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UNC at ECU: Player to Watch

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If the offense doesn’t get better, then the defense needs to do more than be stingy, and that starts with the most explosive guy on the Tar Heel defense

North Carolina v California Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

In my colleague Christian Schneider’s secondary preview two weeks ago, he noted that generally, you expect an interception per 5 passes defensed. UNC as a whole, as he points out, had just seven interceptions on 59 defended passes in 2017. The year before, the team famously picked off just 1 pass on 51 passes defensed. Over the past two seasons, the Tar Heel defense has intercepted 14 fewer passes than history says they should have. At some point, it has to regress positively, right?

Based on the Tar Heel offense’s display against California, it’s going to have to do so if the Heels want any chance of a competitive season. It’s not enough for the defense to limit opposing offenses to 3.5 scores a game if the offense doesn’t have the stuff to even drive down the field until the opposing defense starts playing soft. The defense has to help out with short fields and maybe even some scores of their own, and this has to start with K.J. Sails.

A lot of words were used to describe Sails last year, some kind and some... not so much. The first-year starter certainly wasn’t boring, but his play was at times feast-or-famine. He did, however, lead the team with 13 pass breakups. Predictably, none of them turned into interceptions. This year, that needs to change. As the team’s #1 cornerback, he’s likely going to get a ton of opportunity, and going against #1 receivers, he’s likely to receive the most break-up-worthy targets (that is, quarterbacks might trust their best receivers to create receptions when they shouldn’t be easily available). Sails is athletic and has excellent ball skills, so we know that he certainly can produce interceptions. Now, it’s a question of turning that potential into production.

A secondary reason for Sails’ importance to the offense is his energy. Sails was polarizing among UNC fans last year for his propensity to celebrate big (and maybe sometimes not-so-big) plays despite his team perhaps being in bad positions. But he does have a knack for making plays, and based on the one-game sample size of this season, he’s emphasizing all the right moments this time. This is a key way to give an offense energy that sorely lacked it in its first showing of the season, and Sails brings it like no other player on the team.

Barring true catastrophe, ECU is going to have to pass the ball a lot on Saturday to give themselves a chance at an upset. The spread is UNC -16.5, and it will be shocking if UNC doesn’t have control of the majority of the game. This matchup therefore provides a really good chance for Sails and his backfield teammates to see a lot of targets, and turning some of those into turnovers would be the perfect confidence boost and starting point to ideally create more turnovers over the course of this season than the unit has been the past couple of years. Hopefully, Sails has plenty of reason to celebrate on Saturday.