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UNC Football: Players to Watch - Week 7

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UNC must bounce back from last week to take on Miami. Here are a few players who might impact the game.

NCAA Football: Miami at North Carolina Evan Pike-USA TODAY Sports

UNC is coming off arguably the most disappointing loss of the season. Sure the Georgia game was disappointing, but after two straight weeks of miraculous victories and finally cracking the top 25 again, only to lose by 31 at home, it can be argued that was the worst loss in awhile.

Let’s not even recap it any further. It’s Miami week, so the focus needs to be on that. Miami is coming off a disappointing loss to rival Florida State, a game in which a blocked extra point handed the Hurricanes their first loss of the season. North Carolina and Miami need to bounce back from last week’s losses. Combine this with the fact that Miami has revenge on the mind from last year’s 59-21 beat down to UNC, and we are looking at what could be a great game this weekend. This isn’t necessarily a must-win game, but it’s the closest thing to one this early in the year, so who will be the guys to help them do this?

Miami Player to Watch: Quarterback Brad Kaaya

This is Brad Kaaya’s third year as Miami’s starting quarterback. Although he has a new coach this year, the offense is relatively the same pro-style he is accustomed to, which is partly the reason why his numbers are improved this year compared to his past two seasons.

Kaaya is the most NFL-ready quarterback the Tar Heels have faced this year, and scouts like him a lot. He is projected to be a first-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, and some mock drafts have him placed in the top-10.

What makes Kaaya so good is the fact that he has great touch on his passes and rarely has arid throws. He stands in the pocket and delivers passes right where they need to be, when they need to be there. The only time he seems to be truly inaccurate is when he is pressured and forced to throw when the pocket isn’t as clean.

Through five games, Kaaya is completing 64.6% of his passes, throwing for 1,149 yards, 10 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. Kaaya is ranked 17th nationally in passer rating at 160.2, placing him 0.1 behind UNC’s Mitch Trubisky.

The one knock on Kaaya is his arm strength. He doesn’t have that ‘wow’ arm that can put zip on the ball and really stretch a defense. He also doesn’t handle pressure well when the pocket collapses around him. Who does? UNC will need to create a formidable pass rush in order to break down the pocket and pressure Kaaya into forcing passes into small windows that teams inevitably have been able to pick off this year.

The reason he is the player to watch for Miami isn’t just because he has been playing well this season. It is also because last week against Florida State, Kaaya suffered a shoulder injury. As of now he is expected to play, but is going to sit out part of this week’s practices. If he’s 100% Saturday and UNC doesn’t force pressure on him, he could have a big day picking the secondary apart.

UNC Player to Watch: Defensive tackle Nazair Jones

Normally, I would go with someone like Elijah Hood. The reasoning is that Dalvin Cook tore up Miami’s run defense last week, and Hood has a similar running style. However, Hood is coming off an injury and let’s be honest, it doesn’t seem as though he will get many carries even if he were 100% healthy.

Statistically speaking, Miami’s defense has been solid all year. The Hurricanes rank 7th in total yards allowed, 10th in total defense, 8th in passing defense, and 27th in rushing defense. However, the bulk of these statistics came against the likes of Florida A&M, Florida Atlantic, Appalachian State, and Georgia Tech.

Florida State was able to roll up 407 total yards with Cook running for 150 yards on 27 carries, hence why I initially wanted to choose Hood. However, Florida State only scored 20 points, and allowed only 19 points. Defense was the key to winning this game.

The one thing Miami has consistently struggled with is their offensive line and kicking/punting game, which is why a player like Nazair Jones could be successful Saturday. Miami hasn’t allowed a lot of sacks this year (only 5 total), ranking them 14th in the county. However, they do allow pressure to get to Kaaya, which is when he is at his worst. Aside from this, Miami ranks 120th with three blocked kicks allowed this season, including the game-deciding one against FSU. They also have allowed 1 blocked punt this year, with only three teams allowing more.

This is what the Heels need to do in order to beat Miami: The defensive line must put pressure on Kaaya to help disrupt plays. Florida State seemed to find the formula last week on their way to recording 3 sacks, and 7 tackles for loss, as well as a game-winning PAT block. FSU was physical and constantly pressured Kaaya, which forced Miami’s offense to record a total of 276 yards, 198 yards below their season average.

This is why I think someone along the defensive line, such as Naz Jones, is someone to keep in eye on this weekend. Last week Tar Heel Blog listed him as the player of the game, because in a muddy, dark game, he was the one bright spot. Naz is coming off one of his better performances of the season, recording nine tackles, a sack, and a tackle for loss. Hopefully it is a sign of him becoming a consistent monster in the trenches. It’s possible he will continue what he started last week, and possibly go back-to-back on our player of the week list.