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UNC Football: What to look for in ACC play

Heading into the conference schedule, here are a few things to look for out of the Tar Heels.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at East Carolina James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Carolina opens ACC play against Pitt this week. As I mentioned in my season preview Carolina’s out of conference schedule was going to set the tone for their expectations of how far they could go this season. Including the Pitt game, I outlined how crucial it would be for UNC to get at least two wins, if not three, for their bowl hopes.

Fast forward to the middle of September, and the best that Carolina can do heading into the back to back games against Miami and Virginia Tech is having one singular win, (and Pitt looks better than their box scores would indicate.) Carolina did miss the chance for a win against UCF due to Hurricane Florence, and that’s far from a bye week. But it did give the coaching staff some time after the East Carolina loss to (hopefully) figure out how to fix all the on field problems, so that UNC can still salvage their season.

Carolina plays Pitt Saturday, then they have a short week and a Thursday night game against Miami. between the Miami and Virginia Tech game Carolina has seventeen days off. So from the Cal game, to now, to Virginia Tech and the last stretch of the season Carolina is going to look extremely different. Here are a few things to watch for that could look different than the first two games of the year.

Running back rotation

In fall camp the discussion was how both returning backs Jordon Brown and Michael Carter, as well as Ohio State transfer Antonio Williams could be the strongest position group this season. Michael Carter broke his wrist in fall camp, so we expected to see Williams receive most of the early down work, and Brown take over as the obvious passing down running back.

The biggest surprise through the first two games for some (myself included) was how many snaps freshman Javonte Williams has received. He’s only touched the ball four-five times a game this year, but especially in the Cal game Williams was on the field in a lot of critical down and distances. Meanwhile, the team’s leading returning rusher Jordon Brown didn’t get significant snaps until the second half in Berkeley.

Williams didn’t play bad, but he did play like a freshman. It looks like Antonio Williams is still going to be the main ball carrier, and Carter should take over the snaps that Javonte Williams was receiving, and possibly even take some of Antonio William’s snaps. Jordon Brown looks carved into that third down back role, but the coaching staff should really find a way to get him on the field more. With all three backs returning (assuming Carter can play in the Pitt game, as of this writing no word yet,) expect to see more offensive packages with two running backs on the field together.

Who in the world is going to play quarterback

It has to be Nathan Elliott or Chazz Surratt right? Because of the canceled UCF game, Surratt’s suspension is moved back to where he’ll return for the Virginia Tech game. Which, as mentioned above, is seventeen days after the Miami game. That’s an awful lot of time for Fedora to get Surratt first-team reps in practice so he can take over as the starter.

Elliot does (theoretically) have at least two games left as the stater. The problem is that the problems that Carolina has had through the first two games aren’t all on Elliott, but most of them at least have started with Elliott. Some of his interceptions this season he’s just straight-up missed his receiver by about six yards.

Surratt wasn’t exactly Deshaun Watson last season, though at times he looked pretty darn good (see Duke game.) Mostly what we saw from Surratt was a talented, inconsistent quarterback who probably wasn’t ready to be the full time starter for most of the season, (see Virginia Tech game). A lot of those growing pains were expected to be cleaned up going into his sophomore year. Unless Elliott drastically improves in the next two games, look for Surratt to at least start the Virginia Tech game and get a chance to take over as the starting quarterback for the rest of the season.

Worst case scenario, if Surratt steps in and we see more of the Virginia Tech-type play than the Duke-type play, I wrote about two talented freshmen who could get a shot. Cade Fortin appears to be ahead of Jace Ruder right now, and Fortin got garbage time reps against ECU. UNC rolling out four or five quarterbacks this year seems unlikely, so Fortin would probably get the first shot if Fedora doesn’t stick with either Elliott or Surratt.

Defensive line suspensions

Defensive line was the position hit the hardest by Sneaker Gate. Because of that, UNC got a NCAA waiver to stagger the suspensions of Malik Carney and Tomon Fox. Both players played in the Cal game, then Carney started his suspension while Fox was to miss the Miami game, come back for Virginia Tech, and then miss the next three games. Carney was supposed to miss ECU, UCF, and Pitt, play against Miami, and miss the Virginia Tech game and have his suspension served.

There haven’t been any announcements as far as how the canceled UCF will affect the suspension schedules. For every other player, it’s assumed their suspensions will just be pushed back a game. But Carolina put in a lot of effort to figure out the staggered suspension schedules for Carney and Fox, so it will be interesting to see if those are also pushed back or if Carney plays in the Miami game still. When the suspension schedules came out, it was pretty clear that the coaching staff wanted Carney available for both Cal and Miami games. It’s looking doubtful that the suspension schedules will play out that way, but no official word yet.

Someone on defense will force a turnover, eventually...

Carolina went through the first two games of the season without forcing a turnover. They forced a fumble against East Carolina, but the Pirates recovered it. If you’ve only generated one turnover opportunity (not even an actual turnover) in two games it’s going to be hard to win. If the Tar Heels want to turn their season around, putting a greater emphasis on getting the ball back to the offense has to be a bigger priority.

Especially with out Carney or Fox for the majority of the remaining games, Carolina is going to have to be creative in how they create quarterback pressure. If defensive coordinator John Papuchis can create pressure more succesfully than Carolina did in the first two games then that is going to put the secondary is better position to pick of some rushed throws.

Carolina is going to get turnovers, it’s just a questions of if they can create enough turnovers consistently to put their offense in enough short field situations to score more than eighteen points a game.

All hail Freeman Jones

Hopefully the kicking game is one thing that doesn’t change heading into conference play. Freeman Jones is 5/5 on field goals this season, including 4/4 on field goals 40 yards or longer. Jones is tied for 5th nationally in terms of field goals made per game, and tied for 1st in terms of field goal percentage nationally. Other than Anthony Ratliff-William’s stiff arm action against ECU, Jones has been the brightest part of the Tar Heels this season. Linebacker Dominique Ross completes the podium as far as bright spots this season. Kudos to Freeman Jones though on a spectacular start to the season.