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Recapping UNC’s first preseason scrimmage

Various outlets got a short look at the team’s first live action this fall

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 27 North Carolina at Virginia Photo by Lee Coleman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Until now, reports from UNC’s training camp through the first week have been fairly hard to come by. We got a little bit from after the first day, and then near radio silence until the week was over, culminating in the team’s first scrimmage. This was when we kept hearing that the coaches would really know what they had, it was the first 11-on-11 full-speed action that the guys would have seen since spring ball, and this should have been the point where the players should have familiarized themselves with the new offensive and defensive schemes. Fortunately, information on these scrimmages is aplenty, even for non-paying Tar Heel fans. Let’s take a look.

  • The constant takeaway regardless of the source is that the defense was absolutely dominant. Nobody’s saying it out loud, but it’s a fairly obvious takeaway reading between the lines of player testimonials. Defensive tackle Aaron Crawford, who just about everybody is talking about as possibly UNC’s best players, said that the defense “put it together” like they knew they could do in a live setting, flying around and playing “fast and physical” (just a word away from a possibly-cursed slogan, there). Linebacker Jonathan Smith added that the defense played with “a lot of juice” and never let up. By contrast, senior running back Antonio Williams lamented that the offense needed to bring more consistency and said this: “If everybody just does their job the best they can do, I think we’ll be alright,” which is coachspeak for “we have the talent, but didn’t bring it today.” Tar Heel Illustrated says he believes “it was a draw,” but he’s fooling nobody. Charlie Heck added, “we’ve got to execute when it matters,” which basically speaks for itself.

This is good news, because defense should dominate early scrimmages, particularly with this confluence of factors: a new offensive scheme, terminology, and philosophy; liberally rotating quarterbacks and offensive linemen at position groups where chemistry is paramount; and an offensive coordinator who took a big risk, according to Williams, and did not script a single drive for the scrimmage like coaches usually do, calling everything off the top according to game situation (and in practice, there is no such thing as game situation, just like in the NFL preseason). Basically, this means the defense is where it should be, which hasn’t always been the case for UNC. The offense is, predictably, in flux.

  • There still isn’t an answer to the quarterback question, but that’s also to be expected. According to Tar Heel Illustrated, players are keeping any insight they might have on the situation to themselves, but senior safey Myles Dorn did say this much: “They’re all crazy accurate. I think it will be just a matter of who can step up and be a leader and step up and take command of the huddle. They’re all talented, they all can run, they all can throw... No [separation] at all,” which is about what I said in my quarterbacks preview two weeks ago.
  • Young players, particularly on defense, are shining. Crawford was simply glowing about the young defensive linemen, pointing out Ray Vohasek and Brant Lawless as guys who dominate 1-on-1 and just need to get a firmer grasp on the playbook, Kristian Varner as a guy who has outworked just about everybody to learn the defense, and Tomari Fox as the “most ready to play” freshman he’s seen. On a position group that was already thin and then ravaged by suspensions last year, this is welcome news. Elsewhere, freshman linebacker Eugene Asante and sophomore Matthew Flint have gotten praise for improving leaps and bounds from the last time they saw action, offensive linemen Ed Montilus (redshirt freshman) and Brian Anderson (sophomore) have been playing with the starters and gotten praise for their development, and sophomore running back Javonte Williams, as we’ve mentioned before, might be the talk of camp.
  • Players are adjusting well to the fluidity of Phil Longo’s offense and Jay Bateman’s defense. In spring, we heard that the three quarterbacks were struggling to learn Phil Longo’s offense while simultaneously competing for the starting job, to the point where Mack Brown had to step in and say that the competition was going to be delayed so they could focus on learning how Longo wants his offense run. Like I said, we don’t know much about the quarterbacks’ performance in camp, but the simple fact that Longo trusted the offense to practice without a script, having no idea what would come next and needing to react, decipher and execute calls on the fly, speaks volumes about how much work the team has put in to learn what he wants them too. Add to that the lack of any offensive or defensive players talking about miscommunications on the offensive end, and I think it’s safe to say at least that part of the game has been successfully ingrained into the offensive players. On the defensive end, it’s partly enough to say that they must have adjusted well to Longo’s mosaic-hybrid-whatever scheme based on how well everybody says they played, but there’s more to it than that. Dorn singled out Trey Morrison, last year’s standout freshman at nickel corner, as a player who’s played all five secondary positions in practice without a hitch and rotated between nickel and boundary in scrimmage. He went so far as to say that Morrison is good enough that where he plays will be dictated by who fits best at the other 4 positions, and he can fill in at the otherwise weakest one. Defensive end Xach Gill did mention that the defense could improve its “camaraderie” to really get everybody on the same page, but it sounded like that was a nitpick more than a real concern. And Antonio Williams talked explicitly about how well the defense has learned Bateman’s blitz disguises, saying that the defense threw a ton of different things at the offense and that it was good preparation. All in all, the players were asked to put in a bunch of playbook work this summer and it looks like they’ve risen to the occasion.

We’ll keep you updated with any practice reports we get, but there’s our first real taste of what we should be getting come August 31st.

Sources: InsideCarolina, GoHeels, THI

Oh, and enjoy this little Twitter video of highlights: