The No. 23 Tar Heels take to the gridiron for their season opener Saturday when they welcome a FCS opponent in the form of the Liberty Flames to Chapel Hill.
UNC finished 2013 on a roll, winning six out of its last seven games with an emphatic Belk Bowl victory over Cincinnati to conclude the campaign. The Tar Heels will be looking to continue the momentum and get off to a better start than a year ago, when Carolina stumbled to a 1-5 record out of the gates.
Meanwhile, Liberty also comes into the 2014 season with some positive vibes. The Flames were clicking on all cylinders in the closing stages a year ago, emerging victorious in the final five contests.
Carolina’s starting signal caller remains unknown, but in truth, it’s irrelevant. If you believe head coach Larry Fedora’s opinion that he has confidence that he can win with either guy, it doesn’t much matter who gets the start. The Tar Heels are privileged to have two dynamic, dual-threat quarterbacks at their disposal who both fit perfectly into the offensive system. What’s more, with the vast array of playmakers, including receivers like the elusive Ryan Switzer, athletic Bug Howard and reliable Quinshad Davis, both Marquise Williams and Mitch Trubisky are sure to have plenty of options to work with. The even scarier aspect of this prolific UNC attack lies in the backfield. By far the Tar Heels’ deepest position, the running back slot is locked and loaded. With versatile rushers like Romar Morris, T.J. Logan and top recruit Elijah Hood, the Carolina ground game should be in good hands. The only question mark for this side of the ball is up front. How will the young, inexperienced linemen fare?
As for the Flames, their offense got rolling last season, scoring the second most points in program history with 447 points, good enough to rank second in the Big South. The effectiveness of the unit is thanks to the leadership of junior Josh Woodrum at quarterback. Entering his third season as the starter, Woodrum is an accurate passer and exceptional field general. It remains to be seen how he will react to the step up in defensive competition he will be facing Saturday, but head coach Turner Gill says the guy is a fearless competitor. What really hurts Liberty is the loss of their leading rusher from 2013. Desmond Rice has been lost for the season due to injury. Replacing Rice will be difficult for the Flames, and if they are unable to establish something off the ground, it could be a rough day of third and long situations.
This is where it gets interesting and, well, dicey for the Tar Heels. With the suspensions resulting from an off-the-field incident, two starting cornerbacks in Des Lawrence and Brian Walker will be out for the opening game. UNC’s depth in the secondary will be severely challenged and could be exposed if Liberty signal caller Woodrum is able to get comfortable in the pocket. We know the linebacker positions are solid for the Tar Heels. Bandit Norkeithus Otis and Jeff Schoettmer are the two biggest defensive leaders and aren’t afraid to be aggressive, delivering punishing blows on opposing offenses. But the real key for the Carolina defense is whether the young line can apply pressure and create havoc in the Flames’ backfield. Carolina is likely to start two freshmen in Dajuan Drennon and Nazair Jones. That’s a scary proposition, but if the pair are playing as well as the preseason chatter suggests, Carolina may surprise some people on this side of the ball. We know they’ve got a chip on their shoulder with something to prove. Luckily for the group, the going likely won’t be too tough in the opener.
Liberty’s strength lies on the defensive end of things. The Flames led the Big South and ranked No. 5 in the entire FCS in scoring defense a year ago, surrendering a meager 17.6 points per game. In fact, in just two seasons under Coach Gill, Liberty has held 12 opponents in 23 games to less than 20 points. That’s impressive stuff. Senior cornerback Kenny Scott, one tackle shy of 100 for his career, anchors the Flames’ secondary and figures to mix things up well with UNC’s receivers. But as a whole, the step up in competition against the warp-speed playing style of the Tar Heels threatens to be too much for the unit to overcome through four quarters.
Liberty is no pushover. Coach Gill will have his team fired up and ready to go. But as Coach Gill also said, this contest is a measuring stick for his program. And with the explosiveness and athleticism they are destined to encounter on the road under the lights in Kenan Stadium, the Flames will witness the large gap between FCS and FBS competition. Four quarters is a lot of football, especially while shouldering a distinct talent deficit. The Tar Heels will roll.
UNC 52 , Liberty 17
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