Last week’s tight 17-13 loss to South Carolina let a national audience see some of the rust the UNC football team had left over from the offseason. But in a surprise to most of the Chapel Hill faithful, it wasn’t the defense that was the problem.
Heading into Saturday night’s home opener at Kenan Stadium, it remains to be seen if the new-look group can continue its strong play under first-year coordinator Gene Chizik–as they welcome a North Carolina A&T team with an explosive offense capable of turning some heads.
While the Tar Heels come into the game at 0-1, the Aggies began their campaign 1-0, fresh off a 61-7 blowout of Shaw last week, and a conference championship last year.
However, games that pit large power conference teams–like UNC–against smaller teams from the Football Championship Subdivision–like A&T–are typically viewed by fans and media members alike as easy victories.
For a coach, that mindset won’t get you very far–which is why Tar Heel head man Larry Fedora is doing everything he can to keep his tunnel-vision working at the start of the long grind that is the regular season.
“A lot will be said about how we approach this team,” Fedora said. “This team can beat us, just like any other team can beat us. And so it’s all about our attitude, and our mindset—the way we approach a football game.
“It should be no different than the way we approached the last one. And that’s what we’re striving for. Consistency.”
The Aggies’ head coach is Rod Broadway, a UNC alum currently in his fifth year at the helm in Greensboro. Leading the way for his team is junior running back Tarik Cohen, a 5-foot-6-inch speedster who’s dashed for an incredible 2,488 yards over the past two years—something Fedora is well aware of.
“Everybody’s gotta do their job. They gotta fit their gaps, they gotta do a great job of tackling because that guy can go,” he said about Cohen after Wednesday’s practice.
“He’s got great speed,” the coach added. “He can take it from goal line to goal line–I mean, on any play. So if you’re out of position, you don’t use the proper technique, you miss a tackle—he can take it the distance. He can burn you.”
Cohen made noise in the offseason when he starred in a viral video showing him catch passes while doing backflips simultaneously. He was even invited to appear on ESPN’s SportsCenter, where he performed the feat on live TV.
None of that, however, matters to Chizik. He wants his defense to focus on preventing big plays like the 48-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter by South Carolina’s Shon Carson, which Cohen could easily replicate.
“We call those catastrophic runs–and our goal every game is to have zero of those, obviously,” Chizik said. “That was the one that got away, and it was at a critical time in the game. We can’t take it back, but we can certainly learn from it.”
With it being the first go-round under Chizik’s regime, the game against South Carolina served as a measuring stick for the Tar Heel defense. Everyone that played UNC in 2014 scored at least 20 points. The Gamecocks managed to put up just 17.
But senior middle linebacker Jeff Schoettmer wasn’t completely satisfied with what he saw from his group.
“We didn’t get any turnovers,” Schoettmer said. “That’s huge, especially in a game at the beginning of the season. The team, usually, that forces more turnovers is the one that wins. They forced three, we didn’t get any. That was the big thing we took away.”
One thing that might help the defense out this weekend would be for the offense to perform up to the expectations they came into the year with. Putting North Carolina A&T in a hole to begin the game would give the Tar Heels some much-needed breathing room.
Junior wide receiver Bug Howard, who caught six passes for 114 yards and a touchdown last week, recognizes that fact—and isn’t afraid to tell it like it is.
“It’s basically their championship game,” Howard said about the Aggies. “So they’re gonna come in trying to win. We can’t take that lightly, we just gotta take their heart from them early.”http://chapelboro.com/featured/defensive-consistency-key-for-unc-against-north-carolina-at/
On the first day of training camp this past offseason, UNC senior quarterback Marquise Williams said his goal was to win the ACC Player of the Year award.
After his first start of the season strayed from the plan just a bit, Williams received an outpouring of support from an elite group of his peers—something that helped him get his mind, and his play, back on track heading into this week’s game against North Carolina A&T.
“Some great quarterbacks called me this past weekend, just to talk and tell me to move on,” Williams told reporters after practice on Tuesday. “I was excited, you know, just to hear from some of those guys. Those guys come back and they just tell you ‘Hey man, just play the game. Play the game the way you know how to play it.’”
Among those great signal-callers giving Williams some wisdom were the last two Tar Heel starters at the position, Bryn Renner and T.J. Yates. Both of those players have spent time at the professional level, but another quarterback who spent time talking with Williams is someone who has, in recent years, given Williams a job at his summer Passing Camps as a counselor.
He also happens to be one of the best to ever do it.
“And that’s Peyton Manning,” Williams said. “He gave me a text and told me to give him a call, and I did.
“I felt like it was over, man (after the loss). And it just felt like [I’d] lost everything. But when I [made] that call it was just like, man I’m back at it.”
During the twenty minutes the two spent on the phone, Manning asked Williams if he knew who holds the record for most interceptions (28) thrown by an NFL rookie.
“I’d assume that’s you,” Williams told the future Hall-of-Famer.
“You’re right, I still hold that record,” Manning replied.
That kind of reassurance is invaluable for a college player, especially coming from someone who’s not only seen it all over the years—but also a man who’s thrown plenty of crucial picks in big moments, coming away stronger each time.
If Williams follows Manning and the other quarterbacks’ advice and plays “his game”, then there may be a little bit more running in his future. He talked during training camp about making more of an effort to protect his body, but both of his back-breaking interceptions in the end zone against South Carolina came as a result of hesitation.
“There was times I wanted to run, but I didn’t—and I forced it,” Williams said. “I just gotta go out and play my game. Those guys, like they called me and said, ‘Just go play your game man, do what you were taught to do, and what you’ve been learning how to do.’”
It’s worth noting that Manning, Renner, and Yates can each relate to Williams in their own ways, something UNC head coach Larry Fedora is extremely appreciative of.
“That’s gotta be a tremendous help,” Fedora said. “I can only say so much, I didn’t play the position. That position is pretty special.”
He then pointed out the toughest aspect of being a quarterback, which Williams is dealing with right now–saying, “You get too much credit when you win, and too much blame when you lose.”
In his role as a leader of the team, Williams’ mood is something that can trickle down to the rest of the players. Other great quarterbacks know that struggle, which is what made them reach out to Williams.
Williams may end up on the other side of the phone one day, helping some young fresh-faced Tar Heel quarterback facing the same issues—which is why his coach wants to make one thing clear.
“He’s got a lot of respect out there, he’s got a lot of respect on this football team,” Fedora said. “He just didn’t play as well as he wanted to the other night. It happens.”http://chapelboro.com/featured/from-manning-to-marquise-uncs-quarterback-gets-a-much-needed-pep-talk/
During UNC’s heartbreaking 17-13 loss to South Carolina last Thursday there was one player notably missing from the Tar Heels’ final seven offensive plays—sophomore running back Elijah Hood.
Head Coach Larry Fedora gambled unsuccessfully late in the game, sacrificing Hood’s power running to try and keep the Gamecock defense off balance with his fast paced no-huddle attack.
On a night where he burst for a career-high 138 yards on the ground, Hood proved to the South Carolina defense that he had no issues running through any of them. He was making it look like child’s play.
For that reason, Tar Heel fans have questioned Fedora’s decision to keep Hood on the sideline as quarterback Marquise Williams threw an interception that ended up sealing UNC’s fate.
“The plays that were called were called because that’s what we prepared [for] in that situation, and we felt like they would be successful,” Fedora said at Monday’s weekly press conference. “We didn’t execute the play that was called.”
“If I knew right now that those plays would not have been successful I would not have run them,” he added. “I promise you.”
At the start of the Tar Heels’ last drive Hood was the tailback on the field. With the team facing 3rd-and-1 from its own 48 yard line, he exploded for a crucial 29-yard gain.
He would not play again the rest of the night–although it appeared at one point the coaches had to keep him from putting himself back out there.
“I had thought I’d been called in, but I guess I just misheard that,” Hood said. “I think it was just the tempo we were running. And there was a certain play called in. So they were just gonna run with what they had–and that was gonna be it.”
Fedora said that the team shifted into its hurry-up offense, which requires the team to quickly get to the ball and start the next play. Using this strategy means that the team can’t substitute without allowing the defense to also do so. The goal was to simply tire the Gamecocks out, while hoping Williams could get into a rhythm throwing the ball.
“If I could do it over, I’d do a lot of things differently,” Fedora said. “But I don’t get the option to do that. That’s the great things that you guys get to do that we don’t. Sure, you could say we had 60-something plays, we could have handed it to Elijah 60-something plays.”
That may be true, but for the last seven plays of this game Hood could only watch as his team failed to come up clutch. He remained on the sidelines despite being the Tar Heels’ only real offensive threat the entire second half—putting up all but 20 of his 138 yards in the final two quarters, including three runs of over 20 yards.
“I just felt a sense of urgency on every play,” Hood said about his second half performance. “It felt like I needed to score every play. So, I don’t know. I just wanted it badly, every play. That’s the way I run.”
As he tries to put this tough loss behind him and turn his attention toward the rest of the season, Fedora is now keenly aware of just how dangerous Hood can be.
“You look at how productive he was in the game, you say ‘We wanna make sure we get the ball in his hands so many times a game,’” Fedora said. “If he’s healthy, and running well and productive, then we need to get the ball to him more. There’s no doubt.”
And should this late game scenario present itself again, Hood is ready to hear his name called–if that’s what the coaches decide is best for their team.
“There’s nothing like punching it in on a defense to take the air out of their lungs, for sure,” Hood said. “It’s something I’ve always done.
“Whenever it’s on the goal line, I’ve been the guy to get it in. No matter what.”http://chapelboro.com/featured/lesson-learned-give-elijah-hood-the-ball/
Marquise Williams will go to sleep with the image of South Carolina middle linebacker Skai Moore in his head.
Moore intercepted Williams two times in the end zone Thursday night–including on North Carolina’s final offensive play–as the Gamecocks took advantage of multiple missed chances by the Tar Heels on their way to a 17-13 victory at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.
“We had a lot of chances,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora said after the game. “We had a lot of missed opportunities offensively.
“I thought our defense did some good things,” he continued.”The only thing we didn’t do is create a takeaway. We had some opportunities on some balls on the ground and didn’t get to ’em. But we threw three picks, I think, in the red zone, and then turned it over on downs. I mean, that’s four turnovers offensively. You’re not gonna win any games [playing like that].”
For the second time in the past three seasons UNC has gotten off to an 0-1 start by way of a loss to the Gamecocks. South Carolina starts its season off 1-0, giving its head coach, Steve Spurrier, his 24th win in 26 career opening games.
In what can only be described as a shaky first outing, Williams completed 19 of his 31 passes for 232 yards, one touchdown, and three interceptions. The touchdown, and most of those yards–160 of them to be exact–came in the first half.
Faced with a third-and-goal situation late in the game, UNC needed to get the ball in the end zone. Instead, Williams was sacked on third down, and then threw an interception to Moore for the second time on the next play–all but sealing it for the Gamecocks.
“I gotta take care of the football when we in the score zone, Williams said. “It’s rookie mistakes that I shouldn’t have been doing tonight. And it came back to haunt us.
“Three times I made the same mistake,” he added. “It’ll haunt me for a minute, but I’ll have to bounce back strong.”
Sophomore running back Elijah Hood gave the Tar Heels a spark of life with multiple big runs in the second half, on his way to 138 yards on just 12 carries. But he did not see the field for the game’s final plays.
“It’s not my call,” Hood replied when asked if he thought he should have been more involved in crunch time. “Would I have liked to have been out there. I mean, sure. Anytime I’m out there, I’m trying to make a play.
“I feel like I trust the coaches. They felt like that personnel was best. So I was totally OK with it.”
Leading the way for South Carolina was senior tailback Shon Carson, whose 48-yard touchdown scamper in the fourth quarter provided the Gamecocks their only lead of the night–and the only one that mattered. For the night, Carson carried the ball just four times, but made the most of them, picking up 75 yards.
Early on, the Tar Heels appeared to be the better team–as the new-look Tar Heel defense impressed in its first game under new coordinator Gene Chizik. After refusing to allow South Carolina to pick up a yard on its first three plays, the momentum was clearly with the boys in baby blue.
Fresh-faced sophomore quarterback Connor Mitch struggled all night against the Tar Heels, going just 9-22 for 122 yards and a touchdown. But, unlike Williams, he did not turn the ball over.
Williams got the offense rolling on its first drive of the game, with the team picking up 58 yards on its way to the Gamecock 6-yard line. But then a pass headed for senior receiver Kendrick Singleton in the back of the end zone was picked off by Moore–foreshadowing for what was to come later on.
Then–after the first end zone interception–the UNC defense held strong again.
Offensive success continued, with Williams leading a lighting fast 91-yard touchdown drive on the team’s second possession. Bug Howard, the 6-foot-5-inch junior receiver, kicked it off with a 40-yard reception on the first play. He then punctuated things by catching a 21-yard bullet from Williams for the score, giving the Tar Heels the early lead.
Immediately, though, the Gamecocks responded with an 11-play scoring drive. Junior receiver Pharoh Cooper, a preseason All-SEC first team selection, caught a 9-yard touchdown from Mitch on a slant route across the middle to even the score at 7. The drive also took more than five minutes off the game clock, which helped give their defense some much-needed rest after showing clear signs of fatigue against the Tar Heels’ up-tempo offense.
The rest of the second quarter had the teams trading field goal attempts. UNC junior place-kicker Nick Weiler connected on a pair of attempts (47 yards and 38 yards), a pleasant sight for Tar Heel fans who watched their team fail to connect on any field goals longer than 30 yards in 2014. South Carolina’s Elliot Fry hit one from 25 yards to tie the game at 10, but missed short from 57 at the end of the half–allowing UNC to go into the locker room ahead 13-10.
From then on, the game unexpectedly slowed into a defensive battle with neither able to break through until Carson’s fourth quarter touchdown.
“We’ve gotta get a lot better,” Fedora said about his team. “It’s just not acceptable for what we have in returning starters on offense. It’s just not acceptable”
A long week awaits the Tar Heels, as they’ll have a couple extra days to recover before hosting North Carolina A&T in their home opener next Saturday.
Two years ago the UNC football team opened its season with a disappointing 27-10 loss to the South Carolina Gamecocks in Columbia. On Thursday, the Tar Heels will get a chance at revenge when they collide with legendary Head Coach Steve Spurrier and the Gamecocks at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.
If there’s one thing that’s certain about the Tar Heels right now, it’s that they have a tremendous amount of respect for Spurrier and his teams.
UNC Head Coach Larry Fedora told reporters on Monday that Spurrier always has his teams prepared. Fedora’s quarterback, senior Marquise Williams, agreed–and has shown great enthusiasm about receiving his first shot at the college football Hall-of-Famer.
“You can always try to say [something] bad about the ‘Ol Ball Coach, but that’s one guy who knows how to win football games,” Williams said on Monday. “I’m excited just to be able to play my first game against Steve Spurrier and the South Carolina Gamecocks. And so is the rest of this team. It’s a great opportunity for us to go out and showcase our talent. It’s a showdown with the ACC vs. the SEC.”
Conveniently enough, new Tar Heel defensive coordinator Gene Chizik put together a 3-0 record against Spurrier’s Gamecocks during his time as an SEC head coach at Auburn. Having spent the last two years away from the sidelines, Chizik has had plenty of time to check up on his old rival.
“I think Coach Spurrier’s done a great job of staying true to all the things, philosophically and offensively, that he has always done,” Chizik said. “But I think what he’s done a great job of is really, he’s put some new things in there. He’s kinda evolved with the game a little bit with some new stuff. Back when they had [quarterback] Connor Shaw with the zone read, and the things he implemented that they’re still running now.”
This year’s South Carolina team will feature sophomore quarterback Connor Mitch, a local product out of Wakefield High School in Raleigh. Mitch will be making his first start in a career that has seen him throw just 6 passes to date.
Chizik’s defense will be looking to take advantage of that inexperience, says the Tar Heels’ senior middle linebacker, Jeff Schoettmer.
“We’re looking to get after him,” Schoettmer said. “Any time you’ve got a young quarterback you want to make them throw into tight windows and make plays. Make him beat you. We’re gonna get after him with blitz schemes, and things like that, but it really boils down to how we execute.”
The biggest threat the Tar Heels will face is the Gamecocks’ explosive junior wide receiver Pharoah Cooper. Cooper caught 69 passes for 1,136 yards last season in Spurrier’s offense–on his way to first team All-SEC honors.
“He is obviously one of the best players in that league, for sure,” Chizik said. He’s one of the most competitive guys I’ve seen on film. That’s why you can expect him to be in so many different places doing so many different things. Whether it’s the wildcat scenario or whether they’re putting him out there and throwing the ball to him when the game is on the line. Coach Spurrier, you can tell, has a lot of confidence in him no matter what role he plays.”
Offensively, UNC brings back ten starters. They are expected to pose a challenge to not only the Gamecocks, but every defense they see this season. If the defense can show improvement, this year’s Tar Heels can compete with anyone.
But any struggles in the opener won’t have their head coach pressing the panic button just yet.
“It’s pretty important the way we come out on Thursday night, and the way we perform,” Fedora said after practice Monday. “But it doesn’t define our season. It gives us an idea of where we’re at. No matter what happens, we’ve still got a long season ahead of us.”
The game will be televised on ESPN and broadcast live on WCHL. Kickoff is currently set for 6:01 p.m. Thursday.
In just one week’s time the UNC football team will be in Charlotte for their season opener against South Carolina.
Under the lights at Bank of America Stadium and nationally televised on ESPN, the Tar Heel defense – led by senior linebackers Jeff Schoettmer and Shakeel Rashad – will have a prime opportunity to let the cameras capture their good side in the first game under new defensive coordinator Gene Chizik.
The complete overhaul of the team’s defense, which has carried on all throughout the offseason, has asked numerous players to take on different roles and positions as they learn Chizik’s new scheme. During that process, Head Coach Larry Fedora showered praise on his senior leaders for their efforts in trying to make the transition a success.
“There’s two guys right now, and that’s Jeff Schoettmer and Shakeel Rashad,” Fedora said recently at the team’s media day. “I mean, those guys right now, they’re giving everything they’ve got in what [Chizik] expects from them in practice, meetings, their mentalities–everything they’re doing.”
Although Chizik might be new in Chapel Hill, he’s not blind to the fact that there will be growing pains trying to turn around a defense that allowed more points per game than all but nine of the 128 NCAA Division I teams a year ago. Should this group run into struggles this season, he expects Schoettmer and Rashad to work together in order to find the solutions.
“Those guys have to be in a position when things aren’t going good to step up to the plate,” Chizik said after practice on Wednesday. “We’re gonna have some ups and downs in a game—just like we are the whole year. And that’s where they gotta step up to the plate and be the voice on the field.”
Having built a close relationship during their three years on campus together, Schoettmer and Rashad have certainly learned each other’s strengths and weaknesses. So when it comes to making the type of vocal impact on the team that Chizik is looking for, Schoettmer expects he and his buddy will each contribute in their own way.
“I think I’m more the vocal leader on the field, and he’s more the guy that rallies everyone together off the field,” Schoettmer says. “We kinda complement each other real well, in that sense.
“But he’s not afraid to speak up on the field as well. If he sees something from the sideline, he’s always the first one to come to me and point out ‘Hey Schoett, this is what they’re doing, this is what we need to be doing’, and I’m the guy that relays the message to the rest of the defense.”
As the middle linebacker, Schoettmer is the man who quarterbacks that side of the ball–something that’s always been his job in his time as a Tar Heel.
Rashad, on the other hand, has spent his offseason adjusting to a brand new role playing as a traditional outside linebacker after three years as a hybrid defensive end under the old coaching regime.
“It was a big change for me,” Rashad said. “I had to change my size and I had to change how I think in certain situations.”
After shedding 10 pounds, he and Schoettmer are now each listed at 6-foot-2-inches and 235 pounds–making them just about clones of one another. The only thing Rashad needs to be more like Schoettmer at this point is a long blonde mane atop his head–something that is highly unlikely to ever happen.
But so far he’s done exceptionally well with the position switch, saying that, “It’s been fairly smooth–with the guys like Jeff [Schoettmer] at linebacker helping me out, with our whole coaching staff helping me out, helping me learn it.
“A lot of people had to change positions. A lot of guys are learning new stuff, and everyone’s there to help out with it.”
Since last season concluded with a disappointing 40-21 loss to Rutgers in the bowl game, much of the talk about this football team has centered on its defensive shortcomings—something Schoettmer is itching to silence.
“For the past eight, nine months we’ve been hearing all the negative things about last year, and how bad we were as a defense,” Schoettmer said Wednesday. “So that’s kind of lit a fire underneath us. We understand that we’re a completely new defense.”
Rashad, who wears number 42 and sports the nickname “Shakkie Robinson” to match, is just as excited for this group to get started in its attempt at redemption next week.
“All over the locker room, all over the stadium, people are excited,” Rashad said about next week’s opener. “It’s a big game. We feel like we’ve got a lot to prove, and it’s a great stage to do it on. To come out and just say ‘Hey, North Carolina defense. We’re back.’ “http://chapelboro.com/featured/schoettmer-rashad-have-uncs-defense-ready-for-its-close-up/
They haven’t earned any nicknames yet, but if they carry their excellent play from training camp into the regular season, that may change in the very near future.
Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan are expected to give this year’s UNC football team an electric one-two punch at the running back position that could take this year’s offense to new heights.
While some offenses like to slow the tempo and hand the ball off to one running back all game long, UNC Head Coach Larry Fedora needs to constantly rotate in multiple backs due to the breakneck pace his teams play with.
But that’s not all that matters. With these two unique runners, defenses will always get different looks from the Tar Heel backfield.
“Well, there’s a size difference, a strength difference, a running style difference,” Fedora said. “One of ‘ems a big, physical, ‘pound you’ kind of guy, and the other one’s a slashing [back], got great speed—all those kind of things.”
The NFL’s Carolina Panthers, in recent years, have rotated (now-departed) speed back DeAngelo Williams with power back Jonathan Stewart. The two earned the nickname “Thunder and Lightning” as they found great success together for seven years.
Hood, a 6-foot 200 pound sophomore from the Panthers’ backyard in Charlotte, has shown plenty of people this summer which of those roles he’ll be in.
“I definitely can make some plays based off my physicality,” Hood told reporters after practice on Wednesday. “That first run in the scrimmage (an 80 yard touchdown run) was a pretty physical play. That’s how I broke it. Physicality’s definitely our thing this year—from an offensive and defensive standpoint.”
He came to Chapel Hill last year after being ranked number 47 on ESPN’s list of the top 300 high school prospects in the nation—and de-committed from Notre Dame before choosing UNC. However, injuries held Hood to just 67 carries in his debut season—which allowed the 5-foot-10-inch speedster, Logan, to take the reins as the team’s top running back for the second straight year.
With Hood healthy, Logan mentioned a goal they’ve set for themselves this season.
“We talk about getting at least 200 yards a game,” Logan said. “I feel like if we do that, the rest is just gonna come down to us just clicking as an offense, and on defense as well. So 200 yards for us, as a running back group, is where we need to be.”
Although no runner for the Tar Heels (outside of quarterback Marquise Williams) averaged more than 10 carries a game in 2014, Logan said that he hopes to get at least 15 per outing this season. Coach Fedora hasn’t made any promises there, but he has noticed one skill his best running backs have in common that could help them each get the ball a little more.
“It’s nice to have that punch, and that changeup–that not all the backs are exactly the same,” Fedora said. “One good thing is [Hood and Logan] both catch the ball very well. So that’s a big asset for us.”
The possibility of seeing either Logan or Hood get some time as a slot receiver is also something Fedora will not rule out.
“You could see anything,” Fedora said with a slight smirk on his face. “We’re gonna try to always put our good players on the field. We’ve got all kinds of things working, actually, right now.”
One thing is for certain about this year’s running backs. For that area of the offense to really show improvement, the quarterback can’t lead the team in rushing—something that has been the case the past 2 seasons. While Logan has talked about the importance of keeping Williams healthy–Hood is a little more matter of fact with his thoughts on the subject.
“Personally, as a running back I would hate that,” Hood said. “I would not want the quarterback to lead the team in rushing. I definitely think that should be a running back’s duty to lead the team in rushing. That’s why we’re the running backs.”
If everything goes according to plan this season, then all that chatter about the UNC football team playing too cute of a game should all be long gone. At the team’s Media Day on Wednesday, physicality was hailed as the potential savior of all things—from the top down.
As the football landscape, both in college and the professional ranks, gears itself more towards wide-open spread offenses—like UNC’s—hard-hitting smash-mouth defense has largely gone by the wayside.
New Tar Heel defensive coordinator Gene Chizik has come to Chapel Hill on a mission to change that.
“In this day and age, you can’t win games saying that ‘Well we play X amount of spread offenses, so we’re gonna finesse ’em and bring ’em down in space,”‘ Chizik said. “No, that’s part of being physical. That’s part of being in the right spots.
“Everything in this game is about physicality. I have never been around a good defense that’s not physical. Never.”
Many of last season’s woes have been attributed to defensive failures, as the team gave up 39 points per game—good enough to rank a whopping 119th out of 128 eligible Division I schools. It would be wrong, though, to assume that the players aren’t fully aware of that fact heading into this year.
“Nobody liked the results of last year any less than they do,” Chizik said about the group he’s inherited. “Nobody. No coaches, no media, no fans, nobody. They did not like the results either.
“So [the players] care enough to work every day to change them. They gotta play through the good times and the bad–and it always has to be consistent as we move. I think that’s really the message with them.
“We’re not playing any Dr. Phil games,” he added.
For Larry Fedora, the team’s offensive-minded head coach, that same approach can be taken on both sides of the ball even while playing out of the spread. It just has to show itself in a different way.
“When we evaluated what our problems were and all those things, we knew we had to establish ourselves running the football,” Fedora told reporters. “And so that was a point of emphasis, again, going into the part with being physical.”
It was the quarterback, Marquise Williams, who ended up leading the team in rushing a year ago. But in order to keep Williams and his surgically repaired hip healthy, it’ll be important to get a breakout year from sophomore running back Elijah Hood, who had close to 200 rushing yards in Sunday’s team scrimmage.
However, Williams won’t be afraid to repeat last year’s performance, if necessary.
“I mean, there’s still pass progressions. I’m on my ‘1, 2, 3, and down to my checkdown [receivers],” he said. “But if there’s nobody there, I’m still gonna take off. But, with the running backs we have, and the offensive lineman–how confident those guys are this year–we’re gonna move the ball in the running game.”
Ironically enough, if there’s one player who may need to tone his physicality down a little, it’s Williams.
In order for the Tar Heels to be at their strongest from September all the way through December, their signal-caller can’t be taking too many hard hits when he runs the ball.
“There was times [last year] where I could have protected myself, but I just wanted to be that hero,” Williams said, pausing for just a second afterwards. “Sometimes I shouldn’t be that hero. Sometimes I need to lay down.”
He continued on, saying, “I gotta be more smart this year and protect myself, because it’s not about me. It’s about my team–and those guys gonna need me.”
Fresh off its first full-team scrimmage on Sunday, the UNC football team resumed training camp Monday morning with a clearer picture starting to develop of this year’s Tar Heel roster.
And if there’s one thing that can be said for certain about this year’s team just six days into practice–it’s that the deep stable of wide receivers will be making noise in many different ways.
Depth is a key component in UNC Head Coach Larry Fedora’s high-tempo offense, and luckily for the Tar Heels, they have plenty of it flanking quarterback Marquise Williams.
Senior Quinshad Davis, along with juniors Bug Howard and Mack Hollins, give the team three targets outside the numbers standing at least 6-foot-4, with the other main pass-catcher being 5-foot-10 whirling dervish Ryan Switzer out of the slot. That kind of talent leads to some great battles in practice, Davis says.
“Shoot, we all considered number one [receivers],” Davis said after practice Monday. “I wouldn’t say nobody is better than the other. But I mean, we all push each other to the limit, because we all know its competition. We got each other breathing down each other’s back. All that does is make each one of us better.”
Williams, the man who gets to throw to all these freakishly athletic receivers, has noticed the same thing from his spot behind the line of scrimmage.
“Those guys have been running routes tremendously well,” Williams told reporters about the improvements he’s seen in his receivers. “Bug [Howard], Quinshad [Davis], and Mack [Hollins]—those are big receivers. They feel like if you throw the ball in their area, they gonna come down with it. And that’s what I love about them the most. They gonna compete for everything.”
Each of the Tar Heels’ top four receivers (Switzer, Davis, Howard, and Hollins) caught at least 35 passes and gained at least 450 yards last season, which may not seem like much, but it is when you consider that there’s only one ball to spread around.
However, there are other attributes that Coach Fedora appreciates about his experienced receivers.
“Quinshad Davis, Mack Hollins, I mean all those guys that have experience. They’re very vocal. And they have no problem being vocal—and leading,” Fedora said.
Although it often falls into the lap of the quarterback to talk a lot and keep the team loose, Williams is quick to point out that the receivers have that job locked down on this team.
“Mack, he’s one of the funniest guys,” Williams said. “He’s always gonna run his mouth. But that’s Mack, and we love that. We need that.
“Quinshad and Bug bring the energy,” he added. “Bug’s one of those guys that’s always dancing and thinking everything’s funny. That’s what you need around a team. You can’t have a dull moment. Like I was telling those guys today, ‘Y’all quiet like we at a funeral, man. Let’s have some fun ‘cause you don’t get this opportunity too many times’.”
On top of that, Howard often hosts dance competitions in the locker room to help ease tensions. But it’s not always fun and games. Sometimes, business gets in the way.
When it’s time to buckle down and focus on football, that’s where Davis, the senior, steps in.
“I mean, we joke and laugh around—but [we] know there’s a time to play and a time to be serious. So I just let the guys have fun and enjoy themselves, but I let ‘em know when it’s time to go, it’s time to go,” Davis said.
Asked what the receivers needed to improve on the most for 2015, Howard–definitely not a man lacking confidence–thought to himself for about ten seconds before conceding that he didn’t really know, outside of cleaning up a few simple errors.
Only time will tell if that’s true or not, but right now the Tar Heels’ receiving corps are feeling (really) good about themselves heading into the heart of training camp.
Wednesday is Media Day for the Tar Heels, so WCHL will be out there to cover all of the important (and not-so-important) things that happen out there. Coach Fedora will be holding a press conference during the proceedings.
Since Larry Fedora’s arrival as UNC’s head football coach in 2012, the Tar Heels have never struggled to score points. However, the results on the other side of the ball have been a bit shaky under the offensive guru.
So for 2015 Fedora landed his most talented recruit yet—a defensive coordinator by the name of Gene Chizik.
Just four days into training camp, Chizik has already made his mark on the team.
In 2005, Chizik was a co-defensive coordinator for Mack Brown’s national championship team at Texas. And then in 2010 as the head coach at Auburn, he picked up another national title led by quarterback Cam Newton.
From the first day Chizik stepped on campus, Coach Fedora and his team couldn’t help but show respect for him and his impressive resumé.
“Guys were excited,” Fedora said. “I mean, his reputation precedes him. So everybody, whether they had met him or not, they already knew what he had accomplished. That gave them a sense of confidence, and a swagger about them, from the very get-go. And I think that’s continued through to this point.”
Senior linebacker Jeff Schoettmer, who comes into the year as the team’s unquestioned leader on the defensive side of the ball, says Chizik is exactly what the doctor ordered for this particular team.
“His presence is just something that our team needed,” Schoettmer said after practice on Thursday. “The leadership he shows, the background, the experience that he has—it’s great for our team.
“The defense can learn a lot from him, but he helps the offense as well. He was a head coach at one point. He’s coached in national championships. He’s been there, he’s been to the highest level. So that experience and knowledge–and just the swag he brings to our defense–is really what we needed.”
Although he’s seen as the man who is supposed to clean up the mess left behind by last year’s squad, Chizik sees his challenge a little differently—especially with the switch in schemes from former coordinator Vic Koenning’s ‘4-2-5’ to a more conventional ‘4-3’, which uses three linebackers instead of two.
“I don’t think you can look at last year’s [film] and really compare,” Chizik said. “It’s just two different ideas totally. Not that one idea is right and one idea is wrong. They’re just different. So it’s comparing apples and oranges”
Listening to Chizik talk football is something that immediately captured his players’ attention, especially for Schoettmer—the quarterback of the defense.
“He’s very smart,” Schoettmer said. “He’s the most intelligent football mind I’ve been around in my life. In the time he’s been here, I’ve learned more about football—about the game, about what my role and responsibility is, about how to read the offense, how to read the lineman, how to read running backs, how to read routes and stuff. Just listening to him day in and day out, you can pick up something every day.”
But Chizik’s not just doing it with his words out on the practice field. So far during training camp, he’s also made his presence known just as much with his actions.
“He’s going around to each position group and coaching every one of them,” Schoettmer said. “He’s not just, you know, coaching the DB’s, or the linebackers, or the D-line. He’s bouncing around during practice and really coaching everybody. And his knowledge, and the confidence that he has and instills in us—it’s great.”
For all this talk, though, it’s still just the first week of camp.
Chizik has just under a month left to prepare for his debut against one of college football’s great offensive minds—Steve Spurrier and the South Carolina Gamecocks—in Charlotte on September 3rd.
WCHL will be back out at training camp with the Tar Heels next Monday, with a look at how the offense is progressing.