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UNC Football Opponent Preview: The Heels Owe Virginia Tech Some Payback

The Justin Fuente Hokies have made a point of making Carolina look bad.

North Carolina v Virginia Tech Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images

Did you miss any of the other previews in this series? Here are my thoughts on Cal, ECU, Central Florida, Pitt, and Miami.

The Frank Beamer-era Virginia Tech coaching staff made negative recruiting against UNC a hobby in his final years. Along with N.C. State, they were at the forefront of scaring recruits during the NCAA mess with talk of the Death Penalty. Their scare tactics almost cost the Heels the commitment of Marquise Williams, and weakened their stance with a ton of other guys in the hotly-contested North Carolina and Virginia recruiting territories.

Justin Fuente has continued that trend with the #NCtoVT hashtag, and two absolutely brutal contests— the Hokies have outscored Carolina 93-10 in the past two years. What he’s doing is working— he won the high-profile Dax Hollifield sweepstakes on Signing Day, and has brought 10 guys across the border in his two classes.

Carolina needs to reverse that trend immediately. Its bad enough that N.C. State and Duke are now winning recruiting battles in-state, and elite players are still being lured to SEC country. Larry Fedora needs to stop the bleeding, and getting some revenge on the Hokies is absolutely crucial to starting that process.

2017 Season

Despite the surprising NFL departure of Jerrod Evans, the Hokies started off very strong on offense— playing Delaware, ECU, and Old Dominion always helps with that. After a 31-17 home loss to Clemson, the Hokies repositioned themselves for a shot at the Coastal with wins against BC, UNC, and Duke.

At 7-1, a big trip to undefeated Miami loomed...and the offense disappeared. They mustered just over three yards per carry, got picked off twice, and lost 28-10. The hangover effect carried into the next week as they lost again, to Georgia Tech. The offense never really recovered, though the defense remained excellent. They edged Pitt on a late TD and goal-line stand, 20-14, and then pitched their third shutout of the year in a 10-0 win over Virginia.

Overall, they slipped from 17th to 29th in S&P+, with the offense falling from 51st to 96th, and the defense improving from 17th to 9th. A couple of features inherent in the Virginia Tech program dating back to the late Beamer era reared their heads: lights-out defense and shaky, inconsistent offense.

With the losses of the Edmunds brothers (both first-round picks), massive DT Tim Settle, and a back seven decimated by attrition (ROV Mook Reynolds and CB Adonis Alexander were both booted from the team, and both were set to be breakout stars in 2018), DC Bud Foster may have his work cut out for him, personnel-wise. That said, I’ll never bet against that crazy hillbilly.

Series History

The Hokies own a commanding 22-11-6 record against the Heels, and more importantly an 11-3 record in ACC play. Carolina’s four wins in the modern era (the programs did not play from 1945 until 1998, somehow) are all memorable for different reasons:

  • 1998: the 42-3 Gator Bowl shellacking that affirmed the promotion of Carl Torbush to head coach.
  • 2009: a Thursday night upset of the #13 Hokies, after the Heels had an unexpected 0-3 start to ACC play.
  • 2012: Gio Bernard rushed for well over 200 yards, and the Fed Spread looked invincible to a Foster defense in a 48-34 shootout.
  • 2015: Despite doing everything possible to choke the game away, the Heels polished off a Coastal Division title and ruined Frank Beamer’s last home game in a 30-27 win. Hokie tears are sweet.

I would be remiss to fail to mention the last two outcomes: the 34-3 loss in the “Hurricane Game” should have been delayed, but Hokie Twitter assumes we’re WAY saltier over this than we actually are. Last year’s 59-7 blowout featured Tech running up the score, and was the closest thing I’ve seen to Bunting-era football since, well, the Bunting era.

Carolina O vs. Virginia Tech D

If the 2018 Hokies defense has a strength, its on the defensive line. And if the 2017 game is any indication, that is one place the Heels don’t want the Hokies having a strength— they may as well have lined up three yards offsides given the results. DE Trevon Hill (#94) returns his 9.5 TFL and 5.5 sacks, and DT Ricky Walker (#8) looks like a budding star in the middle. The dropoff from Settle to Walker shouldn’t be felt too much— he amassed 12.5 tackles for loss and did not play starter’s snaps behind Settle and Vinny Mihota, who also returns. The other end is Houshun Gaines, a North Carolina native.

Delaware v Virginia Tech
Gaines and Hill
Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images

Hopefully a healthy O-line (the Heels have 16 days to prep for this game after Miami) helps create a stark contrast between 2017 and 2018— the Heels have a history of success chewing up yardage off read option and between the tackles against Foster.

The linebacking corps is young, especially after Reynolds’ departure. Rayshard Ashby and Dylan Rivers are sophomores slated to take the most snaps, but don’t be surprised if the Shelby, N.C. native Hollifield gets in on the action. Reynolds’ vacated rover spot should be filled adequately by 5-star sophomore Devon Hunter (#7).

I don’t really know what to make of the Tech secondary at this point. SS Reggie Floyd (#21) returns his 72 tackles and 3 interceptions, and (another N.C. native and all-name team nominee) Divine Deablo should step into a more prominent role at FS. There is a long list of young names for the corner spots, which would’ve included JuCo transfer Jeremy Webb— but he tore his Achilles’ in June.

It goes without saying that success on the ground would help the Heels to expose a young secondary in 1-on-1’s, and if the O-line holds up...the Heels need to take a lot of downfield shots to the explosive Anthony Ratliff-Williams, Dyami Brown, and Dazz Newsome (a VA native having a big game would be poetic). Off a bye, the Heels should find plenty of ways to attack the green Hokies.

Carolina D vs. Virginia Tech O

This was a much fuzzier picture two weeks ago, when sophomore quarterback Josh Jackson’s eligibility was up in the air, due to a rumored cheating scandal (glass houses, Hokies fans). His status was cleared, so the Heels can expect Jackson to take the field in Chapel Hill.

In Jackson, VT has another dual-threat quarterback, though he’s more of a “keep you honest” threat to run— excluding sacks, he was just under 4 yards per carry. Similar to the Chazz Surratt situation, Jackson was forced into duty at least a year earlier than expected— but his performance was a lot more respectable. He amassed 2991 yards and 20 TD’s through the air on roughly 60% completions.

If he takes the leap from freshman to sophomore, he’s going be among the best signal-callers in the ACC. Phil Steele has him behind Ryan Finley, Deondre Francois, and Daniel Jones on his All-ACC four-deep projection.

If he is to make the leap, he’ll need help from a rushing game that was almost nonexistent for parts of last year. With Travon McMillan gone, Deshawn McClease (#33), Jalen Holston (#13) and Steven Peoples (#32) will be first in line to pick up the slack. The three combined to average just 4.1 yards per carry, with McClease emerging late and picking up 265 yards in the final three games. Holston is the upside play, but the stout back only averaged 3.3 yards on 70 totes as a true freshman.

Clemson v Virginia Tech
Sean Savoy
Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images

Cam Phillips, the best dressed player at the 2017 ACC Media Kickoff, is in the NFL, and Sean Savoy (#15) is first in line to pick up the slack at receiver. He produced 454 yards on 39 catches as a freshman, and will be joined by, well, a long list of characters. The X-factor for the Hokies will be tight end play, as sophomore Dalton Keene (#29) and junior Chris Cunningham (#85) were both hella productive in 2017. Cunningham averaged an absurd-for-a-TE 19 yards per catch, and Keene was right behind him at just over 16.

The O-line returns three senior starters, all on the right side. Redshirt freshman Silas Dzansi is slated to be the left tackle, so hopefully Malik Carney can have a field day against him.

On balance, this is a “Spiderman points to self” meme of a game. Both offenses should have up-and-down quarterback play, one proven weapon at WR, and a run game whose success heavily depends on the play of the offensive line. If the Heels’ veteran defensive front can create some third-and-longs, Jackson can be forced into mistakes.

The Hokies don’t have the David Wilson type of explosive running back they so often have had in years past, so big play avoidance should be easier than in most of the first five games. The Heels just need to play sound, mistake-free football, and the defense should be fine.


As I mentioned in the intro, this is a “show me” game for Larry Fedora. The last two performances against Tech have been embarrassing. If you gave me the depth charts, blank uniforms, and anonymous coaching staffs, I’d probably lean Carolina ever-so-slightly. If I knew the anonymous Carolina group was the home team coming off a bye, I’d probably give them a 7-10 point edge.

Knowing that this is not a double-blind exercise, though, the Heels will have to show me.

Tech 34, Carolina 24.