A lot of questions remain about Tar Heels defense

UNC Notebook

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North Carolina entered the 2017 football season with lots of questions on the offensive side of the ball offset by optimism about the ability of a more veteran defense to lead the way until the offense found its feet. But through two weeks, the young Carolina offense has been surprisingly productive while the defense has been disappointingly porous, giving up 35 and 47 points in losses to California and Louisville, respectively.

That the Tar Heels lost to Louisville and reigning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson was not especially surprising, but the seeming ease with which the Louisville offense was able to move the football (averaging a staggering 8.49 yards per play) was disappointing, particularly in light of the expectations for the Carolina defense coming into the season.

Both players and coaches blamed poor defensive communication in particular for the numerous defensive breakdowns against Louisville, with defenders often not on the same page with one another. Head coach Larry Fedora conceded on Monday that Carolina’s defensive game plan against Louisville may have been overly complex — in large part due to trying to counter Jackson’s ability to make plays with his legs — leading to some of the mental mistakes and communication problems on defense. This week’s trip to Old Dominion should afford UNC an opportunity to regroup, simplify and improve communication before hosting rival Duke and the Blue Devils’ dual-threat quarterback Daniel Jones on Sept. 23.

Lack of Pass Rush

The Tar Heels’ inability to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks — only three sacks on over eighty dropbacks — has been especially disappointing, particularly given preseason talk about a more aggressive defensive approach from a deep and experienced defensive line. Fedora did point out in Monday’s press conference that the defensive front’s primary task against Louisville was less to pressure the quarterback than it was to limit the explosive Jackson’s rushing lanes, an objective Fedora felt was reasonably successful.

That said, Louisville also rushed for 7.1 yards per carry (including 132 from Jackson on 6.95 per carry and 149 from Hunt High graduate Malik Williams on 11.5 per attempt) on its way to gaining the third-most total yards ever gained against a UNC defense. Simply put, the Carolina front has to play better if the defensive results are to improve in forthcoming weeks.

Encouraging Play on Offense

On the flip side, UNC has gotten better-than-expected play at quarterback from redshirt freshman Chazz Surratt — who appeared to have won the job before exiting the Louisville game with a minor right hip injury — and graduate transfer Brandon Harris. The pair has combined to average over 300 yards per game with seven touchdowns to only two interceptions through the first two games. Surratt’s performance has been especially encouraging — his 160 passer rating is actually higher than Mitchell Trubisky’s last year (157.9) — suggesting that the highly-touted youngster has progressed more quickly than expected. Both quarterbacks have also made ample use of their legs in the running game through the first two games as well.

Special Teams Excellence

The other major bright spot for the Tar Heels has been the play of the special teams units. Anthony Ratliff-Williams set a school record for kick-return yardage in a single game against Louisville with 199 yards and a touchdown on five returns. Punter Tom Sheldon has also been excellent, averaging a robust 47.5 yards per punt, and the coverage teams have been excellent.

National Champs Honored

The largest cheers at the Louisville game were reserved for the members of the 2017 basketball team, who received their rings in a halftime ceremony, and the members of the 1957, 1982, 1993, 2005, and 2009 UNC title teams who presented the rings.

Recruiting Notes

UNC basketball took advantage of the halftime ceremony showcasing the program’s tradition and the presence of several basketball legends on campus by hosting several high-profile recruits over the weekend, including national top-10 player Nassir Little. The 6-foot-7 small forward is also considering Duke, Miami, Georgia Tech, and Arizona.

Other visitors included Greenfield’s Coby White and fellow 2018 commitment Rechon “Leaky” Black, 2019 commitment Jeremiah Francis, and uncommitted 2019 standouts Wendell Moore and Armando Bacot. Additional 2019 standouts Joey Baker and Josh Nickelberry visited for the Sept. 2 game against Cal.