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UNC Football: What Riley Leonard’s injury means for Carolina

If Duke’s star quarterback is unfit, the November 11th meeting will be completely changed.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Duke Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Carolina fans had a gloriously stress-free weekend watching the ACC smash each other into smithereens last Saturday. An unfortunate outcome from the marquee match-up between (then) undefeated Duke and a Notre Dame team chastened by Ohio State and math the week before, was the injury to quarterback Riley Leonard.

Tar Heel fans will no doubt shudder when they hear that name. Leonard was an absolute terror in last year’s thrilling 38-35 win in Durham. He threw for 245 yards and a touchdown, but more importantly, led the Blue Devils in rushing with 130 yards on 14 carries (four of them for first downs), including this humiliating touchdown run:

Leonard is big and athletic enough to take the hits that come with the occasional scamper. The game against Notre Dame was a contest between two tough defenses. Yards came at a premium. Riley Leonard led all rushers on both teams with 88 yards on 18 carries. He’s tough enough to handle the hits, and Carolina’s defense isn’t as stout as Notre Dame’s (the Irish give up 100 less yards per game than UNC).

Duke is fortuitous that their bye week starts now. We did learn that he has a high ankle sprain, so Leonard will have additional time for treatment and rest. Meanwhile, his team will embark on a treacherous portion of their schedule following their bye week, which includes playing NC State, Florida State, and Louisville in consecutive weeks.

If he’s able to give it a go, will Leonard be able to run like he has all season? Leonard has led the team in rushing in every game this season except for Duke’s blowout win over Lafayette. Carolina traditionally has a hell of a time containing mobile quarterbacks, and Leonard is doubly dangerous because of his accurate arm.

Last season, the Heels were only able to sack Leonard once. If his ankle doesn’t allow him to expand the pocket or dash for first downs once the second and third levels are spread out, Gene Chizik’s crew simply must get home and bring Leonard down. If given time to survey the field and throw comfortably, Leonard can make UNC pay.

It’s never pleasant to see an opponent get injured, but now that it has happened, Mack Brown and the Tar Heels need to be prepared for what comes next. Riley Leonard will likely not be at full strength, but a wounded animal is a dangerous one.