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UNC Football vs. Virginia Tech: X-Factor

Who wins the run game Friday night?

North Carolina Spring Game Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Last season, the Virginia Tech finished the season as the top rushing team in the ACC, while the North Carolina Tar Heels were second in that category.

When UNC hosted Virginia Tech on October 10, 2020, these hard-running teams had a combined 634 yards on the ground.

Carolina’s 399 rushing yards against VT were the second-highest single game total for 2020, and demonstrated how effective the “R” in RPO could be for UNC.

This season, all five offensive linemen return, but the running backs will be a completely new group.

Head coach Mack Brown addressed this issue during his press conference on Monday:

Can we replace the 4000 yards of offense that we lost? And who will be doing it? You’ve got Ty Chandler, who will be out there early. You’ve got Caleb Hood, who we feel like will play, and DJ Jones that will play at running back. But how much will they play? And how productive will they be? Because none of them are experienced in this offense.

UNC fans do not expect Chandler, Hood, and Jones to replace the special duo of Javonte Williams and Michael Carter- but they do expect keeping the production at a high level.

With Chandler as the known quantity as an all-purpose back, Hood as a bruiser, and Jones with a high ceiling based on his pre-injury role as the third running back last season, this group has the potential to keep the run game as a dangerous component of the offensive.

Yet, with the unknowns for the group before the first game of the season, Friday night’s X-Factor is the UNC run game.

Chandler will be the key on the ground, and every Tar Heel hopes he lives up to the hype. Brown thinks he will:

He’s been in those big games. He’s not going to get big-eyed. He’s not a fumbler. He’s really good at pass protection. He knows what to do. And that’s the reason we signed him. We’re not big on grad transfers or transfers, but we did feel like that we needed that experience in that room. We feel really, really good about him going forward. We haven’t run him as much or hit him as much as some of the younger ones, simply because he’s played so much at Tennessee. I just saw him at lunch a few minutes ago and said, “can’t wait to watch you on Friday night.” He’s really excited, so it should be fun to watch.

The Tar Heels just could not afford a training camp injury to Chandler, and based on Brown’s remarks, he is expecting fresh legs and a heavy load in Carolina’s first game in front of a sold-out crowd since 2019.

On Friday night, the curtain will be pulled on the 2021 version of the UNC run game.

If the offensive scheme works as planned, there will be some combination of snap count management and the use situational personnel between the three backs that will average five yards a carry.

If not, even more pressure is placed on Sam Howell and a young receiver corps. To underscore this point, when Carolina gained at least 100 yards on the ground in 2020, they held a 8-1 record. When rushing for less than 100 yards last season, the Tar Heels did not win a game.

For these top 10 Tar Heels to contend in the ACC, the run game must produce.

How will Chandler and the running backs answer the biggest offseason question on Friday night?