Notre Dame Football: Pre-Spring Opponent Preview: North Carolina
Notre Dame’s decision in 2012 to become a quasi-ACC member was not only done to find a home for basketball and Olympics sports after the breakup of the Big East, but also to bring some stability to its football schedules. The first ACC team to come to Notre Dame Stadium since the alliance took effect will be Larry Fedora’s North Carolina Tar Heels.
The visit to South Bend will be North Carolina’s first in eight years. Falling in between showdowns with Stanford and Florida State, it’s a game that some Irish fans may gloss over when perusing the 2014 schedule.
Despite the loss of quarterback Bryn Renner and Mackey Award finalist Eric Ebron, the arrow is pointing up in Chapel Hill after a 6-1 close to the 2013 season. Gauging momentum from one season to the next is far from a science, but 2014 could finally be the year that the Tar Heels break through and win their first ACC division title.
North Carolina begins spring practice on Mar. 5 and will hold its spring game on Apr. 12. Let’s take an early look at the 2014 Tar Heels.
Date: Oct. 11 (3:30 p.m. ET, NBC)
Site: Notre Dame Stadium (Notre Dame, Ind.)
Last Meeting: North Carolina 29, Notre Dame 24 (2008)
Last Meeting at Notre Dame: Notre Dame 45, North Carolina 26 (2006)
Current Win Streak: North Carolina—1
Record: 7-6 (4-4 ACC)
Bowl: Belk Bowl (defeated Cincinnati, 39-17)
Leading Passer: Bryn Renner (Sr.)—152-of-231, 1,765 yards, 10 TD, 5 INT
Leading Rusher: Marquise Williams (So.)—111 carries, 536 yards, 6 TD
Leading Receiver: Eric Ebron (Jr.)—62 receptions, 973 yards, 3 TD
Stats That Matter
Yards Per Play: North Carolina—5.57 (69th nationally, sixth in ACC); Opponents—5.68 (77th nationally, 12th in ACC)
Turnover Margin: plus-three (42nd nationally, fourth in ACC)
Red Zone Touchdown Percentage: North Carolina—65.96 percent (44th nationally, fifth in ACC); Opponents—55.56 percent (33rd nationally, fourth in ACC)
Third-Down Conversions: North Carolina—41.27 percent (57th nationally, fourth in ACC); Opponents—39.81 percent (67th nationally, 11th in ACC)
Explosive Plays*: North Carolina—59 (58th nationally, sixth in ACC); Opponents—55 (50th nationally, sixth in ACC)
*Explosive plays are plays in which a team gained 20-plus yards.
Sitting at 2-5 in late October, North Carolina announced that senior quarterback Bryn Renner’s season was over due to a shoulder injury. Bowl hopes looked grim, but a new era was about to begin with the reins being handed over to situational quarterback Marquise Williams.
Williams, a better fit than Renner for Fedora’s system, added a running element that Renner never possessed. He served an academic suspension (sound familiar, Irish fans?) during the spring semester last year, or he may have beaten out Renner to be the opening-day starter.
In six starts after Renner’s injury, the 6’2” Williams tossed 10 touchdowns and just three interceptions to help the Tar Heels go 4-1 in November and win the Belk Bowl. A full spring should have him prepared for a big season in 2014.
Redshirt freshman Mitch Trubisky and 4-star recruit Caleb Henderson are the future. Fedora claims there will be an open competition, but the Irish shouldn’t have to worry about either Trubisky or Henderson until they visit Chapel Hill in 2017.
Heading into the 2013 season, it was expected that the “thunder and lightning” combination of 215-pound A.J. Blue and the speedy Romar Morris would handle the running game for the Tar Heels. While Blue and Morris combined for 143 carries, it was freshman T.J. Logan who led all running backs with 93 carries and 533 yards.
Blue departs, but Logan and Morris return. The Tar Heels add a name quite familiar to Notre Dame fans in Charlotte, N.C., native Elijah Hood. A one-time commit to Notre Dame, Hood flipped to the in-state Tar Heels prior to last season. He enrolled in school in January and should see playing time this season.
Williams led all players with 111 carries last season, including five games of at least 15 carries, but a strong running back corps and a better understanding of the offense could reduce his carries this fall. Notre Dame has struggled with mobile quarterbacks in the past (see Robinson, Denard), Williams will be another significant test for the Irish defense.
If there’s any program that knows the value of a good tight end, it’s Notre Dame. North Carolina had perhaps the best one in the nation last year in Mackey Award finalist and All-ACC selection Eric Ebron. Before leaving for the NFL, Ebron closed his career with a monster season in which he fell just shy of reaching the 1,000-yard plateau.
On the outside, the Tar Heels are in good shape. This was a young wide receiver group last season, but it now has the experience to help cancel out the loss of Ebron. Junior Quinshad Davis is a big-bodied receiver who led the team with 10 touchdown receptions in 2013, six more than any other Tar Heel.
Ryan Switzer is known more for his punt-return wizardry, but after a 32-catch freshman debut, the shifty sophomore’s role in the offense should expand. Johnathan Howard, T.J. Thorpe and Sean Tarpley all return, meaning Ebron is the only loss among the top six pass-catchers from a year ago.
Before offensive-line guru Sam Pittman left for Tennessee prior to the 2012 season, he developed the Tar Heels front into one of the best in the nation. That included a top-10 NFL draft pick in guard Jonathan Cooper, who departed after the 2012 season. North Carolina now must overcome two more key losses from the Pittman era in tackle James Hurst and center Russell Bodine.
Hurst was a senior and an All-ACC selection, but Bodine’s decision to leave school a year early caught many by surprise. Fortunately for the Tar Heels, the other three-fifths of their 2013 starting unit is back. Landon Turner and Jon Heck, son of longtime NFL lineman Andy Heck, return on the right side.
Turner may be the only upperclassmen in the starting five, which bodes well for the future. Sophomores John Ferranto and Lucas Crowley should slide in for Hurst and Bodine, respectively, with 12-game starter Caleb Peterson back at left guard. The loss of their two stars will sting, but having three returning starters and no seniors means this unit has plenty of upside in 2014 and beyond.
The strength of Butch Davis’ North Carolina teams from 2007-2010 was the front seven. Many notable names from those Tar Heels teams are now playing in the NFL, including Robert Quinn (St. Louis Rams), Bruce Carter (Dallas Cowboys) and Quinton Coples (New York Jets). Fedora benefitted early on from Davis and John Blake’s recruiting, but the elite talent from the Davis era has now all departed.
North Carolina plays a 4-2-5 defense under coordinator Dan Disch, with two hybrid positions known as “Bandit,” a defensive lineman/linebacker, and “Ram,” a linebacker/safety. Handling the Bandit for a second straight season is Norkeithus Otis. As a junior, Otis was second on the team with 8.5 sacks.
As for the true linemen, only tackle Ethan Farmer returns. The 295-pound Farmer started every game last season alongside Tim Jackson, who departs. All-ACC end Kareem Martin takes his 11.5 sacks, third-most in the ACC last season, and 40 career starts to the NFL. The rest of the two-deep returns, but Martin won’t be easily replaced.
North Carolina’s defense sacrifices a bit of size in order to get more athleticism on the field, a common trend in modern defenses, particularly the 4-2-5. Neither Travis Hughes nor Jeff Schoettmer tops 230 pounds, but both have proven to be effective ACC linebackers, starting 12 games each last season and combining for 161 tackles.
Linebackers often get overlooked in the 4-2-5, as their roles are often more to force plays to an area where the defense has leverage rather than to make plays themselves. Neither Hughes nor Schoettmer are going to rack up many sacks or interceptions, but they remain key parts of a defense that allowed more than 30 points only once in 13 games last season.
Junior Malik Simmons plays the role of the Ram, which requires a combination of skill sets—linebacker, cornerback and safety. Simmons was not expected to be the starter at this time a year ago, but he ended up being an ideal fit for the position after starting out as a cornerback.
The Tar Heels say farewell to a pair of defensive backs who started more than 30 games in Chapel Hill—cornerback Jabari Price and second-team All-ACC safety Tre Boston. The five interceptions recorded by Boston, the team’s vocal leader, last season were third-most in the ACC.
Strong safety Sam Smiley was lost for the season last summer, a significant blow after Smiley had started five games as a freshman in 2012. True freshman Dominique Green took advantage of Smiley’s bad break and seized the opening-day starting role, despite walking on to the team in January. He had two interceptions against Miami (FL) and returned an interception for a touchdown against Virginia.
Both Smiley and Green return, as does cornerback Tim Scott. The senior’s 33 career starts are more than any other Tar Heel. Candidates to replace Price include junior Alex Dixon and sophomore Desmond Lawrence. Dixon played in all but one game last season, finishing with 10 tackles and one pass breakup.
After two seasons handling only kickoffs behind placekicker Casey Barth, Thomas Moore took full control of kicking duties last season. Moore converted 14 of 19 attempts, but only six of his final 10 and just one of five from beyond 40 yards.
The Tar Heels will also have the luxury of a senior punter in Tommy Hibbard. He has 166 career punts and finished tied for second in the ACC last season with a 43.0 yards per punt average, the identical average to that of his 50-punt 2012 season.
Switzer’s remarkable freshman season culminated in being named to the FWAA All-American Team as a punt returner. Five of his 24 returns went for touchdowns, including two against Pittsburgh in a game that kept the Tar Heels alive for the Coastal Division title.
A pair of T.J.'s, Thorpe and Logan, shared most of the kick-return duties last season. With two touchdown returns last season, Logan has the presumptive edge to win the job for 2014.
Which North Carolina will we see in 2014? The team that started 1-5 or the team that finished 6-1? Notre Dame fans know about the jump that can be made in a coach’s third year, and the sentiment here is that it will be the latter.
You don’t replace players like Hurst and Ebron overnight, but the offense is much more experienced than it was this time a year ago. It’s not a stretch to say Williams will be the best quarterback in the ACC not named Jameis Winston.
The North Carolina team that comes to South Bend in mid-October will be a far cry from the 2006 team that was playing with an already fired head coach. Going from an opponent that likes to slow the game down in Stanford to the up-tempo Tar Heels will be a difficult transition for Notre Dame’s defense. Expect something closer to the 2008 thriller in Chapel Hill than the 2006 blowout.
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