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Georgia Tech Football: North Carolina Q&A

Tar Heel Blog's Brian Barbour answers questions about North Carolina and the upcoming game with the Yellow Jackets on Saturday night.

Jonathan Daniel

FTRS: It's been pretty well known that UNC has struggled heavily this season on defense.  What have the main problems been, and is it something that is fixable this season?

BB: If it were just one thing, then maybe it would be fixable or at least there would be some ability to mitigate it. Unfortunately there are a myriad of issues and very few of them solvable with the current personnel. One problem is blown assignments on plays. There have been breakdowns that are so inexplicable you would think this was a high school team. The most infamous to date is permitting two Clemson wide receivers run free down the right side of the field with no safety help or corner coverage at all. Breakdowns leading to open receivers with no one within 10-15 yards are not uncommon and point to players not executing the scheme properly. Missed tackles have been an issue though that improved versus Clemson and was so-so in the games against Virginia Tech and Notre Dame.

The crux of the problem is the lack of a defensive line that can hold the trenches, control the run game and get pressure on the quarter back. Because UNC can't do that with the line it means calling more blitzes to accomplish some of these tasks. Calling blitzes means more man coverage in the passing game which usually ends badly. The flip side is when there is no pressure, the opposing QB has all day to pick the secondary apart. It is a pick your poison scenario. UNC doesn't do any one thing well on defense which makes it difficult to compensate for weaknesses. Now the Heels face a triple-option attack no one wearing Carolina blue has yet to contain save for Paul Johnson's first season in Atlanta.

FTRS: Is this season a lost cause to Tar Heel fans, or is there some hope they can turn things around?

BB: As Jimmy Ruffin once sang, "I've Passed This Way Before." UNC got off to a 1-5 start last season then won 6-7 to finish 7-6 and get "this team has momentum" for 2014 which led to UNC being ranked. The problem with repeating that scenario is the defense isn't just bad, it's historically bad. Last season's 1-5 start had just one really bad loss and that was to ECU. The others included losing South Carolina, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Miami all while holding those teams to 28 points or less. In two of those games UNC lost by a single possession. So despite being 1-5, UNC showed they could keep opposing teams from scoring and if the offense came around things would be fine. That happened thanks to a lighter back half schedule.

This season the schedule down the stretch is tougher with Georgia Tech, road games at Virginia, Duke and Miami plus Pitt and NC State at home. There isn't a lock to win anywhere in that group of games and only two that could be characterized as winnable. In that respect, UNC fans will start hoping when the team wins a game that warrants said hope.

FTRS: Georgia Tech has won the last five meetings in this matchup and have moved the ball pretty well against UNC lately. What is the general consensus in Chapel Hill that the Tar Heels will be able to slow down the Yellow Jackets offense in this one?

BB: The general belief is UNC will continue to struggle against the Yellow Jacket offense. Larry Fedora is preaching assignment football this week but it's also not a secret that stopping the triple-option requires discipline and defenders sticking to their assignment. UNC did a better job with this last season compared to the past but with the propensity for players on this year's squad to blow assignments and miss tackles, optimism is a tough sell.

FTRS: Even though the defense has been bad, the offense has seemed to hold its own so far this season. What have they done well so far, and who are the three players Yellow Jackets fans should look out for on Saturday night?

BB: The best part of the offense has been Marquise Williams who put on an absolute show against Notre Dame throwing for 303 yards, running for 132 and even catching a touchdown pass. After five games where Larry Fedora tinkered with using Mitch Trubisky on random possessions, Saturday was the first time Williams was given the keys to the offense for the whole game this season. It was also clear the offensive game plan was designed to let Williams use his legs while giving him workable looks in the passing game. How much that continues in this game remains to be seen. The UNC rushing attack, after getting 71 yards from freshman Elijah Hood against Clemson has been dormant. Williams has constituted the bulk of the rushing attack in the past two games with 37 rushing attempts in two games. At some point UNC needs production from the actual running backs and Hood would be the best bet to provide that assuming the offensive line can block.

In the receiving corps, walk-on Mack Hollins has been a tremendous revelation in Chapel Hill. Hollins is a speedster who continues to have a huge impact in the passing game. Hollins is averaging 18 yards per reception and has four touchdowns on the season. He leads UNC with 25+ yard receptions with five and the longest TD reception of the year, 91 yards against San Diego St.

Ryan Switzer is worth a mention, not so much for what he's done, but for the fact he is bound to have a breakout game at some point this season. Switzer has been bottled up on punt returns this season after running five back for a touchdown last year. Within the offense there have been flashes, like a 75-yard touchdown reception off a tunnel screen against Clemson. However Switzer has yet to put together that big game.

FTRS: It's a primetime game on Saturday, and Chapel Hill is usually not a very easy place to play for opponents. Do you expect the crowd to still be up to standards despite the rough stretch to start the season?

BB: Crowd will be worth watching. The stadium wasn't full for UNC's 8 PM game against San Diego State which was a "Stripe Out" game and got plenty of marketing. UNC is also on fall break so that could impact student attendance which is generally very good.

FTRS: Do you believe defensive coordinator Dan Disch is on the hot seat and could potentially be fired during the season?

BB: The defensive staff is tough to figure out because while Disch is the defensive coordinator, Vic Koenning is the associate head coach for defense and essentially in charge. There is also weird history here. In 2009, Disch was the co-defensive coordinator at Illinois for what ended up being a pretty bad defense(95th in yards per play allowed.) Ron Zook demoted Disch to linebackers coach and brought in Vic Koenning to be DC in 2010. The defense improved and by 2011, Disch was the defensive coordinator at Southern Miss under Fedora while Illinois was a top ten defense under Koenning. Not for nothing, Southern Miss was actually 10th in yards per play allowed in 2011 while Illinois was sixth.

Anyways, when Fedora came to Chapel Hill he brought Disch along with him and hired Koenning which created an odd and possibly awkward pairing of a coach who had once been demoted with the coach who was hired to replace him. At any rate, the product on the field has never been great defensively though the first two years, UNC was still living on Butch Davis defensive line recruits. Now those players have moved on and Fedora is operating with "his guys" things are getting dicey. The personnel is an issue and solving that under NCAA sanctions is always problematic. Do the sanctions buy the whole staff extra time or does Fedora look to make changes after this season to get more immediate results out of the defense? I have to think the latter will be true since historical futility usually results in some sort of significant change, even if it is to appease the fans.