AN OPPOSING VIEW
Andrew Carter, who covers the North Carolina Tar Heels for the News & Observer in Raleigh, is an award-winning reporter. We say that all the time when we ask reporters to do “An Opposing View” for us. But in Carter’s case, it’s actually true.
Carter won the 2013 Associated Press Sports Editors (APSE) contest for Beat Writing in the 75,001-175,000 circulation category. That’s a big deal, folks. He’s probably won some more plaques here and there, but let’s just go with that one and be done with it.
You can judge Carter’s work for yourself by following him on Twitter @_andrewcarter or just by visiting the UNC page on the News and Observer’s website. Right now, Carter has a terrific piece posted on North Carolina’s star tailback — and Eagle Scout — Elijah Hood. Be sure to give that a read if nothing else.
Now, onto some questions for Carter about the Tar Heels, who were 11-3 last season:
1. Obviously the Tar Heels’ offense was incredibly explosive last season. Do you believe the narrative that they’ll actually be more explosive this season under the direction of QB Mitch Trubisky? And is the confidence high versus Georgia’s young D?
Carter: “I do believe it, yes. Well. Check that. I should say I believe it’s possible for the Tar Heels to be better offensively. The potential is there for that to happen but turning that potential into reality, as the old cliché goes, is easier said than done. Last season UNC set school records for points and yards per game. There are two main reasons why Larry Fedora and his players believe the offense could be even better: First, basically everybody is back. UNC returns eight offensive starters, including four on the offensive line and basically all of the skill players at receiver and running back. And second, Mitch Trubisky is believed to be a better passing quarterback than his predecessor, Marquise Williams.
“That’s no knock on Williams, who was a very good, tough quarterback, and one who really had a knack for improvising and executing the read option. But he wasn’t known for his accuracy or touch, particularly on shorter and intermediate throws. Trubisky has proven he’s superior there, so I’d expect UNC to try to really take advantage of what he offers as a passer. That could, in turn, open things up in the running game, and even in the deep passing game, if defenses are playing receivers tighter in order to limit shorter passes. In short, the offense has a chance to really open up under Trubisky in a way we haven’t seen.
“As for the confidence level of UNC’s offense, it’s high. I’d say it even borders on a cocky kind of confidence. These guys know they’re good and they’re not afraid of any defense. That’s not to say there’s not respect for Georgia, and especially for Kirby Smart’s talent as a defensive coach. But entering Saturday, generating yards and points is least among UNC’s concerns. The Tar Heels scored at least 30 points 10 times last year. They put up 37 in a loss against Clemson in the ACC title game. Its worst offensive game, in the opener against South Carolina, it still averaged nearly 7 yards per play but committed three turnovers. UNC believes that if it doesn’t commit turnovers it can’t really be stopped. It has a good argument, too.”
2. The rushing yards allowed stat is pretty head-turning from UNC last season. Everybody around here wants to know how much improvement Gene Chizik’s D has made in that regard. Do you believe they’ll be markedly better against the run or is that still a vulnerability?
Carter: “Everybody around here wants to know that, too. I don’t think there’s any way to know at this point how much better these guys are and how much improvement is possible. It’s simply impossible to tell throughout the preseason, given the limited practice we’re allowed to see and lack of competition.
“I will say that all the reports are positive. UNC’s offensive players have raved about how far the defensive line has come, how much better it is, how much more creative and complex the defense is. We’ll see. I do think there’s something to that. Last year was Gene Chizik’s first as defensive coordinator. He kept things really basic, really simple. Rarely did UNC stray from its base defense.
“This season, with some experience behind them, the expectation is for the Tar Heels to mix things up defensively. We’re expecting to see different packages, different looks – some more creativity, really. That could mean more blitzes. It could mean some different alignments and movement at the line of scrimmage. If last year was the beginner’s course in Chizik’s defense, this year should be an intermediate or advanced version.
“Until proven otherwise, though, you’ve got to say the run defense is a weakness for UNC. I think Fedora and the coaches like what kind of talent they have coming up on the defensive line, but a lot of it is pretty young talent. Jalen Dalton, a sophomore who gained 40 pounds in the off-season, has moved to the inside after arriving as a defensive end. They’re high on him.
“Naz Jones, the other tackle, will need to have a big year. UNC is likely to be without one of its starting defensive ends, Dajuan Drennon, and that’s a big loss. Tyler Powell is a serviceable player who will fill that void, but behind him UNC has two 230-pound guys who figure to see some action on Saturday at defensive end. Probably not ideal.”
3. To that end, are the Tar Heels expecting a good-as-new Nick Chubb AND Sony Michel or they thinking they’re catching a break getting both those guys or at least one coming off injuries?
Carter: “I think they’re expecting to see both. They’re definitely expecting to see Chubb. I don’t think UNC doubted for one minute that he’d play. They’ve been preparing for him as if he’s healthy. I know Michel’s status is less certain, but I doubt that fact has influenced UNC’s preparation.
“The Tar Heels have to be expecting to see a lot of run and, why wouldn’t they? UNC’s defensive strength is in the secondary, it has a lot of questions among the front seven and Georgia has two of the most talented running backs in the country, their health questions notwithstanding.”
4. What’s the level of popularity for Larry Fedora in Chapel Hill? Are they ready to erect statues are waiting to see if he can sustain success? Or are they just waiting for basketball practice to start?
Carter: “I don’t think they’re ready to build any statues but there’s a portion of fans that is very, very fanatic about Fedora and believe he’s the one who can lead the Tar Heels out of their deep, dark football abyss. Last season was certainly a good start – 11 wins, a little bit of buzz at the end of the season with the College Football Playoff talk, an appearance in the ACC Championship game.
“There’s still so much to be done, though, in terms of establishing a football culture here. I don’t know if basketball schools exist anymore from an administrative/leadership standpoint. I don’t think there’s a Power 5 conference AD, anywhere, who believes that basketball is more important than football in terms of a school’s financial success.
“And yet, yeah – from the standpoint of fan interest, UNC is certainly still a basketball school. Even so, basketball attendance at the Smith Center isn’t quite what it once was. There were more than 5,000 empty seats for UNC’s basketball home opener last year – and that was with UNC ranked No. 1 in the country.
“I’m intrigued to see what the support will be for football this season. Season ticket sales haven’t been great, though the lackluster home schedule doesn’t help. Still, UNC has a long, long way to go to build the kind of atmosphere Fedora wants surrounding football. That, in the long run, could be the biggest obstacle in keeping him long term if he sustains success.”
5. What’s the level of excitement among the fan base for playing UGA in the Georgia Dome? Will they be coming to Atlanta in droves?
Carter: “I doubt it, honestly. I expect UNC to have a decent contingent in Atlanta. I also expect the Georgia Dome to be completely dominated by Georgia fans. Anything less than an 80-20 ratio – Georgia supporters to those in light blue – would really surprise me. It’s practically a home game for Georgia. UNC isn’t far, necessarily, and, again – there’s definitely a portion of the fans that are stoked beyond words for this. “Coming to Atlanta in droves” might be too strong of a way to put it, though I’ve been wrong before and will be again. Perhaps, even, about this.
“I’ll say Georgia wins 34-31. I think UNC should win. The Tar Heels have to show me they can keep a team from running all over them, though. Plus, UNC hasn’t won a game like this in a long, long time. That said, I wouldn’t be surprised in the least by a UNC victory. But before picking the Tar Heels in a game like this, they have to show they can do it. They haven’t. Which is why Georgia is the pick until proven otherwise.”