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Going into North Carolina’s football game Saturday at No. 14 Virginia Tech, a Tom Sheldon punt had never been returned more than 17 yards (last year’s opponents managed all of two yards combined), and the Australian had never had a punt blocked.
In a difficult season, the Tar Heel punting unit has been the one consistent bright spot, regularly flipping the field and putting the defense in good position. But against Virginia Tech, even the Tar Heels’ reliable unit could seemingly do nothing right.
It took less than a quarter for the Hokies’ Greg Stroman to spoil Sheldon’s return from injury (yes, Carolina’s injury woes have not even spared the punter) with a 91-yard return, and the Hokies piled on by blocking Sheldon’s seventh punt of the game early in the third quarter on their way to a 59–7 pasting of the Tar Heels fueled by three non-offensive touchdowns in the first half.
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A general rule of thumb is that a lack of overall depth affects special teams first—Carolina fans surely remember Patrick Peterson’s special-teams exploits for LSU against a suspension-depleted 2010 Tar Heel squad—and to call UNC’s roster thin at this point is an understatement.
The Heels traveled to Blacksburg down 21 players (including nine starters), taking roughly the equivalent of an FCS team on the road in terms of available scholarship athletes. The results were also what might be expected from an outmanned FCS squad as well—actually, the final margin was worse than the Hokies’ earlier win over Delaware (27–0).
Quarterbacks Chazz Surratt and Brandon Harris both played and, in a development in keeping with the trend for 2017 UNC football, were knocked out of the game with injuries for varying lengths of time, with third-stringer Nathan Elliott finishing the game once it was out of hand.
Things won’t be getting much easier for Larry Fedora’s beleaguered group anytime soon, either, as the Tar Heels host unbeaten and No. 8-ranked Miami in Kenan Stadium at noon on Saturday.
Much like foul shooting is often a deciding factor in close basketball games, avoiding key penalties—particularly the discipline kind, such as false starts or jumping offside—is especially critical as injuries have removed all margin for error.
But Carolina was flagged 14 times for 100 yards against Virginia Tech—a staggering eight false starts, a delay of game, and a substitution infraction—all pre-snap penalties typically understood as connected to discipline. UNC has the most penalty yardage in the Atlantic Coast Conference on the season and is near the top among NCAA FBS teams.
Roy Williams took his team on the road for a private scrimmage at Memphis on Friday afternoon, which Carolina won 70–64. As would be expected at this time of year, the statistics released by UNC reflected a sloppy game (UNC had 21 turnovers, Memphis 18). Probably the most notable stat in the release is 10—the number of rebounds seized by Carolina freshman big man Garrison Brooks, a scrimmage high.
Carolina hosted its annual basketball media day on Tuesday, Oct. 17. As the numbers from the Memphis scrimmage later in the week also suggested, Williams said the 6-foot-9 Brooks is currently the farthest along of the freshman big men Carolina will depend upon to help fill the shoes of last year’s championship front line.
Williams also quipped that the Tar Heels still “look really good walking through an airport,” thanks to the size of the freshman newcomers. The trick will of course be getting all that youthful size to produce in the lane as easily as they turn heads in the concourse.
UNC will host Barton College in an exhibition game Friday at 7:30 p.m. in the Smith Center.