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Opponent Preview: Liberty

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The Tar Heels will open their football season against FCS school Liberty at home this fall. The Flames return most of their players from a team that were the co-champions of the Big South conference last year. This article should make sure Tar Heel fans know what to look for in the game.

Jeremy Brevard-US PRESSWIRE

Last year's Liberty team experienced a rather large amount of success in coach Turner Gill's second season. The Flames went 8-4 and were the co-champions of the Big South Conference. Liberty returns its starting quarterback in Josh Woodrum as well as two running backs that rushed for more than 5 TDs and the receiving corps is mostly back for the Flames. Liberty has a balanced, slightly run-oriented attack, and in Gill's third season he'll have had a few season to recruit and develop players in his system. All these factors point to a good team and season for Liberty. However, Liberty haven't won a game against an FBS school in Gill's tenure and are also 0-5 away from Lynchburg in non-conference games.

The most important thing for Heels fans to know about Liberty is their team is a veteran team. This is not a team that will be dazed or disturbed by the atmosphere in Chapel Hill, they will show up and believe that they can win. As a team under Gill they run the ball on substantially more than half their plays and have averaged about 4.5 yards per attempt in each of his two seasons. Liberty are without their top running back in Desmond Rice but have another seasoned back in D.J. Abnar who should easily step into a broader role. Last season Gill showed his ability to integrate backs into an expanded role when he made Rice the principle rusher. Quarterback Josh Woodrum is also a threat to run, gaining more than 200 yards last season.

The Flames are not a one dimensional team and most of their actual offensive yardage comes through the air. Woodrum is a skilled quarterback who completed more than 64% of his passes and throwing for more than 2500 yards last season on 8.4 yards per attempt. The Heels also can't rely on Woodrum to beat himself as he only threw 7 interceptions during all of last season. Each of the Flames' top three wide outs from last season; Darrin Peterson, Gabe Henderson, and Dante Shells, are returning and they can each be explosive. All three averaged at least 13.6 yards per catch and Shells averaged just shy of 15 yards per catch. That kind of explosiveness will put UNC's third corner under some duress. The passing game is not entirely vertical, if his first options aren't open Woodrum will check down or scramble. Liberty run to set up the pass and if the Heels have to pull more defenders into the box to prevent the run Woodrum will be trusted to make the correct reads and efficiently more the Flames down the field.

The Flame's defense is one area where the Tar Heels should be able to exploit their athletic advantages. Last season Liberty allowed opponents to amass more than 135 yards per game on the ground. While coach Gill says he has seen a good performance out of the defensive line in training camp nothing has yet been proven on the field. One thing the Flames did well last season was forcing turnovers. The team forced 23 turnovers last year and eight other fumbles that they failed to recover. The Heels will need to focus on taking care of the football and not beating themselves in this match-up. The Flames also play respectable pass defense, limiting opponents to just 178.6 yards per contest. However if the Heels can move the ball through the air well they shouldn't have a problem in this game. In losses Liberty gave up an average of 293 yards per game.

The Tar Heels should not necessarily expect an easy rout in their season opener. Liberty bring a veteran team and a balanced approach on offense. The Heels will need to avoid turnovers, focus on the passing game and stop the run with out relying on a seven or eight man front. If UNC can do those three things then they'll start the season 1-0.