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UNC Football: What North Carolina needs to do to slow down Lamar Jackson

Spoiler: Everyone needs to play their best

NCAA Football: Citrus Bowl-Louisiana State vs Louisville Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

If you need a refresher for how ridiculous Louisville’s Lamar Jackson is, here are his stats from last year: 3,543 passing yards, 30 passing touchdowns, nine interceptions, then another 21 rushing touchdowns on 1,571 rushing yards. 51 total touchdowns. That’s ridiculous.

When Jackson takes the field today, it will be the first time a Heisman winner has played against UNC since Archie Griffin’s Ohio State Buckeyes paid a visit to Kenan Stadium in 1975. UNC was thumped, 7-32. Unless this Carolina defense plays a perfect game, Lamar Jackson and his Cardinals will put up a whole lot more than 32.

It’s an uphill battle to contain Jackson, and one that most defenses lose. However, for as hot as he started the 2016 campaign, he (and his team) limped to the finish line by going 0-3 in the final three games. Jackson completed only 48% of his passes in those games, threw three big interceptions against arch rival Kentucky, and was completely stymied in their bowl game against LSU. In that game, which LSU won 29-9, he did not see the end zone once. So what happened to the Louisville offense that once put up 63 points on Florida State?

First off, it’s worth noting that Louisville’s offensive line was terrible last year, and now features three new starters led by a new coach in Mike Summers. The jury is still out about how they will fare, given how they have only played one game, but with Jackson already off to a good start (he almost accumulated 500 total yards last week against Purdue while being sacked zero times), they look to have improved since their collapse last year. As such, the battle in the trenches will be particularly pivotal on Saturday, and it’s something you should keep an eye on.

LSU’s defensive line manhandled Louisville all game, sacking Jackson eight times. Most of these sacks were either blown assignments on Louisville or better play by LSU, but I doubt UNC has the talent to overwhelm them one-on-one. If they do, then there might be an upset in Chapel Hill today. If not, UNC still needs to get pressure on Jackson.

To do that, they’ll need to get creative with their blitz schemes—expect a host of stunt blitzes, gap blitzes, edge blitzes; the whole shebang in a whole variety packages. Carolina needs to make their presence in the backfield known from the start. They need to confuse and frustrate Jackson. If UNC defensive coordinator John Papuchis has a trick up his sleeve that he’s willing to use this early in the season, this would be the game to use it.

On the flip side, UNC’s linebackers in coverage might be the deciding factor. Specifically, Andre Smith will need to play his heart out. Smith, perhaps the most versatile player on this defense, is going to run on Saturday—a lot. He, or other all-around players like Cole Holcomb or Myles Dorn, will be spying on Jackson all afternoon.

He needs to be at any spot on the line of scrimmage before Lamar Jackson gets there. That’s a whole lot easier said than done, but Smith is perhaps the best linebacker in the Coastal. If you want to see the kind of plays he and the rest of this defense need to make, check out LSU’s Jamal Adams run down Jackson before he got to the edge.

It’s a tall order, but this defense is fast enough to do it as long as they stay disciplined. If our defensive line can secure the edges, I like Andre Smith and the linebacker corps’ chances against the Heisman winner. Andre Smith does, too.

“We definitely don’t want it to be the Lamar Jackson show,” Smith said after practice on Wednesday. “If he’s able to beat us with his arm, well, actually, they’re not going to beat us at all. I take that back. He’s not going to beat us. We are just going to stop anything he tries to do. He’s not going to be able to run on us. We have everything solidified with that.”

That’s the kind of confidence you like to hear before a game this big.

Above everything else, North Carolina needs to play a sound game. I can’t stress this enough. They need to get Jackson to the ground when they have the chance—despite the disappointment of last week, UNC tackled well. That trend needs to continue.

There is no room for blown assignments in coverage leading to 50 yard touchdown passes. There is no room for boneheaded targeting calls after the quarterback already threw the ball.

This is a talented defense, maybe the most talented Larry Fedora has ever had at Carolina, but sheer talent isn’t good enough against Lamar Jackson. They need to play smart. They need to have discipline, play to the very best of their ability that we all know they have. If the Heels can’t do that, it might be a long afternoon.