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UNC Football: Matching up with Miami’s front seven

Javonte Williams had maybe his best game as a Tar Heel Week One. He’ll try to duplicate that against the best linebackers in the country in Week Two.

NCAA Football: South Carolina at North Carolina Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

For all the (deserved) hype Sam Howell and the receivers got on Saturday against South Carolina, that was the Javonte Williams show. Williams had 102 rushing yards on 18 carries to go along with 15 receiving yards. What’s insane about that is he had 80 yards after initial contact. Williams averaged 4.4 yards per rush after initial contact. Williams’ performance was good enough to land himself on Pro Football Focus’ Week 1 All-ACC Team, along with receiver Dazz Newsome.

Williams had arguably his best game as a Tar Heel on Saturday, he’ll hopefully be able to keep it going against the Hurricanes this week. The Hurricanes have the best front seven the Tar Heels will see all season, headlined by the best linebacker corps in the country that features three separate four-year starters.

Shaquille Quarterman

Quarterman, Miami’s returning leading tackler and a preseason All American, is in the middle of every play. He’s often the clean up guy for Miami — the defensive line will take up blockers and allow Quarterman to make plays in space.

Pro Football Focus gave Quarterman a 90.3 pass rushing grade, which is qualified as “elite.” That’s extremely impressive for a middle linebacker coming from space. When Quarterman brings pressure he is really patient, which sounds weird for a linebacker but it’s important. Young linebackers often try to get as close to the line as they can when they’re coming on a blitz, the theory being you want to get to the quarterback as fast as possible. Because Quarterman comes from space, 4-5 yards deep, the offensive line reacts to the initial pass rush and then readjusts when more pressure comes from space.

In real time all of that is less than two seconds, but the readjustment of the offensive line is what causes confusion and missed assignments. Quarterman can also rush from the edge and has the ability to beat tackles 1-1. He has fantastic use of his hands as a pass rusher, and any play is a threat to attack any gap.

North Carolina fans will (unfortunately) remember Quarterman from the game last year in which he had his best game of 2018 against the Tar Heels. He had two sacks, three tackles for loss, and a forced fumble that resulted in a defensive touchdown for the Hurricanes. Carolina will have to keep him out of the backfield this go around.

Zach McCloud

The first thing you’re taught as a linebacker is also the most important lesson you can learn: keep your outside arm free. The strong side linebacker’s responsibility is often to set the edge and force the ball carrier into traffic. If you can’t get your outside arm off the blocker then theres a good chance the ball carrier is just going to run right by you. On outside runs, strong side linebackers are often going to be fighting through some sort of a double team or a chip block with the tackle and at least a tight end or fullback. The ability to force the ball back inside is what turns a twelve yard run into a three yard run.

McCloud’s technique in taking on blockers and his ability to keep his hands free is what makes him so important to the Miami defense. McCloud was only eighth in tackles for the Hurricanes last season, but his willingness to take on blockers and force the ball back inside allowed for guys like Quarterman and Michael Pickney to rack up tackles.

This is every defensive snap McCloud played against Pitt last season. Once he diagnoses the play he is so quick to get to the blocker or ball carrier and disrupt what the offense is trying to do. It also doesn’t hurt that he comes in like a wrecking ball. Miami Head Coach Manny Diaz called McCloud “maybe the hardest hitting kid we’ve had in the program in the last four years.”

Michael Pinckney

Pinckney is instinctive, has great closing speed, and excels in space. He’s everything you look for in a weak side linebacker. Just like strong side linebackers have to play in traffic, weak side linebackers are usually playing in space. The term “sideline to sideline backers” that’s in reference to WILLs like Sean Lee or Thomas Davis in the NFL. Weak side linebackers are expected to cover a lot of ground and not miss a lot of tackles.

On every defensive snap linebackers have at least a run responsibility and a pass responsibility. They get half a step, literally called a read step, to diagnosis the play and either fill their gap or execute their coverage responsibility. (That’s why offenses use play action to force the line backers to creep up to the line of scrimmage and open up more passing lanes.) Linebackers are taught to read the first step of the offensive line, usually the guard, and react to that. If the guard stands up that keys a pass play, if the guard pulls or comes off the line then the linebacker has a gap to fill. Even half a second delay in reading the play usually means an open gap or an easy completion.

Luckily for Miami, Pinckney diagnoses the play and flies to his responsibility as well as anyone in the country. His closing speed makes it difficult for offenses to run plays that take a bit longer to develop. (Closing speed is usually referred to how fast a defensive back can close on a receiver after the receiver breaks off his route, but we’re going to go ahead and apply it to Pinckney getting to the ball carrier.) Even on plays when he doesn’t make the tackle he plays a big part in disrupting the offense.

Pinckney was actually Pro Football Focus’ highest graded Miami player from last season, with an overall grade of 84.8 and a coverage grade of 91.3. What’s scary about that is as good of a coverage linebacker as Pinckney is, I saw a a couple plays that he could have defended better, but are easy to learn from and improve on. His best game last season was probably against Florida State, and below is every snap he played in that game. Watch for how he plays in space, diagnoses the play, and makes essentially every tackle. (PFF on credited him with one missed tackle in the Florida State game.)

Carolina’s Front

What all this means for Carolina fans is that the offensive line is going to have to do a wonderful job getting clean blocks on Miami’s linebackers. In the South Carolina game the left side of the offensive line got a lot of (deserved) credit for their role in the big rushing day, in particular for Javonte Williams. Who didn’t get enough credit was Right Guard McKethan Marcus. Even on Williams’ runs that went to the left, Marcus was often pulling to the linebackers.

If we’re extrapolating from Week 1 to Week 2 then Marcus might be the guy tasked with taking Quarterman out of the play for Carolina. On the swing pass that Williams took for about 15 yards the South Carolina linebacker looks like he missed his assignment and went right for Sam Howell instead of staying with the running back. Even if he didn’t miss his assignment, it was at about half the speed of what we’re going to see from Pinckney on Saturday.

Some of Williams’ biggest runs came off RPO plays where the South Carolina linebacker paused at the mesh point to see if Howell would hand it off or keep it himself. That delay allowed for the blocking scheme to develop, and by the time Williams did get the ball the defender was out of the play. McCloud is going to try and blow up the mesh point instead of waiting for Carolina to dictate where the ball goes.

Miami’s front seven will be the toughest that Carolina faces all season. If the offensive line can replicate and improve off of what they did against South Carolina, and Javonte Williams can continue his dominant start to the season, the Tar Heels will have a good shot of starting the season 2-0.