Yesterday, in preparation of UNC’s season opener against Syracuse, I answered some questions for our SB Nation colleagues over at, Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician. In return, their site editor John Cassillo answered a few questions for us. To clarify, yes that is the name of the Syracuse blog. The origins can be found in this piece on Tomahawk Nation from 2013.
Thanks to John for his time. If you have any questions for him, he is also on Twitter. For the sake of accuracy, the following answers are unedited.
1) What has been done to avoid a repeat of last year’s disappointing record?
Dino Babers made changes at both offensive and defensive coordinator, hiring Sterlin Gilbert and Tony White, respectively, to run those units. On offense, that means getting back to a more dynamic attack since Gilbert’s run the offense for Babers before (back at Eastern Illinois and at Bowling Green). Defensively, they’re switching to a 3-3-5 scheme, which should lean into the team’s strength — the secondary.
Other than that, there are a lot of names back, but also a lot of production to replace. Syracuse fans are hoping that coaching changes help some issues, and not falling victim to reading their own headlines rectifies others. This year’s revised schedule doesn’t really lend much of an assist toward better results. But I do think this team could be improved compared to what we saw in 2019.
2) What concerns you the most about your current roster? COVID protocols? Team dissension? Opt-outs?
I think that Syracuse has actually done a pretty good job on keeping the team safe after discussing concerns with players. Where the bigger concern is with regard to protocols elsewhere, and making sure everyone’s on the same page. We have some big opt-outs from running backs Abdul Adams and Jarveon Howard, plus linebacker Tyrell Richards. But the bigger concerns come from our current injury situation.
Right now, we have a fullback starting at guard, so the O-line is the biggest red flag for the current roster. Considering it appeared that area was turning around following a rough season last year, it’s at least a little disconcerting we’re already very thin on the line.
3) Other than Tommy DeVito, who is one offensive player UNC fans should know?
Taj Harris is an impressive receiver despite what look like more pedestrian stats over the last couple seasons (total of 77 catches, 1,174 yards and 5 TDs). As a junior, he’ll be DeVito’s main target out wide, and has the route-running ability and hands to make plays in any part of the field. If Syracuse’s passing game starts testing UNC downfield, he’s the most likely target on the other end of those throws.
4) Who will exceed expectations on defense?
There’s plenty of concern around what the Orange do without top pass-rushers Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman this year, yet I actually think redshirt senior Josh Black will do just fine in the role. Having played both outside and inside in the past, he’s versatile and should benefit from a decreased emphasis on the line to generate a ton of havoc — as was the case for the last two years. The numbers may not pop off the page, but I do think he’s a player that’s crucial to SU’s success this year, and one that even ‘Cuse fans may be sleeping on a bit.
5) What is your biggest concern about facing UNC?
The Tar Heels’ run game really concerns me given the Orange’s struggles against opposing rushing attacks last year (allowed over 201 yards per game). Even if Syracuse’s defensive backs find some way to disrupt Sam Howell’s passing a bit (big “if”), that just means UNC leans on a two-headed run game that could really pound this front. SU’s linebackers are all pretty green too, so there’s a major concern that North Carolina can just coast to a win by handing the ball off to Michael Carter and Javonte Williams all day, if they want to.
6) What can Syracuse do to slow down Sam Howell?
This is where I’m a big fan of Andre Cisco’s move to the rover role. The country’s top returning ball-hawk could utilize his newfound flexibility to either try to force Howell into deep throws in the middle of the field (where he was just 12-of-40 last year), or potentially generate some pressure that can keep him off-balance. Howell completed just 42.4% of his passes when under pressure last year (per PFF), so anything Cisco or any other Orange player can do to force his decision-making should at least disrupt his flow a bit.
I don’t honestly think they’ll be able to slow Howell a ton. But as mentioned in the previous response, if SU manages to, then the run game should pick up the slack just fine.
7) Is this a make-or-break year for Dino Babers, or will COVID buy him one more season?
Babers has already received an extension after 2018’s 10-3 season, and last year was a handful of plays away from a bowl game despite significant O-line issues. While I don’t think his tenure has been perfect — some early inflexibility and a lot of recruiting struggles are definitely not my favorite traits of this regime — I think he’s proven that he’s a very good coach, but consistency hasn’t been a strong suit yet.
He’ll stick around for 2021 no matter what happens this season, and really, he’s pretty safe next year as well unless the bottom falls out. This year’s original schedule was set up to get a rebuilding squad to a bowl game, and next year’s lays out similarly. Until we can put together two straight winning seasons under Babers, though, the level of inbound talent probably can’t improve by leaps and bounds.
8) Notre Dame is invading the conference as one-season rental. Agree, disagree, or indifferent to the whole scenario?
Honestly, I was shocked that the rest of the ACC is getting a cut of the NBC TV revenue. When the idea was first floating out there, it seemed like a pretty one-sided life raft. But the million dollars or so that the NBC revenue will earn every ACC school is at least a reasonable trade-off. The only real downsides I see to this temporary setup are that the Irish wound up on Syracuse’s schedule, and that the league will be the butt of every joke if Notre Dame wins the league and then walks right back out the door.
Long-term, I think ND should have to join full-time. But the fact that they were able to make the College Football Playoff already as an independent probably makes them even less willing to do so than they were when this ACC arrangement started.
9) Game prediction?
I think Syracuse’s defense does enough interesting things in the early stages of this game to keep the game closer than Heels fans would like around halftime. However, without a proven run game or a capable interior offensive line, it gets tougher for Tommy DeVito to keep up with Sam Howell and UNC’s scoring output. Cisco gets a pick, and the Orange cover. However, it’s still a two-score loss that SU has to find some silver linings in while North Carolina probably shrugs off. Tar Heels 40, Syracuse 27.