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UNC Football: Players to Watch - Week 4

Look for sophomore linebacker Andre Smith to make a difference against James Connor and the Pitt Panthers on Saturday.

North Carolina v North Carolina State
Sophomore Andre Smith, (then #56) celebrates his first career interception against NC State last season.
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Panthers are headed to Chapel Hill on Saturday for a matchup against divisional rival North Carolina. UNC is on a three-game winning streak in the series, and is also boasting an undefeated record at Kenan Stadium against Pitt. Sitting at 2-1, this will be the first ACC game for both teams on the year. It will also be an opportunity for both teams to get off to a good start in terms of the ACC Coastal standings. The Heels are looking to build on their back-to-back wins, but this week’s win might come a little tougher than the last two.

Last week, Mitch Trubisky and company couldn’t keep up with James Madison until the Carolina defense figured things out. Carolina will hopefully continue to improve defensively this week, but another strong day from the offense is needed. A message to Mitch: get that arm ready bud. While giving up just 74 and 100 yards rushing to Penn State and Oklahoma State, Pitt allowed a total of 872 yards in the air over the course of those two games. While some big losses in yardage contributed to the low rushing numbers, those passing yards are not pretty for the Panthers defense. I see some big numbers coming from Trubisky and his top receivers, but the other side of the ball is where we’ll find our players to watch for Saturday.

Pittsburgh: James Conner - #23, Junior Running Back

We sound like a broken record over here at Tar Heel Blog, but you know what they say, “another day, another chance for us to actually stop the run!” (or something like that.) James Conner’s first season back after beating Hodgkin's Lymphoma not months ago has already been solid. He has 281 yards on 63 attempts, and three touchdowns in three games. With speed and vision aided by an experienced offensive line, the Panthers can give the ball to Conner in a number of different situations. In a shootout win vs. Penn State, he had a 12-yard shovel pass touchdown by exploding through the Nittany Lions secondary. Earlier in the game, he had a one-yard over the top score to cap off a 75-yard drive. The Panthers love to give the ball to Conner. They also clearly understand that any team can run on the Heels right now. Keep an eye on #23 this Saturday, he’ll be testing our “soft” defense all day.

North Carolina: Andre Smith - #10, Sophomore Linebacker

Why did I put “soft” in quotations you might ask? On Tuesday, Defense Coordinator Gene Chizik was not mincing words with the media. According to The News & Observer, when asked about the Heels’ performance this past Saturday against JMU, Coach Chizik said: “I thought we were soft, and I thought it was a very disappointing performance all the way around.” Chizik went on to say, “we've got to improve a lot this week or this game could get ugly.” You better believe the Carolina defensive unit heard about the coach’s comments, and I'm willing to bet they were not said by accident. Gene Chizik wanted to personally challenge his squad, because he rightfully needs more out of them.

Look for sophomore Andre Smith to further his leadership progress on Saturday. With the absence of signal caller Jeff Schoettmer, the Heels defense needed a leader to step up in 2016. So far, Smith has 26 total tackles in three games. Smith has been tasked with getting his unit in the right spot on every single play. Against Pitt, he will need to effectively signal the plays to his guys, while also setting the tone with his play. Communicating and filling those gaps created by the Pitt offensive line will go a long way in slowing down Conner and the Panthers offense.

“Really, what coach talks about is production,” Smith said in his Monday press conference after beating Illinois two days before. “From Week 1 to Week 2, it was a big jump [in performance]. I think I was able to be myself, and take control of every thing. So I'm just going to keep getting better and better.”

#23 for the Heels and #10 for the Panthers will both have big games on Saturday. Who will come out on top?