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Through five games, North Carolina’s season continues to be defined as much by the players no longer on the field than those actually playing. Nineteen players, including eight starters, were ruled out against Georgia Tech due to injury. Thirteen of these are out for the season. Carolina has essentially been playing — and will play the remainder of the season — with roster depth approaching that of an Football Championship Subdivision program.
That lack of depth was especially visible against Georgia Tech on Saturday, as the Tar Heel defense put up a valiant effort before running out of gas in the second half of a 33–7 loss that broke UNC’s three-game winning streak against the Yellow Jackets. The game was a mirror image of the season’s first two games in which the UNC offense had been surprisingly efficient and the defense disappointingly toothless. This time, it was the offense’s turn to sputter, going three-and-out on four of its first six drives, 2 for 12 on third down, and scoreless through three quarters.
Carolina simply lacked any semblance of a downfield passing attack against the Jackets; of quarterback Chazz Surratt’s 18 completions, 14 went to running backs and tight ends, with the end result being a paltry 4.4 yards per pass attempt on the day.
Larry Fedora acknowledged in his Monday press conference that UNC has pared down the offense significantly to account for the personnel changes and inexperience on offense, but emphasized the importance of execution:
“When you start changing out a lot of personnel and you’ve got multiple issues that you have to deal with, you start paring it down. … But it doesn’t matter. If you don’t execute what you have, you’re not going to have success anyway.”
That said, given the injuries on the offensive line, the absence of a dynamic running game, and the inexperience at quarterback and receiver, Carolina simply can’t expect to execute consistently enough to rely on short gains and possession passing. This means that to have any chance of making a bowl in 2017, Carolina needs to find a way to manufacture more big plays in the passing game. Anthony Ratliff-Williams looks like the most promising primary option for that role, but regardless of who or how, the first order of business has to be stretching defenses vertically to open things up for Surratt and the running backs.
Unfortunately for the Tar Heels, things won’t get any easier this week, as AP No. 21 Notre Dame and red-hot dual-threat quarterback Brandon Wimbush visit Kenan Stadium for a 3:30 p.m. kickoff.
TRUBISKY TO START
In Tar Heel-related NFL news, the Chicago Bears announced on Monday that former UNC quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, will replace former NC State signal caller Mike Glennon as the Bears’ starter.
The Bears had wanted to give Trubisky extra time to learn from the sidelines in 2017, but given the Glennon’s struggles and Trubisky’s excellent preseason, that timetable was accelerated.
Expectations of stellar play right out of the gate should be tempered, however, as the Bears have one of the weakest receiver groups in the NFL.
TITLE DEFENSE BEGINS
Eyes in Chapel Hill will soon shift to the hardcourt, as the reigning national champion Tar Heel basketball team began practice on Monday. Led by point guard and National Player of the Year candidate Joel Berry, 2017–18 squad will be loaded on the perimeter despite the loss of wing Justin Jackson, last season’s ACC Player of the Year. Cameron Johnson, a 6’8 graduate transfer who averaged 11.9 ppg and 4.5 rpg at Pittsburgh last season, will attempt to fill the void at wing left by Jackson.
Replacing the production of big men Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, and Tony Bradley (a combined 31.4 ppg and 20.1 rpg last season) looks to be the biggest challenge for head coach Roy Williams. In addition to 6’8 junior Luke Maye, Carolina will rely on a trio of freshman big men to help replace that production: 6’11 Sterling Manley, 6’9 Garrison Brooks, and 6’10 Brandon Huffman.
Given the youth in the frontcourt, the depth in the backcourt, and the defensive flexibility of players like Johnson and 6’6 senior swingman Theo Pinson, expect Carolina to play smaller lineups—and more varied lineups in general—more often this season.
Dr. Jason Staples has covered college football since 2007. You can follow him on Twitter @DocStaples and check out more of his work at InsideCarolina.com.