Here’s a little segment we here at Spur of the Moment like to call – Behind Enemy Lines.
You want to know what’s going on in a football program on with a team, don’t ask the players and certainly don’t question the head coach. If they know anything, they certainly are talking about it.
To get the scoop you have to talk to the beat writer and few are better in the country than The Raleigh News & Observer’s North Carolina beat writer Andrew Carter. (Ironically, we tried to hire young Mr. Carter to write for us a few years back and now this is his opportunity.)
— Andrew Carter (@_andrewcarter) August 28, 2013
Andrew has great blog on the N&O website called UNCNOW: http://blogs.newsobserver.com/uncnow
And of course you can follow him on Twitter @_andrewcarter.
— Andrew Carter (@_andrewcarter) August 28, 2013
Without any further delay, here’s what we asked the very talented Mr. Carter about Thursday night’s match-up between North Carolina and South Carolina.
Q: You look at UNC last year and they very easily could have been 10-2 or 11-1, losing three games by a total of nine points. They also could have been 6-6, had some bounces not gone their way. Was 8-4 a fair record for them or is 11-1 or 6-6 a better representation of what they really were on the field?
Carter: “I think 8-4 was about right last season. They might not have arrived at that record in a conventional way – the losses against Wake Forest and Duke were bad losses, aided by fourth-quarter defensive collapses – but I bet Larry Fedora and his staff would have taken 8-4 at the start of last season.
But yeah – UNC had a chance to better than that, which is a testament to the job Fedora and the coaches did in year one. They inherited a program that had the life sucked out of it by NCAA sanctions and a prolonged NCAA investigation. There was talent last season, but the postseason ban basically made the season an exhibition.
To the Tar Heels’ credit, they didn’t play like the games were meaningless, though. They played with a lot of character and fight, and that had to be pleasing for the coaches. Long story short, the offense was good to very good throughout last season, and the defense was average to bad, at times.
Add it up and 8-4 is about right.”
Q: How will the departure of running back Giovani Bernard really affect this offense and what does A.J. Blue bring to the table?
Carter: “They’re not going to replace Bernard with one player and the good news is that they don’t have too. UNC has four running backs they really believe in: A.J. Blue and Romar Morris, who are the returnees, and freshmen Khris Francis and T.J. Logan, who’s hurt and might not travel to Columbia.
Blue entered the preseason atop the depth chart but he’s been bothered by a hamstring injury throughout the preseason. So Morris is likely to start. Morris is probably the better runner between those two guys, anyway, and is definitely the more polished receiver out of the backfield, which is an important role in this offense.
Morris is more of a speed back who can elude a defense, while Blue is a more powerful runner. They complement each other pretty well. Francis and Logan, who ran for 500-something yards and eight touchdowns in the state title game last year, both have a lot of potential.
Bernard will definitely be missed, though. He was a scoring threat any time he touched it. He didn’t really have a weakness to his game. Maybe durability, as he missed a couple of games last season. I think UNC really misses him in the passing game and on special teams. We’ll see how they fill those voids.”
Q: One of the most intriguing match-ups will be UNC left tackle James Hurst, a projected high NFL draft pick, against USC DE Jadeveon Clowney. How do you see that going and how will UNC mix up their protection to keep Clowney out of the backfield?
Carter: “That’s the million dollar question. Obviously, UNC is going to give Clowney some added attention. It’s impossible not to against a guy like that. But there’s only so much you can do. I’m guessing they’ll often move a tight end over to whichever side Clowney is on, and help out that way. I think UNC will also try to go away from Clowney as much as possible – try to shift the pocket away from him, not run at him and all that kind of thing.
But, again, there’s only so much you can do. UNC knows he’s going to get his plays. The Tar Heels’ hope is that they somehow minimize Clowney’s opportunities to make plays, and that those plays he does make aren’t of the game-changing variety (like, say, that one hit against Michigan).”
Q: Obviously, UNC QB Bryn Renner is one of the top QBs in the nation, but there are some critics, who would argue that he’s a system quarterback. What’s your take on Renner?
Carter: “My take is I’m a bit surprised that he doesn’t get more due. He threw for about 3,300 yards and 28 touchdowns and seven interceptions last year. That’s pretty good for being in the first year of a completely new offense.
I hear the system quarterback thing too, sometimes, and whoever plays in Fedora’s offense is going to get some of that, I guess. It’s a fast-paced offense and quarterbacks are going to have a chance to put up numbers. But Renner did well in the pro-style offense his sophomore year, too, when he threw for more than 3,000 yards and 26 touchdowns. He also threw 13 interceptions that year, and he cut that number almost in half last year.
The big focus for Renner in the off-season was making better decisions. He’s had issues in the past with trying to force throws into coverage. It didn’t always come back to bite him last season, but that’s something he’s been trying to work on. That and being a leader. He knows he had a good year last year but he doesn’t think it was good enough.”
Q: UNC was banned from post-season play in 2012 and lost scholarships because of multiple NCAA violations. Are there any lingering effects from the NCAA penalties and will this team be more energized now that it can compete for an ACC title?
Carter: “No lingering effects. As far as Fedora and his players are concerned, the NCAA problems are long gone. As is the hangover that came with them. The program is still feeling the effects because of scholarship cuts, which were a part of the penalties, but the NCAA issues are a thing of the past for the players and coaches.
The postseason ban hurt UNC last season, and it hurt more because the Tar Heels would have played in the ACC championship game. I think it’d be a little overdramatic to say UNC is a lot more energized this season because it knows it can play in the postseason but, obviously, the guys are aware of it. It has to be nice going into a season when you know the games count more.”
Q: The defense lost several of their top defensive players from 2012, including first-round pick Sylvester Williams. Will this group be better this season?
Carter: “This is Vic Koenning’s defense. I think there are four defensive coaches with “defensive coordinator” in their titles. Koenning runs the show, though Disch, who was Fedora’s DC at Southern Miss, is certainly very involved, as well.
UNC lost its two best defensive players but the good news is that most everybody else is back from last season, including all the key players in the secondary. I don’t know if that’s good or not yet given the way they struggled at times in pass defense.
Koenning and Fedora have insisted that the defense knows the scheme a lot better than it did last season. They’re hoping that leads to improvement, and it’s not unreasonable to expect that it will. In his history as a defensive coordinator at Clemson and Illinois, Koenning’s defenses have shown vast improvement from year one to year two of his leadership.
The real key for UNC might be health. The first line of the depth chart is good enough – not great – but good enough to comprise a decent unit. The talent and experience level falls off quickly, though. As much as anything, injuries really hurt UNC’s defense last year.”
Q: Give me one or two keys for the Tar Heels, if they’re going to come into Williams-Brice Stadium Thursday night leave with a victory?
Carter: “First and most important, to me, they have to take advantage of scoring chances, and score touchdowns and not settle for field goals. UNC converted about 62 percent of its red-zone trips into touchdowns last year, and that kind of efficiency won’t get the job done on Thursday. I think UNC will have some scoring chances. The question is whether the Tar Heels can turn those into touchdowns.
Then there’s all the regular stuff any coach would say: avoid turnovers. Don’t succumb to mental mistakes.
Defensively, UNC is going to have to come up with some quick stops. I don’t think the Tar Heels can afford to let the Gamecocks to control the clock. The more South Carolina does that, the less effective UNC’s offense will be in terms of trying to wear down the defense.”