Through six games, I don’t think it’s really debatable that Cedric Gray has been UNC’s best player on defense. Kaimon Rucker has been pretty good and Gray’s linebacking partner Power Echols has played pretty hard, but Gray has been all over the field, making a mediocre run defense look a little better than that, leading the team in interceptions with 2, and overall being one of the country’s top tacklers just in pure numbers. And in a game against Miami where his team needed it, Gray put in another vintage performance, making plays all over the field and making more than a couple of huge plays to help his team win the game.
Gray finished the game as UNC’s second-leading tackler with 13 total (9 solo), but that was only the beginning of his impact. Throughout the game, he was sent through the A-gap to pressure Tyler Van Dyke and made the Miami quarterback uncomfortable on multiple occasions. He didn’t get a sack, but he caused multiple incompletions and made Van Dyke, who had been picking apart the UNC defense when left unbothered, uncomfortable. He was credited with two QB hurries, but he might have been responsible for even more just by how violently he took on blitz pickups. Then he really showed up.
On a fourth down in the fourth quarter when Miami had been marching towards tying things up, Gray met Jaylon Knighton head-on and punched the ball out, forcing a turnover that the UNC offense turned into the field goal that would ultimately provide the Heels with the winning margin. Then, on Miami’s final drive, where they had 73 seconds and no timeouts to get into field goal range, UNC got into a familiar soft zone coverage, giving Miami the sidelines and enough of the middle of the field to get first downs, and suddenly in just over 30 seconds, Miami was close to midfield with the clock stopped, needing only about 20 yards for the edge of Andres Borregales’ field goal range. On first down, Gray pressured Van Dyke, forcing an overthrow. Thirty-five seconds left. Then, on second down, Gray dropped into coverage. Tight end Jaleel Skinner caught a ball about 6 yards deep, in front of Gray right about at the hash marks. And Gray absolutely stoned him, stopping Skinner’s forward progress immediately and pushing him backwards as the tight end tried to get out of bounds — officials called the play over with Skinner still in bounds, meaning the clock continued to run with the ball near the sidelines with 19 seconds and ticking. Miami’s offense, apparently stunned that the play hadn’t gone as they’d planned like every other completion that drive, scrambled to the line of scrimmage on 3rd and 4, looking very hurried. Van Dyke takes the snap and, amped up on the anxiety of getting off schedule, badly overthrows his target deep to his left, giving DeAndre Boykins a gift of an interception to end the game with the Heels on top. The havoc on the Miami side of the ball leading to that pick wouldn’t have happened without Gray’s forceful tackle to turn the tables; if you ask me, that was the play, not the interception itself, that really sealed the game. That it came at the end of just a generally dominant game was just icing as far as Gray’s personal accolades go. He’s easily deserving of our Player of the Game honors.
An honorable mention goes to Boykins, who was the beneficiary of both of Gray’s biggest plays — he pounced on the Knighton fumble to complete the play, and then, of course, got the pick, but he also had a nice sack on a safety blitz to swing momentum and played really well in run support. I’m very curious to see if the staff will try playing him at safety, where the Heels really need help. Caleb Hood had something of a coming out party as the starting running back, taking 13 carries for 74 yards and adding 5 catches on 5 targets for 50 yards, showing very impressive hands in the process. Hopefully, the injury that took him out of the last part of the game isn’t serious. Speaking of hands, Josh Downs made a few absolutely ridiculous plays in the first half, none more so than his fighting across the field to make good on his quarterback’s blind trust in him as he was being tackled, then changing directions on a dime and fighting through contact for a touchdown. He led the team in receiving with 6 catches for 69 yards.