Now for something different. I don’t know if this will be a regular blog feature, but I’ll have it this week. I exchanged five questions with UNC beat writer Andrew Carter of the (Raleigh) News & Observer and Charlotte Observer. Here’s what he had to say about the Tar Heels heading into this week’s matchup.
AB: The Tar Heels had high hopes for 2013 but are off to a 1-3 start and even said they didn’t take East Carolina seriously last week. How has this affected the morale of this team only four games into the season? Is there a do-or-die mentality coming into the Virginia Tech game, considering it could drop the Heels to 0-2 in ACC play?
AC: The Tar Heels are putting on a positive face, but the morale can’t be good. Expectations were indeed high entering the season. Larry Fedora didn’t shy away from openly talking about his goal of winning the Coastal Division, and his confidence trickled down to the players. They really believed they had a great shot at winning the division. So the morale has taken a hit. Nobody could have foreseen a 1-3 start; even the most pessimistic of pessimists would have predicted victories against Middle Tennessee State (UNC’s only win) and ECU (by far its most embarrassing loss).
I think there is a do-or-die mentality. There’s still some belief among the players that they can salvage the season, and it’s not out of the question. A victory in Blacksburg, as improbable as that seems right now, could be the kind of thing that completely turns UNC’s season around. But it’s difficult to see the season turning around without beating Virginia Tech. So yes, this game has taken on a must-win kind of feel for UNC, and some the players have basically come out and said as much this week. They know they have to have this game to have any hope in the Coastal.
AB: UNC’s players spoke at the ACC Kickoff of having an improved defense this year, but they gave up over 600 yards and 55 points to East Carolina line week. What has continued to hold back any kind of progress on that side of the ball?
AC: Jabari Price, a UNC cornerback, put it best earlier this week: “Two steps forward, four steps back.” The defense actually looked pretty good (relatively speaking) two weeks ago against Georgia Tech, especially given the fact that the Yellow Jackets annihilated UNC last season in Chapel Hill. UNC allowed just 28 points against the Yellow Jackets – a big improvement after allowing 68 last season – and until it wore down in the fourth quarter, the defense could take away a lot of positives from that game.
But then UNC just melted down against ECU. It’s really hard to explain what went wrong. The simplest way to say it is that everything went wrong. Vic Koenning, the assistant coach who’s most in charge of the defense (though Dan Disch, another assistant, technically carries title of defensive coordinator) basically hosted a one-man confessional after practice earlier this week. It was almost strange to hear Koenning go into such detail about the failures of the defense.
He pointed to lack of leadership as one of the main reasons for UNC’s struggles. I think that’s a real problem right now. Sylvester Williams and Kevin Reddick combined to form the emotional soul of this defense last year, and now they’re both in the NFL and nobody has filled that giant leadership void. The Tar Heels have also been an extremely poor tackling team. And they’ve been undisciplined and have a tendency to blow assignments. On one play against ECU, UNC had just nine defensive guys on the field. But other than all of that …
AB: Bryn Renner hasn’t quite been as sharp as he was in 2012. What have you seen so far out of the senior quarterback? How different are things for him now that Giovani Bernard isn’t around to shoulder a lot of the offensive load and the offensive line took a step back?
AC: Yeah, Renner just hasn’t looked all that comfortable all season. He threw for a career-high 366 yards against ECU, so I guess that was one silver lining. But he was off throughout the first half of that game, and struggled with his accuracy like I’d never seen before. It made you wonder if there was something going on with his arm. His pass protection hasn’t been great. He’s had to shuffle around the pocket a lot more than last year, when UNC allowed just 11 sacks (already allowed nine this year), and certainly the increased pressure has something to do with his problems.
More than that, though, I think the entire offense is just out of whack. The running game has been non-existent, really, and the coaching staff hasn’t shown a lot of confidence in either A.J. Blue or Romar Morris, who was hurt and didn’t play last week. On a per-carry basis, those guys haven’t been bad, but UNC isn’t getting close to the kind of big-play production it had with Bernard. Offensively, UNC seems content to try to dink and dunk its way down the field, with a lot of short passes and bubble screens. When Renner has had time, he’s made some nice throws over the middle to Eric Ebron, the tight end, but those kinds of plays have been rare.
Renner will be limited on Saturday after suffering a foot injury against ECU. I’m interested to see how that affects him.
AB: UNC still seems to be putting up points. Who’s the biggest offensive threat this team has right now outside of Renner: TE Eric Ebron, WR, Quinshad Davis or RBs A.J. Blue and Romar Morris?
AC: It’s got to be Ebron. He should be a first-round draft pick. In terms of physical ability, he’s probably UNC’s most talented player. And he’s saved Renner a couple of times this year already – especially on a spectacular touchdown catch at Georgia Tech. Renner overthrew Ebron, but he made an outstanding leaping one-handed catch, anyway. Those are the kinds of things Ebron can do. He can turn an off-target throw into six points.
Now, like the rest of the offense, Ebron hasn’t exactly been dominant. Fedora wasn’t shy on placing expectations on Ebron before the season, either, and said that he expected Ebron to catch at least 12 touchdowns. It hasn’t exactly worked out that way. Ebron’s involvement in the offense has been hit or miss, and he goes long stretches without really being a factor. But that’s more because of UNC’s overall problems on offense.
Still, I guarantee Ebron has caused the most concern among the Virginia Tech coaching staff. He has been Renner’s favorite target so far, and with good reason.
AB: Larry Fedora pretty much had things going on an upward arc in his first season, especially at the end of the year when the Tar Heels were playing some of their best football. Has he changed at all in this first stretch of struggles during his tenure or is he still the same high-energy guy?
AC: Fedora has remained as high-energy as ever. That’s probably not all that difficult for him. He recently said on his radio show that he drinks about nine Red Bulls per day, which is something, frankly, that frightens me a little. That can’t be healthy, and I don’t need the stress of covering some sort of health crisis if all those Red Bulls catch up to him. I say that in jest. Mostly.
But yes – he has remained upbeat. For one, I think that’s just his personality. He’s an up-tempo, high-energy guy. Second, his team needs some good energy amid this kind of start. That said, though, Fedora isn’t oblivious to what’s going on in front of him. He opened up his press conference this week with the old cliché of “it’s never as good as it seems, and it’s never as bad as it seems.” Except, he put a twist on it and said that after watching film, his team’s performance against ECU was indeed as bad as he thought it was.
He hasn’t tried to sugarcoat anything – at least not after what happened on Saturday. He has been openly critical of all aspects of his team. Yet he has remained hopeful, too, because he really has no other choice.