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UNC vs. Western Carolina: Three Things to Watch

The Heels can start a late winning streak with a win over the Catamounts.

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at North Carolina Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

North Carolina hosts SoCon challenger Western Carolina on Senior Day in Kenan Stadium on Saturday. I, for one, love the fact that the Tar Heels have adopted the “SEC/SoCon Challenge” mentality for late-season games— it gives the Heels a chance to rest key players for a half when the season is going well...and a chance to get an extended look at young players when it is not.

While this season unfortunately rests in the latter, the Heels can still theoretically close the season with a perfect November, some momentum going into the offseason, and a really nice extended look at some young guys.

The 2018 Quarterback Race Is On.

I’m unapolagetically in the “Nathan Elliott gives this football team the best chance to win” camp. He has a fundamental understanding of the offense that I feel Chazz Surratt and Brandon Harris have lacked, and seems to offer the highest floor (though not the highest ceiling).

Elliott has not been great by the numbers (49% completions and a 1:1 TD/Int ratio won’t get it done long-term), but the team played energized with him at the helm in a near-upset of a Miami team that could cruise to a CFP appearance, and led the charge in the win at Pitt. He possesses the best pocket awareness and ability to run through his progressions before bailing and running than does Surratt.

With the rumored return of “I’m always open” receiver Austin Proehl for Senior Day, the emergence of Anthony Ratliff-Williams as a go-to receiver, and Jordon Brown doing yeoman’s work in the screen game, one suddenly feels like the Heels have weapons again. Not to mention the recent exploits of Beau Corrales or the recent Brandon Fritts sightings.

Having said that, colleague Evan Davis did a better job of breaking this down than I could hope to do. I would expect to see Elliott, Surratt, and even redshirt freshman Logan Byrd on Saturday. The only surprise against the Catamounts would be to come away unimpressed by any of them.

Some Young Defenders Will See Action From Scrimmage

Personnel-wise, the defense has pretty consistently played the same guys (if healthy) all year. I expect to see DC John Papuchis integrate a few more young players into the rotation on Saturday.

Here is a list of freshmen who have seen limited opportunities with whom Tar Heels fans should look for on defense:

  • #31 Tre Shaw (true freshman cornerback)
  • #42 Tyrone Hopper (redshirt freshman DE/LB)
  • #90 Jordon Riley (true freshman DT)
  • #24 Malik Robinson (true freshman LB)
  • #20 C.J. Cotman (true freshman DB)

All five players come with recruiting bona fides, as the Heels fought off most of the SEC for Shaw, a ton of local programs for Riley, stole Hopper and Robinson from the state of Georgia, and stole Cotman from Tennessee’s commit list. Preparing for the losses of Dajaun Drennon, Cayson Collins, and M.J. Stewart will be a little easier to stomach if some of these players stand out against WCU.

Looking ahead to 2018, the emergence of Shaw and Cotman is key. Hopper and Riley have a chance to be impact players on the front seven, and Robinson will be tasked with bridging the gap from the old guard of Collins/Cole Holcomb/the Smiths to the next generation, which should hopefully include mega-recruits Payton Wilson and Dax Hollifield.

A Carolina Home Victory

We’ve been fortunate to see a few undefeated (or very close to it) home slates in recent years. Unfortunately, 2017 has been the opposite. A disappointing early loss to Cal, close losses to Louisville, Duke, Virginia, and Miami, and a blowout to top-10 Notre Dame have been varying degrees of not fun.

There is little chance the 7-4 Catamounts can mount much resistance to even a depleted UNC squad, so one hopes that the Heels’ crowd is energetic and appreciative of the Tar Heels’ efforts this season. Outside of the Virginia Tech game, the Heels have been competitive despite being outclassed.

Saturday should be a cathartic experience, and one a good Heels fan will be enthusiastic to see. The efforts of Stewart, Collins, Drennon, and many an injured senior (perhaps we see the return of Austin Proehl) need to be properly appreciated— a lot of these gentlemen were key cogs in a team that won 19 games and competed for NATIONAL accolades (how many times have you really heard that in Carolina football lore?) in 2015-16. Grad transfers, including Harris, Cam Dillard, and Khaliel Rodgers did their part to hold together a patchwork offense, and showed the faith in our program to transfer from much more historically dominant programs to finish their careers in Carolina blue.

Tar Heel Nation needs to show up loud and proud for players who, while given an incredibly unlucky and raw deal in 2017, are Tar Heels for life.

Go Heels, beat the Catamounts, get to 3-8, and get ready to render N.C. State’s “big” season an 8-4 or 7-5 disappointment.