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The MRI on Brandon Tate's knee revealed tears of both the ACL and MCL ligaments ending Tate's season and career at UNC. Obviously this is incredibily frustrating for the senior all round offensive threat and for a team that looked like it was really starting to roll. Also a concern for Tate is getting his knee right for the NFL Draft come next April. Tate has plenty of talent and for the sake of his professional career I hope he can his knee back to 100%.
Assessing the loss of Tate is not merely a matter looking at the all around yards he brings in. Most of those yards can be replaced but what cannot be is his speed and skill as a receiver. Tate was probably the fastest player on the team, made a ton of plays after the catch and one returns. Losing Tate changes a lot of different dynamics.
1. The threat that Tate might go to the house on any given kick return caused special teams coaches on opposing teams to bolt straight up from their sleep in the dead of night with a cold sweat. I am convinced it altered the way teams kicked and given the general inconsistency of most college kickers and punters, telling them to try and keep the ball away from Tate usually meant something good for UNC. The Heels are 15th in punt returns and 30th in kickoff returns nationally. However those stats do not convey the fear involved with having a guy who can possibly break off a big return at any time. There are two people in the entire history of UNC football that have gone of kick returns for TDs as consistent as Tate has and his name was Charlie Justice. The loss of Tate means opposing teams will approach punts and kicks will less trepidation and UNC loses a bit of an edge there.
2. The more threats you have among your receivers the better. When you have both Tate and Hakeem Nicks out there, it is a nightmare for the defense and guys like Brooks Foster make plays. If you have three good receivers then chances are one of them is going to make a catch on a pass play. Now UNC must depend on Nicks primarily and Foster on the other side with guys like Cooter Arnold stepping up. Foster talked about how he wanted to make an impact this season to enhance his pro stock, well here is your chance Brooks, step up or sit down. Now losing Tate hurts the passing game but I think they can sufficiently make up most of what he brings. The issue is opposing defense can be more focused unless Foster or Arnold or someone else show themselves to be enough of a threat to pay attention to. Also, Nicks being more of a target also makes him more prone to injury.
3. The way the passing game appears to be structured right now, John Shoop seems content to have Cam Sexton make short, sure passes and then allow the recievers to use their legs for additional yards. This works really well with recievers like Tate and Nicks, especially Tate who uses the same skill he uses on returns to find spots to make yards. Foster is less explosive and so probably is Arnold. In this respect you lose something you had in Tate and this a target that can make chicken salad out of you know what. Tate was also very good at catching a pass on a slant route then turning the corner and toasting the defensive back not to mention the big bomb downfield Tate can facilitate with his speed. Now your only known commodity in this respect is Nicks who will get more focus. Foster should be able to garner some attention but UNC is basically working with a cog missing until someone else steps up.
So who else might there be? Dwight Jones is probably a little green and Arnold is probably a tad suspect. At this point I say move Greg Little to receiver since it is readily apparent he ain't doing much else. Shaun Draughan has the #1 slot at tailback and Ryan Houston can provide the bruising runs they need. Granted it makes the backfield thinner but we know Little has tremendous speed and talent. He was used some as a receiver last season and on a few special plays. I say go ahead, move him out there and see how he does. Given how well Sexton has done delivering the ball on short passes I think Little can make some hay after the catch if he has space once he receives the football. I also think you need to move Little to somewhere, anywhere, where he can contritbute. He is simply too good of an athlete and player to waste on 2-3 carries a game from the backfield.
As was the case with TJ Yates going down we have to hope someone steps up and does enough to account for the loss of a key player. It will be tougher with Tate. Sexton has managed the QB position well but part of that had to do with the presence of Tate, Nicks and Foster giving the defense more to worry about. Losing Tate could negatively impact Sexton and the passing game if defenses find adjusting easier. The upside is the running game seems to be coming around which hopefully will balance things out and keep the opposing defenses honest. You can also look to the defense to step up their play even further. The turnover margin has been great but a reduction in the stupid penalty department along with doing a better job stopping teams from moving the football could go a long way towards making life for the offense in general.
This team adjusted to a key loss once, let's see if they can do it again.