For this week’s Q&A, I spoke with Jay Exum of Tar Heel Blog. His responses to my questions are below, and you can catch my interview with him over at their blog.
1. After a season-opening loss to what is apparently a very bad UGA team, UNC seems to have more or less hit its stride at 6-2 with some close wins. How have you seen this team grow over the course of the season? Is there a specific position group that has contributed to this?
Yes, that Georgia game gets more annoying as the season goes on. It's very much like the opening loss to South Carolina last year. Like the South Carolina game, I think it was less that the team needed to grow than it was they just had a bad game that they'd probably win more often than not if they had another shot. But of course that's the beauty of football -- you get one shot a week. There does seem to have been some growth, though, on the defensive side of the football. The rap on UNC's defense is they lack talent in the front 7. I don't think that's entirely fair or accurate. It's closer to correct to say that the talent they have in the front 7 is inexperienced and/or injured. As players have begun to come off of injury (it's anticipated that senior defensive end Dajuan Drennon will be truly ready to play for the first time all season this weekend) and the younger talent has begun to gain experience, there's been a not-coincidental improvement in their performance, particularly against the run. There's still some skepticism about whether that improvement is real or a result of playing weaker running teams recently, so the Georgia Tech game will be a really good litmus test of whether the progress of the run defense is real. If the Tar Heels are able to contain the flexbone, it bodes very well for the remainder of this season and into next.
2. On a (I'm assuming) related note, Trubisky seems to be doing a wonderful job filling the shoes 12-year (I might be exaggerating) starter Marquise Williams left. What's the biggest difference between Williams and Trubisky?
Williams was a much bigger, stronger player and was an integral part of the run game. He was also a very emotional player and leader. That emotion would show up sometimes in erratic play -- you saw it take a very long time for him to settle down in the ACC title game last season. And although he had a pretty nice touch on deep throws, he could be maddeningly inconsistent in his accuracy. Trubisky is much more of an even-keeled guy. That has its pluses and minuses, but the plus side is that he's the same player every game. He is uncannily accurate, far moreso than Williams, and he can and will put the ball in a tight window that most college quarterbacks can't and shouldn't attempt. Trubisky is more mobile than he's given credit for. If you ignore him, he can burn you in the running game, but people skip by this because unlike Williams, it's not the strongest part of his game, and he isn't built to take a lot of hits. He's used as a runner far more selectively. One last thing that I'll say is an important difference: Last season, everyone knew that if Marquise went down, Trubisky was ready. The offense could afford to take more risks with Williams for this reason. If Trubisky goes down this season, it's a much iffier proposition that I don't even want to think about.
3. What position matchup against Georgia Tech gives you the most concern on either side of the ball?
I'll just say it outright. Maybe you get this a lot, but I'm guessing it may be stronger than UNC than it is for most. I hate playing Georgia Tech. It's not a matter of position matchups. It's that offense. It scares me to death, every time (as well it should, since we're 3-5 against it). Sure, there are personnel matchups (and for purposes of answering your question, I'll go with the Tech offensive line against the North Carolina defensive line), but no matter how the lineups get shuffled it's always the same fear. At the end of the day, Georgia Tech's offensive strength is going up against what has been North Carolina's defensive weakness. I have been at Kenan watching this play out before, and when it becomes apparent that the only hope to stop the flexbone is getting a turnover, it's bad, bad times.
4. UNC is well-known for their HUNH offense under Fedora, but can you give me a couple defensive players we should keep our eye out for this weekend? Who do you think will have the most impact in stopping the flexbone?
One note on the HUNH: you're not wrong, but you're not as right as you would have been a couple of years ago. The "NH" is still there, but the hurry up is only there when Fedora thinks it's a tactical advantage. The team has gotten proficient at playing at multiple speeds, and I think it's been an improvement. Regarding defense, UNC's stars are defensive tackle Nazair Jones and cornerbacks MJ Stewart and Des Lawrence. All are likely to play in the NFL. As I mentioned before, Dajuan Drennon may return in a meaningful way for the first time all season, and before his injury he was expected to be a major contributor, but who knows what we'll see. There are also some very talented underclassmen on the defensive line that will have a big impact: Aaron Crawford, Marlon Dunlap, Jalen Dalton, and Jeremiah Clarke will all get meaningful snaps. As always with defending the flexbone, it's hard to put the focus on a particular player because every one of them has to do their thing or you're at risk of a big play (which is of course precisely the design of the offense). Jones will be key in stopping the dive, which is mission 1 in slowing down the 'bone, but here's my least favorite experience as a fan opposing Georgia Tech: after a series of running plays work, the corner gets distracted from his assignment by trying to help in run support, whereupon a Yellow Jacket wide receiver ends up open by 20 yards. I really, really don't want to revisit that again.
5. The Heels are currently the Coastal frontrunners, do you predict an appearance in Orlando for the ACCCG for the second year in a row?
Well, yes and no. If UNC and Virginia Tech both win the rest of their games, Virginia Tech wins the Coastal by tiebreaker, so even though we have the same number of losses, they're the leaders until something changes (go Duke! Wait. Was that out loud?). I think the chances of the Tar Heels getting back are no better than 50-50. I expect the Tar Heels to be favored against all of their remaining opponents, but none of them is anything like a slam dunk. Fortunately, more or less the same is true of Virginia Tech. But because VT has slightly more room for error, I'd give them the edge at this point.
6. For those of us who may be traveling to Chapel Hill this weekend, where should we eat and drink before/after the game?
For most of my adult life the answer to that question would have been Pepper's Pizza, every time. Alas, Pepper's is no more. Arguably the most "in" place in Chapel Hill is Top of the Hill (people call it "TOPO") which has great food and its own brewery and distillery. It's also in the heart of Franklin Street. If you plan to go on gameday, though, you should expect long lines and a packed house. If you're interested in more high-end dining, bin 54 is a great place to grab a steak. There are really a lot more good dining options in Chapel Hill than there once were.
7. And finally, what's your official score prediction for the game? How do you see it playing out?
The last spread I saw on the game was UNC -10.5. I think that's too many points. I can't pick against the Tar Heels as a home favorite, though, so I'll go with something like 34-28, Tar Heels.
Thanks again to Jay for taking the time to answer my questions. Be sure to stop by Tar Heel Blog later for my responses and give the lovely people over there a hello. Go Jackets!