With North Carolina coming to town tomorrow, we reached out to our friends over at the Tar Heel Blog (@tarheelblog) to answer some pressing questions on their football team (and maybe I threw a basketball one in there). Big thanks to Jay Exum for taking the time out to answer my questions.
You can see my responses to his questions over at their site later today.
STL: You've had some exciting weeks with a comeback win over Pitt, a thrilling victory over FSU, a drubbing by VT, and then handling Miami last weekend. Where do you think this team stands in the Coastal race, and how do you feel about their ability to compete for an ACC title?
JE: In terms of Coastal chances, I think most Carolina fans would have been glad to be told that after 7 games our record would stand at 5-2 overall and 3-1 in the ACC, so I think there's reason for optimism. The fact that the 1 loss came at the hands of Virginia Tech complicates things, though. This means that UNC needs to run the table and have VT lose twice. The unexpected upset of VT by Syracuse last weekend took care of one of those 2 losses. The Coastal is too tough this season to feel confident about winning all of our remaining ACC games, but with the Syracuse gift, I like UNC's position. If they were to advance to the title game, I think any hope of beating one of the likely Atlantic Division winners (Clemson, Louisville or FSU) would depend very heavily on the team getting healthier. There are still holes on the roster even when healthy. In order for UNC to upset a team that is a serious contender for the CFP, they need all hands on deck, must play very well AND to catch a break here and there.
STL: News broke this week that Mack Hollins's career is over following surgery on his collarbone. How will this affect the team and the offensive game plan this week?
JE: This is a big deal. It just is. The thing to know about Mack Hollins is that he is more than just our best speed receiver. He is an exceptional special teams player (4 year ST captain) and one of the team's clear leaders. Losing him will have a serious impact on 2 phases of the game as well as some intangibles. Offensively, North Carolina will need to find another way to stretch the field. There is not an obvious player available to replace Mack's combination of size, speed and raw toughness. The player likely to start in his place is Austin Proehl, who's an excellent, disciplined receiver with good hands, but isn't a speed burner. Reportedly the fastest remaining player is Anthony Ratliff-Williams, a reserve who has only seen spot duty this far, but will likely be given a chance to be the guy to try to take the top off of the defense. Jordan Cunningham is another guy who will see more time. The problem is that none of these players matches Hollins' skill set, and the UVa coaches will be watching substitution patterns to get a tell on what the Carolina offense is thinking. If they see Ratliff-Williams, they're likely going to alert the defense to focus on deep patterns. If it's Proehl or Cunningham, they'll worry more about Ryan Switzer as the primary deep threat. UNC will need to be more creative to keep the defense guessing.
STL: Mitch Trubisky is prettttty darn good. How susceptible is he to pressure, and what can Virginia do defensively to slow down the Tar Heels?
JE: I'm terrified to give my honest answer to this question for fear I'll regret it, but here it is: I think Trubisky is less susceptible to pressure than most. He is extremely even keeled and knows the offense well. Larry Fedora has been known to say that if a QB running his offense gets sacked, it's the quarterback's fault. That's probably a little overstated for effect, but the point is that the offense is designed for a mobile quarterback who makes quick and accurate reads and gets the ball out fast. That's Trubisky. Having said that, North Carolina looks likely to start this week's game with only 2 of the 5 offensive linemen they expected to be starting at the beginning of the year, and some of the substitutes, while talented, are young and/or raw, and have been exposed against strong defensive lines. If I were coaching the Virginia defense, that's what I'd target first. I'd throw every twist and stunt I could think of at the line and make them show they can handle it before I started blitzing a lot. If they struggle, then UVa can use its personnel to narrow the windows Trubisky has to throw through and/or come up in run support as needed.
STL: Both of our teams are giving up over 400 yards of offense per game. Where is North Carolina most vulnerable, and who are some players we should know defensively?
JE: Even a casual Carolina fan will tell you the #1 issue is with the run defense. With the notable exception of the Miami game, where there was really only one major running play given up the whole game, teams have just gashed the Tar Heel front on the ground, and I expect Virginia to try to do the same, even though that's not their primary strength. The other thing the defense has struggled with is coverage plays by the linebackers, who have often missed assignments or been late to assignments on tight ends and running backs in the passing game, so expect the Cavaliers to test that. Adding to the problem there is that starting MLB Andre Smith will miss the first half due to an, ahem, questionable targeting penalty called in the Miami game.
Players to watch include Nazair Jones, a defensive tackle, and MJ Stewart and Des Lawrence, both cornerbacks. All three are likely to be NFL players and are the strength of the North Carolina defense. Most of the rest of the defense consists of relatively young players who are improving but not at that same level. Mikey Bart is an underrated player at end. You'll also see a lot of names of young freshman players you don't recognize -- Jalen Dalton, Myles Dorn, Patrice Rene and others -- this is simply a very young defense that's got some growing up to do.
STL: Talk to me about special teams. How is your return team, punting, etc. (we know that Nick Weiler can hit clutch FGs)?
JE: To date, excellent. We haven't had a Ryan Switzer punt return for a touchdown yet (one was called back), but he's still arguably the best punt returner in the country. Weiler is an excellent kicker, as you've noted, although no one wants to push their luck on making 50+ yard kicks in a college game no matter who their kicker is. Tom Sheldon, a 27-year-old Australian freshman, has been a real find and has a knack for making punts almost unreturnable because of direction and hang time. Other than the wildcard introduced by the fact that we've lost Mack Hollins, this is an area of strength for the Tar Heels.
STL: What's your take on the UNC basketball team, and where do you think they finish the regular season in the ACC? Who will be the biggest breakout player for y'all this year?
JE: The curse of being a North Carolina football fan is that there's always a basketball question right around the corner! Honestly, I pay very little attention to basketball until the football regular season is done, so take my thoughts here for what they're worth. My suspicion is that the Tar Heel basketball team will be better than most people think. People focus on the loss of Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, and understandably so, because they were our 2 best players and Paige was the unquestioned leader of that team. But most of players on a team that was in the title game come back, and we will be ready to plug in players with meaningful experience in big games. We won't be reliant upon a true freshman being ready immediately in order to compete. I think most people will think of Duke as the most talented team and therefore the preseason pick to win the ACC, but I expect UNC (and Virginia) to be among the teams that can threaten them. In terms of breakout players, the temptation is to pick out one of the freshmen, but I'll go with Kenny Williams, who came in with a reputation as a great shooter but so far has shown more flashes as a potentially elite defender. If the defense continues and he finds his shot, he could become a major contributor instead of a role player.
Thanks again to Jay and the Tar Heel Blog. Stay with Streaking the Lawn for all your Virginia needs, and make sure to catch the game Saturday, 3pm (NOT 3:30), on the ACC Network.