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UNC vs. Virginia Tech: Positional Grades

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A Feast of Incompetence.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Virginia Tech Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Have you ever had a first day of class where you’re catching up with friends that you haven’t seen all summer? You’re comparing vacations, showing them your teeth without braces on, flashing your new school shoes, etc? Then when the bell rings, the teacher says, “Alright kids, we’re going to have a pop quiz to see what you remember from last year. And the grade counts!”

That groan that came from all the students is the same one heard from Tar Heel Nation. Carolina flunked their season opener, and it wasn’t even a pop quiz! They’ve (presumably) been studying Virginia Tech all summer!

There’s grades are not going to get you a trip to Dairy Queen on the way home from school, but let’s bravely plow through them.

Quarterback: C-

After week one, here’s the current status of the Sam Howell Heisman Train:

It was a rough go for Carolina’s talismanic signal-caller. The offensive line bears a lot of responsibility for this performance (more on them later...) and it will probably take a few weeks for them to regain Howell’s trust. A quarterback can’t make winning plays when he’s running for his life.

As for Howell himself, he spoke during the offseason about how he is trying to limit mistakes that cost his team. Well, the early returns are pretty poor. Howell had three interceptions to one touchdown. One of those interceptions was suspect (more on that later...), one was tipped at the line (unlucky), but the one that sealed the game for Virginia Tech was absolutely inexcusable. I won’t even summarize it, just take a look at the clip:

I did not play the position in high school or college, but I can absolutely tell you that a quarterback must NEVER THROW THE BALL DOWNFIELD WHILE YOUR HEAD IS BACKWARDS!!! I will grudgingly admit that it’s damn impressive that Howell managed to fling that ball within a yard of Josh Downs while being lasso’d by the Hokie lineman.

All night long, Howell did not look as comfortable as he did last season. The overall quality drop from Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome going to the NFL is a huge factor, but I’m convinced that Carolina would have had a better offensive showing if Georgia State was the first game of the schedule instead of Virginia Tech. This is a receiving corps that definitely needs some time against real opponents to get their timing and rhythm right.

Running Backs: C-

Statistics can be tricky sometimes. UNC actually out-rushed Virginia Tech 146-138. But if you subtract the 29-yard gain D.J. Jones had to end the first half when the Hokies went prevent, the picture gets a little more bleak.

Ty Chandler had some success, rushing ten times for 66 yards. His pass protection was competent, even if the overall blocking for Sam Howell was inept. But last year’s rushing bonanza now feels like it was owed more to the individual brilliance of Michael Carter and Javonte Williams, not to the veteran offensive line.

Last season, Javonte averaged 4.59 yards after contact and 0.48 missed tackles per carry. Carter wasn’t far behind, averaging 4.47 yards after contact, and he forced 47 missed tackles. With one game in the books, I haven’t seen that kind of power or wiggle from UNC’s current stable of running backs.

Ignoring Howell, who actually led the team in rush attempts with 13, none of the three running backs who featured today gave what the Gruesome Twosome provided the offense with so many times: decisive cuts into the gut of the defense. There was too much tap dancing and misguided patience to flow to the outside. Those blocks were never going to hold that long, and there were yards to be had in the middle. This must be improved upon this season, or this offense will continue to sink.

Wide Receivers and Tight Ends: C-

This was looking like a D- if it wasn’t for second impactful game in a row for Josh Downs, who previously shined during the Orange Bowl loss to Texas A&M. Downs did not shame himself, catching 8 of 10 passes for 123 yards and Carolina’s only touchdown of the night.

Justin Olson got punked by Jermaine Waller, which gave Sam Howell his first interception of the night. In fairness, the play should have been ruled an incomplete pass, but the refs seemed to get caught up in the excitement on VT’s sideline, and the Hokies were clever enough to get their first offensive snap off before the booth could initiate a review.

Emery Simmons was the second leading receiver with three catches for 46 yards, but he had some heinous drops, and was targeted nine times. This is not good enough! Tight end Garrett Walston only hauled in 1 of 4 passes, and was chopped down by 205 pound Chamari Connor in the open field, with Khafre Brown holding a block on the edge. Walston probably wasn’t quick enough to score, but he could have gotten the first down if he hurdled the corner.

In addition to his stone hands, Garrett Walston killed the 4th quarter drive that saw the Heels threatening Virginia Tech in the red zone, and faced 3rd & 4 on the VT 10-yard line. Howell had an RPO look and kept the ball from Ty Chandler, who squirted through the right side of the line. Walston, who pulled from the right to left side, started making his way downfield to block a safety sitting in coverage, completely ignoring defensive end TyJuan Garbutt, who probably couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw Howell with the ball in his hands and promptly sacked him for a 4-yard loss. Carolina had to kick the field goal.

Offensive Line: F

Sam Howell, UNC’s crown jewel, was made to look extraordinarily ordinary against Virginia Tech’s defense. He was never comfortable in the pocket. His receivers didn’t have time to develop their routes. And he never had time to look downfield and launch any of his trademark 50-yard bombs. His health was constantly in jeopardy.

An example: during the second offensive series, UNC began to piecemeal some forward movement, cobbling three first downs together before Virginia Tech blew up the right side of the line on a linebacker blitz on 1st & 10. Sam Howell tried to step up to evade defenders, but couldn’t ever get his eyes downfield, so chaotic was his pocket which looked more like a washing machine.

After a four-yard rush by Ty Chandler, Carolina faced 3rd & 7. On a simple three-man rush, Jordan Tucker got beat on the right edge by a simple speed rush from Norell Pollard, center Quiron Johnson got beat on a simple grab-and-pulldown move by Mario Kendricks, and left guard Asim Richards couldn’t help because he already had to help left tackle Joshua Ezeudu, who got pushed off balance on an inside-spin move by TyJuan Garbutt. 13-yard sack on Howell, who got thrown to the ground on his throwing shoulder, and the Heels were out of field goal range.

Starting center Brian Anderson only played two snaps, as he works his way back to health. UNC can likely survive Quiron Johnson starting against Georgia State. But Tar Heel Nation needs to start sending good vibes to Chapel Hill, or engage in some reverse voodoo doll manipulation to get him back in starting shape by the time UVA comes to Kenan Stadium, or else this season will go down in flames quicker than even the most pessimistic fan could have foreseen.

Defensive Line: C+

Offseason reports indicated that this year’s Carolina D-line, while young, was a lot more talented than last year’s and had a lot more depth. Those net positives did not materialize in the season opener.

Before we crucify the defensive line, let’s point out that Virginia Tech’s O-line is very good. On their opening drive, the Hokies executed 8 plays, all for positive yardage. They mostly rushed, but on the two occasions where Burmeister threw (completions for 9 and 33 yards, respectively) the Hokie quarterback didn’t have a hand in his face. Smooth pitch and catch.

On the night, the Tar Heels only mustered one late sack by Tomon Fox, and two of their three quarterback hurries were from middle linebackers. The D-line needs to step up their pressure and get some more sacks and TFL, preferably without the linebackers needing to get in the mix.

Jay Bateman can get really creative with his schemes, but Carolina should be able to get more penetration and hits in the backfield out of their base defense.

Linebackers: C

The good news? Jeremiah Gemmel co-led the team in tackles. The bad news? He only had seven tackles, and was tied for the lead with fellow middle linebacker Eugene Asante, and safeties Trey Morrison and JaCurious Conley.

Eugene Asante steps into the enormous shoes of Chazz Surratt, now plying his trade for the Minnesota Vikings. As a developed linebacker with years of experience, it was thought that Asante would be a solid partner to senior leader Gemmel, even if Asante wasn’t as physically gifted as Surratt, a super-athlete.

But Asante often looked like he was chasing ghosts. The towel that he had tucked into his pants was nearly down to his ankles. It may as well been cast in bronze instead of spun out of cotton. Too many of his plays were spent chasing ball carriers from behind.

Des Evans had a decent game, contributing four team tackles. When on the outside, he would seal off the edge well, but the inside linebackers didn’t necessarily finish off those plays at the line of scrimmage. With time, this trait will lead to more backfield hits when running backs see that they can’t bounce outside. Dude looks like a monster.

Defensive Backs: B

As previously mentioned, Trey Morrison and JaQurious Conley tied for the team lead in tackles. That’s no good.

Storm Duck did not play. That’s no good.

Tony Grimes played every defensive snap, which is a clear indication that he’s now the alpha dog of the cornerbacks. That’s great, because he’s the most talented, but you’d kind of like an upperclassman to step up to the plate to match him.

I’m not thrilled that the secondary didn’t seem to know where to line up during the game. Virginia Tech was showing a lot of motion, but surely with all summer to prepare, the defense could have sorted this out. Take a look at their first touchdown:

Tony Grimes is split wide on the receiver, and Don Chapman and Kyler McMichael are both drawn to the jet sweep pre-snap, and both follow him in motion. Burmeister simply tucks and runs into the vacated space for an easy touchdown. This will need to get cleaned up before Virginia visits Kenan Stadium. The Hoos like to run from the quarterback spot, so I’m told.

One bright spot is UNC’s player of the game Ja’Qurious Conley. The sophomore safety made huge plays, including scooping up a fumble while Virginia Tech was threatening Carolina’s goal line, and an interception. When Conley got his pick, twisting his body and catching the ball on his back, it was a huge moment in the game. UNC had just lost the ball on downs, and Conley gained possession back on VT’s first play on offense. It’s a shame that Carolina turned right back around and threw a pick of their own two plays later.

A quibble that I had with Conley moving to safety from nickel was that he would be further away from the ball and less likely to make as many big-hit plays. My fears were initially realized when the Hokies went run heavy to drain clock.

But Conley plays with such speed and violence that if somebody throws in his direction, and the receiver has his head turned to look for the ball, Ja’Qurious is going to hit him so hard, he’ll cough blood. I’m almost kind of worried.

Special Teams: A

Special Teams was the one bright spot on the team. They largely did everything right.

Punter Ben Kiernan punted four times averaging 42.3 yards per attempt, and landed two of them inside the VT 20 yard-line. He got one to die at the 1 yard-line, but apparently it went into the end zone for a touchback. ESPN never showed the replay.

Grayson Atkins hit his only field goal attempt in the fourth quarter, a cool 31-yarder, after the Heels offense failed to reach the end zone.

Coaching:

This one is going to be tough to shake off.

On the first drive, all the play calls were passes (Howell scrambled on one play for a 2-yard gain). We know Sam Howell’s a baller, but what made Carolina’s offense so devastating last season was the balance. Virginia Tech’s D-line was selling out for the pass. Using the RPO and letting the ball go to the running back for some draw-action could have 1.) gotten some first downs and 2.) alleviated some pass rush pressure on the beleaguered O-line.

Defensively, Carolina didn’t seem to know what to do with the myriad of motion Virginia Tech presented pre-snap. If it weren’t for the Hokies taking their stupid cannon (sorry Arsenal!) and shooting themselves in the foot over and over, Virginia Tech could have easily been up 17-21 points going into halftime.

Jay Bateman did sort things out in the second half, and the Heels forced two straight 3-and-outs to start the third quarter. In fact, the defense only allowed a 48-yard field goal in the second half, and grabbed an interception and their only sack of the night in the fourth quarter. They also held firm when Howell threw his second pick of the game, forcing a 3-and-out and a missed field goal when Tech got the ball at UNC’s 36-yard line.

This week in Chapel Hill, Phil Longo will be yelling at O-line coach Stacy Searels, and then he’ll get yelled at by Mack Brown until somebody figures out how to get the blocking scheme back on track. If that doesn’t get solved, none of the offensive issues will improve.

Next week, the Heels have an opportunity to get right against Georgia State. After that, Virginia comes to town, and if Carolina hasn’t improved their offensive output, they could be 0-2 against the state of Virginia, without a hope of winning the Coastal Division.