tech’s senior defensive linemen are really tough matchups for those two freshmen on UNC’s offensive line. I expect that Tar Heel offense to struggle all day long.
I also think the Tech offense will look a little better this week. Though there is talent at certain spots on the UNC defense, the overall talent level is down on that side of the ball. Apparently it’s more difficult to recruit without John Blake and Butch Davis on the staff, though I don’t think I would call what those guys did “recruiting.”
Saturday is supposed to be a beautiful day in Blacksburg. We should have great tailgating weather, and an equally good game. I like the Hokies in this one. They seem a lot more functional as a team right now than North Carolina.
Chris’ Prediction: Virginia Tech 24, UNC 13
Will Stewart’s Take: Inspired defense and turnover-free quarterback play, which is exactly what the Hokies got last week against GT, will win a lot of football games, including this one.
You’ve read the rest of this preview … or maybe you’re the type that pulls up the article and goes straight to the predictions. In either case, here’s a newsflash: UNC is a bad football team. They’ve got some good players, most notably Bryn Renner and Eric Ebron, but they’re a bad team.
- #112 in rushing offense
- #75 in total offense
- #86 in scoring offense
- #112 in rushing defense
- #105 in total defense
- #93 in scoring defense
The only thing the Heels do well is pass the football (#23), and guess what? Stopping the pass is what the Hokie defense excels at (#5 in pass defense, #3 in pass efficiency defense, #8 in sacks).
Offensively, these teams are comparable, except that UNC passes it well. Defensively? There is no comparison. Even with an anemic offense, Virginia Tech should beat UNC handily.
Two years ago, I would have looked at this setup and predicted Virginia Tech 35, UNC 10. But the 2012 football season understandably put a huge dent in the confidence I used to have in the Hokies. I keep thinking back to last year’s Pittsburgh game, when I predicted the Hokies would beat the Panthers 31-10.
VT was riding a 13-game road winning streak at the time, but when they visited Pittsburgh, they got hammered 34-17, and a lot of other stuff happened after that which makes me hesitant to stick my neck out. Last Thursday started to change that, but I’m not all the way there yet.
The real questions here are: will the Hokie defense keep playing as hard and as well as they have all season (probably), will Logan Thomas keep playing as well as he did against Georgia Tech (I don’t know), and will UNC continue to be as limp and as lifeless as they have been so far this season (probably, but I’m not sure)?
I think the Hokies have turned a corner on the 2013 season, and I think they’re going to come out of this one 2-0 in the ACC. But as far as margin of victory, I’m hedging my bets.
Will’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 23, North Carolina 16
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