Thursday, October 24, 2013

Duke vs. Virginia Tech: Ask a Hokies’ beat writer

Each week, I'll (hopefully) talk to a beat writer who covers Duke's opponent. Today we have Andy Bitter, who covers the Hokies for the Roanoke Times/Virginian-Pilot. Links to his work can be found here and check out his blog here. Andyis also on Twitter at @AndyBitterVT.

1. After last year's 7-6 campaign and near-losses to Conference USA's Marshall and East Carolina, many were declaring the end of the Frank Beamer era of dominance. Since then, though, the Hokies have gone 3-0 in conference play and risen to No. 16 in the AP Poll. Is everything back to normal in Blacksburg?

In a way, yes. The offense, at least since Michael Vick left Blacksburg, has never really been anything special. Even during the Tyrod Taylor years, Tech had some pretty statistically bad offenses. So the fact that Scot Loeffler's crew ranks 110th nationally in total yards isn't really too much of a departure from what the Hokies have been like in the past decade. But they're doing some things more effectively on offense. Quarterback Logan Thomas looks sharper, especially with his progressions and mechanics. The receivers are making plays. They're not making crippling turnovers like they were last year. In essence, they're doing just enough.

And just enough is more than enough for this defense, which is a vintage Bud Foster group, limiting the yards but also disrupting things by getting to the quarterback and forcing turnovers. Even the tight wins against Marshall and East Carolina -- who I think are actually pretty decent teams -- were how Virginia Tech normally wins games: lean on the defense and get enough offense to do the trick. It's been a successful formula for Beamer for the last 20-plus years. It makes sense that it's working again this season.

2. Last year's defense was a surprise disappointment, but this year's has been a pleasant surprise, ranking No. 2 in the country in total defense. Why is this year's group so much better?

If you ask Foster, he'll say experience and depth. The starting defensive line and inside linebackers have five seniors among them. The secondary has everyone, except for Antone Exum so far, back and in the same spot they were playing last year (they shuffled things around in the 2012 offseason). And on top of that experience, Tech doesn't drop off significantly when it gets to the backups, especially up front. The d-line goes about eight deep. It's good enough that the Hokies are trying to find a role for sophomore defensive end Dadi Nicolas, who had three sacks in a hybrid DE/OLB position against Pittsburgh.

The other big thing has been the true freshman cornerbacks, Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson. They've played well beyond their years, enough that the Hokies haven't had Exum, a second-team All-ACC performer last year, play in a game this season and they still rank third nationally in passing defense and interceptions. Fuller has been able to play both a regular cornerback spot and a nickelback position, which Tech has used the vast majority of the time (and will against Duke). Facyson has thrived when he's been in, with a team-high four picks (although he's dealing with a concussion this week). Last year, Tech didn't have anybody after Kyle Fuller and Antone Exum at corner. This year, they do.

3. If Duke is going to stay in this game, it's going to be because the offense is putting up points. Where is the weakest spot in the defense?

There aren't a ton of weaknesses, although I will say the Hokies have occasionally been vulnerable on passes across the middle. Safety Detrick Bonner hasn't had the most consistent season in pass coverage and has given up some yardage in one-on-one matchups across over the middle. Other than that, there aren't many chinks in the armor. The key is probably protection. The Hokies' pass defense has been good, but that's in large part thanks to the pressure the defensive line is putting on the quarterback. Duke will have to protect well and Anthony Boone will need to get rid of the ball quickly, because Virginia Tech's opponents haven't had a whole bunch of time to throw this year.

A mobile quarterback has a much better shot. Pitt's Tom Savage was a sitting duck a few weeks ago (Tech sacked him eight times and probably could have had 12), but Marshall's Rakeem Cato and North Carolina's Marquise Williams had some success moving around in the pocket and getting some decent yardage scrambling. It definitely gives the Hokies at least one more thing to think about.

4. Part of the reason the Hokies almost lost to C-USA teams was because of that anemic offense, led by the uneven performances of QB Logan Thomas. You look at the point totals from the three ACC wins - 17-10 over Georgia Tech, 27-17 over UNC and 19-9 over Pitt -- and they don't jump off the page. Has the offense improved of late, though?

I think it has, even though the running game has still been abysmal, one of the worst the Hokies have had under Beamer in fact. But Thomas has played better. In ACC play, he's completing 65 percent of his passes for 251 yards a game, with five touchdowns and no interceptions. He's thrown 109 straight passes without an interception, which is approaching his career-best streak. It's helped that the receivers, who had about 10 drops in the season-opening loss to Alabama, have come around, turning into viable options for Thomas to throw to. The offensive line has been OK at pass blocking but leaves plenty to be desired on the ground.

The Hokies aren't going to have an offense that goes up and down the field and put up great stats, but with a defense like they have, they don't really have to. So far, they've controlled the clock (36th nationally in time of possession) and haven't turned the ball over. Last year's team struggled with both of those things, and it stressed a defense that wasn't quite up to the task of carrying things. This year, Tech has that defense, so Beamer is content with winning ugly. The key is Thomas. If he's off, there aren't many players on the offense who can carry the day.

5. How and why is Cody Journell still the Hokies' kicker? He's 7-of-11 on field goal attempts this year and has missed at least one kick in the last four games he's lined up for a field goal (and he went 0-for-2 against ECU)?

Beamer seems to have a soft spot for Journell, who was the first scholarship kicker he's had straight out of high school since Shayne Graham and who has had some missteps -- an ugly breaking and entering arrest that led him to miss the '11 Sugar Bowl and a recent one-game suspension for a violation of team rules -- that most coaches wouldn't put up with.

On top of that, he was genuinely bad in the East Carolina game earlier this year. He technically only finished 0-for-2 on field goal attempts, but he also missed an extra point and had another field goal miss from a reasonable distance wiped out by a penalty. He was suspended for the Marshall game and has since been OK, although he has some strange misses. He was good from 39 at Georgia Tech but then had a dead pull from one of the hashes on a 25-yarder that would have put the game away. He went 4-for-5 with a career-long 48-yarder against Pittsburgh (earning ACC Specialist of the Week honors), but he also missed from 33.

Bottom line: he's a senior and Tech doesn't really have anybody else. Ethan Keyserling stepped in during Journell's suspension against Marshall and went 0-for-3 (although the weather was horrible that game). Journell is good enough to hit from 50, and he saved the Hokies' butt on three or four occasions last year, but I don't know if anyone in Blacksburg, outside of Beamer, is entirely comfortable whenever he's lining up for a kick.

Bonus: I was asked to do this after dropping the ball last weekend in Charlottesville: where are good breakfast spots in Blacksburg for the early arrives, and where should out-of-towners head to get dinner and a drink after the game?

I don't know of too many good breakfast spots. Don't get out that early too often. I think Lefty's Main Street Grille has a solid breakfast. Bull & Bones also has a breakfast, although I haven't sampled it yet.

As for afterward, both of those places are good dinner options too. Cabo Fish Taco is one of my personal favorites for lunch/dinner. I recommend the Soy Ginger Shrimp Tacos. Downtown, TOTS is probably the bar most people will suggest for post-game drinking (order a Rail). I'd also suggest Bull & Bones for drinking afterward. It's a little bit away from downtown and they brew their own beer.

Thanks to Andy for his time. Be sure to check Duke Now for more Duke football news.

- Laura Keeley

Friday, October 18, 2013

UNC coach Larry Fedora has difficulty explaining costly delay-of-game penalty

CHAPEL HILL — At the end of a confounding loss, the greatest question that surrounded North Carolina focused on its most confounding play: With three timeouts and with less than six minutes to play, how could the Tar Heels, inches away from a first down, take a costly delay of game penalty?

UNC allowed Miami to drive 90 yards to score the game-winning touchdown that gave the Hurricanes a 27-23 victory on Thursday night. The Tar Heels faltered in the red zone, and scored a touchdown on just one of their five trips inside Miami’s 20-yard line.

Amid all that went wrong, though, the delay of game penalty might have stood above the rest. Before it, UNC was preparing for a 3rd-and-inches play from its own 49-yard line. The Tar Heels needed less than a yard for a first down. Had they converted it, they likely could have burned at least another minute or two off the game clock.

Instead, the penalty moved UNC back five yards. Instead of a 3rd-and-inches, it was now a 3rd-and-5. And then it was 3rd-and-10, after Jon Heck, the freshman right tackle, committed a false start penalty. In the span of two whistles, UNC lost 10 yards without even taking a snap.

On the 3rd-and-10 play, Miami sacked UNC quarterback Bryn Renner and the Tar Heels punted, setting up the Hurricanes’ final drive. Had UNC called a timeout on 3rd-and-inches, maybe the game ends differently. Instead, the Tar Heels were left to wonder, again, what-if?

Larry Fedora, the UNC coach, afterward explained the delay penalty like this:

“I was hoping to pick up a first down,” he said. “And it was third and about one yard or less than a yard. We substituted and (the officials) felt like they needed to stand over the ball until we couldn’t snap it. So I’m not sure I still understand that yet. I’ll have to get an interpretation there. … That’s my fault.”

UNC made substitutions on the play, and Fedora said the officials told him that because of that substitution, Miami needed to be allowed three seconds to make its own substitutions.

“I thought there was a lot more than three seconds on the clock when we substituted,” he said. “Maybe there weren’t. I don’t know. I thought there was well over that.”

Either way, UNC had three timeouts left. There were less than six minutes left. It needed just inches. A quarterback sneak likely would have gotten the job done. The Tar Heels finished the game with 500 yards of offense, but they didn’t have an opportunity to get the one yard they needed most.

A screenshot that began circulating early Friday morning shows one of the officials standing over the ball with one second left on the play clock before the delay of game call. posted the picture on its Twitter account, and the screenshot verifies Fedora’s explanation that an official was standing over the ball.

Even so, it doesn’t explain why UNC simply didn’t just call a timeout.

-- Andrew Carter

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

UNC football holds invite-a-professor-to-practice day

CHAPEL HILL -- North Carolina coach Larry Fedora on Wednesday night addressed his team after practice, like he usually does. Then he walked over to a group of UNC professors, who had gathered to watch the Tar Heels' practice as part of the football team's "invite a professor to practice" day.

This has become something of a tradition, Fedora said. Each player has an opportunity to invite one of their professors to watch UNC practice. A crowd of about 20 professors showed up on Wednesday. Tom Ross , the president of the University of North Carolina system, was among the attendees, though he arrived toward the end of practice.

Fedora said he held a similar event during his days as the head coach at Southern Miss. When Fedora arrived at UNC, he spoke of the importance of bridging the gap between academics and athletics. After a two-year investigation into impermissible benefits and academic fraud, the NCAA in March 2012 placed the UNC athletic department on probation, cut football scholarships and handed out a one-season postseason ban, which kept the Tar Heels out of the ACC championship game last season.

Since then, questions have been raised about how suspect classes in the Department of Afro- and African-American Studies helped keep UNC athletes eligible over a range of years.

Fedora has said that one of his goals is to work more closely with the academic side of the university. Which is part of the reason, he said, why professors were invited to practice on Wednesday. Fedora said when he greeted the professors after practice, many of them asked him questions - mostly about football.

"They had a lot of questions - why we were moving from where we were moving," Fedora said. "Who was on this field, who was on that field, why we play music. Those kinds of questions.

"And then it was just why we're doing this in the first place - to bridge the gap between academics and athletics that's on every campus everywhere in the country, and to try to get both sides more involved."

Fedora said the crowd of professors who came to practice on Wednesday was the largest yet. Kareem Martin , a senior defensive end, said he invited one of his policy professors from a 600-level class. The professor couldn't make it, though, Martin said.

Even so, Martin said the event allows professors to better understand the players' daily schedule, and the demands of practice.

"They only know us from the classroom, and I guess what they see on Saturday," Martin said. "So they don't see all the hard work that we put in. It's hard being a student-athlete - all the hours that we put in on the field and the practice fields, and in the classroom and study hall, and all.

"So it gives them a chance to see how hard we really work."

Fedora said the professors would receive a post-practice tour of the Loudermilk Center, which houses UNC's athletic academic support department. While professors received that tour, Fedora said the players would shower and then meet their professors for dinner in the team dining hall.

"I think the best part of it is that they actually sit down and they actually talk and communicate," Fedora said. "They find out about each other, and the player, the kid realizes that the professor is a normal person, and then I think the professor also finds out the kid's a normal person."

- Andrew Carter

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Q&A: UNC coach Larry Fedora speaks about SI report on Oklahoma State

CHAPEL HILL — Before becoming the head coach at North Carolina, Larry Fedora was the head coach at Southern Miss. And before that, he was the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State, where he worked from 2005 through 2007.

That time period is right in the middle of one that is the focus of a lengthy Sports Illustrated investigation into the Oklahoma State football program. SI’s series, which is being released in installments, alleges that Oklahoma State players were paid, that they had coursework done for them and that drug use was rampant, among other things.

Fedora after UNC practice earlier Wednesday addressed the SI report. Here’s his Q-and-A with reporters:

Q: What has been your reaction to the Oklahoma State report in Sports Illustrated?

A: It was shocking when it came out. It was shocking to me. But I also understand it’s accusations and allegations. That’s what they are. They’re allegations. So whether or not there’s any truth to them or not, I don’t know, but I do believe this – I believe (Oklahoma State president) Burns Hargis, I believe (Oklahoma State athletic director) Mike Holder, I believe they will be aggressive and I think they’ll be transparent in their investigations. And I think if there is any wrongdoings, I have complete faith that they’ll get it straightened out and they’ll accept whatever’s coming to them and they’ll move on down the road.”

Q: During your years there did you see anything suspicious or anything that raised concerns?

A: Nothing. And let me tell you – I’ll tell you this. There was no doubt on my mind and every guy on that staff that it was clear from that administration and Mike Gundy that you were going to do things right there. No doubt.

Q: Have you read the two SI stories that have come out or read summaries?

A: I haven’t had time to read all of it. I’ve had people telling me things, you know. But I haven’t had time.

Q: Have you taken exception to anything SI reported, or disagreed with anything?

A: Well, what do you have five or six more parts, or I don’t know what it is. So I’ve had to wait until it’s all out and see what’s said.

Q: Did you get any advance warning that the report was coming out?

A: No, I didn’t. I didn’t.

Q: Have you had any discussions with UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham about the story?

A: Bubba and I and I have talked about it, yes.

Q: What were the nature of those conversations?

A: Well, because I was obviously at Oklahoma State from 2005 through 2007, and so it was just a natural conversation on what my thoughts were about the situation.

Q: Have you talked to Gunter (Brewer) about it?

A: Yes, I’ve talked to Gunter.

(NOTE: Brewer, UNC’s wide receivers coach, was on Oklahoma State’s staff from 2005 through 2010.)

Q: And what were those discussions like?

A: Same way. Same thing. Both of us were kind of in shock that all this came out.

- Andrew Carter

Monday, September 9, 2013

UNC, Chapel Hill leaders announce plans for Tar Heel Downtown

CHAPEL HILL — Chapel Hill will host a downtown block party before North Carolina’s nationally-televised Thursday night game against Miami on Oct. 17. Town leaders and Bubba Cunningham, the UNC athletic director, announced the plans during a press conference on Monday.
The event, dubbed “Tar Heel Downtown” will start at 4 p.m. and end at 7 p.m. The town will close off Franklin Street between Columbia and Mallette Street, and the event will be centered at the 140 West Plaza, which is a newly-opened residential and retail development.
Mark Kleinschmidt, the Chapel Hill mayor, said town leaders are expecting a crowd of 10,000 for Tar Heel Downtown. The event, which is geared toward families, will feature live music from the band Liquid Pleasure, and appearances from the UNC cheerleaders and marching band.
There will be bounce houses, face painting and other activities.
UNC hosts a similar event outside of Kenan Stadium, near the bell tower, before every home game. Moving the fesitivities to Franklin Street, Cunningham said, will help alleviate some of the challenges that come naturally to hosting a Thursday night football game.
Here is some logistical information for Tar Heel Downtown:
-West Franklin St., again, will be closed from Columbia to Mallette streets between 4 and 7 p.m. on Oct. 17.
-Free game day parking will be available at University Square. Fans are advised to arrive before 3:30 to take advantage of that free parking.
-Multiple locations downtown will be available for parking. See for details.
-UNC’s fall break begins the day before, on Oct. 16.

- Andrew Carter

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Duke's Jamison Crowder among ACC Players of the Week

Thanks in large part to his first-quarter punt return for a touchdown against N.C. Central, Duke's Jamison Crowder was named the ACC Specialist of the Week. Crowder, a 5-foot-9, 175-pound receiver from Monroe, N.C., scored his first career special teams touchdown with the 76-yard return. It's the second time Crowder has received ACC Player of the Week honors—he was the receiver of the week in last year's regular season finale against Miami after recording a 99-yard touchdown reception.
Here are the rest of the awards—guess who is Rookie of the Week—as voted on by a panel of ACC writers, which includes Andrew Carter and myself:
OFFENSIVE BACK – Tajh Boyd, Sr., QB, 6-1, 225 Hampton, Va.
Boyd completed 18 of 30 passes for 270 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions in Clemson’s 38-35 win over fifth-ranked Georgia. He also had 13 rushes for 42 yards and two scores, giving him 312 yards of total offense. He finished the game with five total touchdowns rushing and passing. It was the seventh win for Boyd against a top 25 team as the starting quarterback, tying the school record.
CO-OFFENSIVE LINEMAN – Ryan Norton, Clemson, So., C, 6-3, 270, Simpsonville, S.C.
Norton, the only first-year starter in Clemson’s veteran offensive line, played all but one snap (78 total) at center in his first career start and was Clemson’s highest graded offensive lineman at 91 percent with four knockdown blocks. He was a big reason Clemson gained 467 yards and scored 38 points on offense and controlled the clock for 9:08 of the fourth quarter.
CO-OFFENSIVE LINEMAN – Brandon Linder, Miami, Sr., RG, 6-6, 317, Southwest Ranches, Fla.
Linder, a preseason All-ACC selection, anchored Miami’s offensive line that paved the way for 303 yards rushing – 8.0 yards per carry – and three rushing TDs in the Hurricanes’ 34-6 win over Florida Atlantic. Liner led an offensive line that produced 503 yards of total offense, the Hurricanes’ third consecutive game with 500-plus yards of total offense dating back to the 2012 season. Linder graded out at 94 percent with five cut blocks, three pancakes and no sacks allowed.
RECEIVER – Sammy Watkins, Clemson, Jr., WR, 6-1, 205, Fort Myers, Fla.
Watkins had six receptions for 127 yards and a touchdown in Clemson’s win over fifth-ranked Georgia. That performance included a 77-yard touchdown reception from Tajh Boyd in the first quarter that gave Clemson a 14-7 lead. It was the longest reception of Watkins’ career. The play took place on Clemson’s first play after Georgia had scored on a 75-yard run by Todd Gurley and provided an important momentum swing. Watkins finished the game with 154 all-purpose yards.
DEFENSIVE LINEMAN – Robert Welsh, Syracuse, Jr., DE, 6-3, 2596 Bay Shore, N.Y.
Against Penn State, Welsh recorded six tackles, including four solo and a sack for a loss of four yards, and added an interception in his first career start. Welsh returned the interception 31 yards to the Penn State 1-yard line, setting up Syracuse’s touchdown that brought the Orange to within six, 23-17, with just less than seven minutes to play. His first tackle during the Nittany Lions’ first offensive series was on a 3rd-and-1 play on which he stopped the ball-carrier for no gain.
LINEBACKER – Spencer Shuey, Clemson, Sr., LB, 6-3, 230, Charlotte, N.C.
Shuey’s 12 tackles were a team-high and five more than any other defender as he led the Clemson defense in the win over Georgia. He also had a key fumble recovery that led to a Clemson touchdown. Shuey’s tackles were important during a 10-possession stretch from the second quarter to the fourth period, when the Bulldogs scored just one touchdown and had six possessions of four plays or less.
DEFENSIVE BACK – Anthony Harris, Virginia, Jr., SS, 6-1, 185, Chesterfield, Va.
Harris was named the Walter Camp Football Foundation Defensive Player of the Week after recording 11 tackles, including three solo stops, one quarterback sack (first in his career), a blocked punt and an intercepted a pass in Virginia’s season-opening 19-16 victory over visiting BYU. Harris’ blocked punt in the third quarter set up Virginia’s first touchdown. Then, with the Cavaliers trailing 16-12 and three minutes left to play, Harris picked off a third-down BYU pass, returned it 10 yards and then pitched the ball to linebacker Henry Coley, who ran another 23 yards. Virginia scored the winning touchdown on the next play.
SPECIALIST – Jamison Crowder, Duke, Jr., WR, 5-9, 175, Monroe, N.C.
Crowder sparked the Blue Devils in Saturday’s 45-0 win over North Carolina Central with 113 yards on five punt returns, including a 76-yarder for a touchdown. The 76-yard runback was the seventh-longest punt return in Duke history. Crowder also logged a 25-yard punt return to set up Duke’s first scoring drive. The 113 punt return yards marked the fourth-highest total in Duke school history and the highest Week 1 total in 2013 NCAA action. Crowder’s 22.6 yards per punt return average was the sixth-highest single-game mark in school history. Crowder also registered team-highs of six pass receptions and 62 receiving yards for 175 all-purpose yards on the day.
ROOKIE – Jameis Winston, Florida State, Fr., QB, 6-4, 225, Hueytown, Ala.
Winston delivered a school-record setting performance as the 11th-ranked Seminoles opened their season with a 41-13 ACC road win at Pitt on Monday night. Winston completed 25 of 27 passes for a 92.6 completion percentage, topping the previous Florida State single-game record of 87.5 posted by Danny Kannell against NC State in 1995. Winston finished the game with 356 passing yards while throwing for four touchdowns and running for one more.
-Laura Keeley

Read more here:

Friday, August 30, 2013

Video: UNC Tar Heels at USC Gamecocks

A one hour and forty-four minute weather delay couldn't slow down No. 6 South Carolina on Thursday night, as the Gamecocks took down the North Carolina Tar Heels 27-10. North Carolina QB Bryn Renner was 26-43 for 194 yards and a touchdown. The Tar Heels play Middle Tennessee State next Saturday back in Chapel Hill.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Elijah Hood, top running back prospect, commits to UNC

CHAPEL HILL  Elijah Hood, a Charlotte running back who is considered one of the top prospects in the class of 2014, has committed to North Carolina. Several outlets that cover recruiting reported the news on Tuesday night, including 247Sports, which was first to report it, and Inside Carolina.

Hood, who recently rescinded his commitment to Notre Dame, represents a significant recruiting coup for the Tar Heels. He is a five-star prospect, according to, which also ranks him No. 3 running back and the 14th-best overall prospect in the nation in his class.
Hood, a standout at Charlotte Catholic, is UNC’s 20th commitment in the class of 2014. He had scholarship offers from just about everywhere: Clemson, Georgia, South Carolina, Florida State, Ohio State and the list goes on and on.
If Hood remains a five-star prospect and in fact signs with UNC in February, he’d be UNC’s first five-star signee, according to Rivals, since Donte Paige-Moss in 2010. Before that, Dwight Jones and Marvin Austin, both of whom signed with UNC in 2007, were UNC’s other two most recent five-star recruits.
Hood’s commitment is significant on its own, but especially so because he’s an in-state prospect. Keeping the most talented in-state recruits in the state of North Carolina has been a priority for coach Larry Fedora since he arrived at UNC. Gunter Brewer, the Tar Heels’ wide receivers coach, has been most responsible for recruiting Hood.
- Andrew Carter

Friday, August 23, 2013

UNC coach: Clowney best defensive player ever game-planned against

Larry Fedora began his Division I college coaching career in 1990. Before becoming the head coach at North Carolina, he was an offensive coordinator at Middle Tennessee, Florida and Oklahoma State. Then came his four years as a head coach at Southern Miss.

So Fedora has been around a while, in a different parts of the country, in a variety of conferences. I asked him earlier today to name the best defensive player he’d ever had to game plan against.
His answer came quickly.

“I’m going to say Clowney,” Fedora said of Jadeveon Clowney, the South Carolina defensive end whom UNC will face next Thursday night. “Yeah, I’m going to say Clowney. Because the guy – I’ve never played against a guy that’s 272 pounds and runs a 4.4.

“And it’s obvious on film. He plays at a different speed than other guys, because he is faster than other guys. And then he plays hard. And you see him out (there) – I’m trying to remember which game it was where I saw them hand the ball off to a back on a sweep, and he broke and I think Clowney caught him about 25 yards down the field. So he can run. When you have that kind of speed, it’s always a difficult situation.”

Chances are Clowney will be the answer to that question – best defensive player you’ve game planned against – for a lot of coaches this season. As for who sticks out in Fedora’s mind as second best? I asked him that, as well.

“I’ve been coaching a long time now,” he said. “Probably Urlacher.”

Brian Urlacher, remembered for his All-Pro NFL years with the Chicago Bears, played in college at New Mexico. As part of the offensive coaching staff at Air Force in the late 1990s, Fedora had a chance to see Urlacher up close.

“What I remember about him,” Fedora said, “(is0 he lined up at free safety, he lined up at linebacker, he lined up at defensive end, he lined up at outside linebacker, he lined up at defensive tackle and he returned punts in that game.”

At least Clowney won’t be returning punts. We think.

-- Andrew Carter

Read more here:

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

UNC football concludes camp: What we learned

CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina on Monday finished up the formal “camp” portion of the preseason. Obviously, there’s still a bit of time – nine days, to be exact – before the Tar Heels begin the season on Aug. 29 at South Carolina. And so there is some preseason remaining.
But the rest of it will be focused on preparing for the Gamecocks. UNC on Monday actually began installing its game plan for South Carolina. Before that practice, on Saturday, the Tar Heels moved out of the hotel they shared during the past three weeks.
Indeed, camp is over. But, good or bad, the work the Tar Heels accomplished in recent weeks is likely to carry on throughout the season. Here’s a look at some things we learned from UNC’s preseason camp …
1. The defense will remain a work in progress.
Vic Koenning, the UNC defensive coordinator, might refer to this as a “MOTO” statement. That stands for master of the obvious. Koenning broke that out after a practice one day not long ago, and I found it humorous. But as obvious as it might be that the Tar Heels’ defense will be a work in progress, it’s probably fair to say this was a more difficult-than-expected preseason for the defense.
It was already going to be challenging, trying to replace the production and leadership from departed seniors Sylvester Williams and Kevin Reddick. A rash of injuries throughout the preseason, though, have made things even more difficult. Shakeel Rashad and Sam Smiley, two potential starters, were lost for the season less than a week into camp. Injuries routinely kept other players out of practice.
Even linebacker, where UNC thought it had plenty of depth, hasn’t been immune. The starters or set there, and coach Larry Fedora recently praised the job Travis Hughes did throughout the preseason, but injuries have made depth a concern entering the season. The numbers situation was so dire in recent weeks thatJack Tabb, the tight end, worked at linebacker. And Damien Washington, a former receiver, was moved to safety.
There’s been constant movement on the defense throughout the preseason. Hardly any position has been immune. Questions surrounded this unit entering the preseason, and those questions have only intensified during recent weeks, when injuries piled up at an uncanny pace. The good news is that outside of Williams and Reddick, the defense returned lots of experience.
But the bad news? Who knows how injuries and attrition and the constant movement will affect UNC.
2. Outside of right tackle, the offensive line has come together well.
Entering the preseason, no position group on offense faced more uncertainty than the offensive line. It lost three starters from last season, and all three were selected in the NFL draft. Among those draft picks wasJonathan Cooper, the left guard who was perhaps the best lineman in school history.
Amid all the losses, it was fair to wonder how the line would come together. The answer: Nicely – with the exception of one position. Caleb Peterson, a redshirt freshman, has impressed enough throughout the preseason that neither Fedora nor offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic seem all that concerned about him filling the void left by Cooper. At right guard, Landon Turner, a sophomore who started the final four games of last season in place of the injured Brennan Williams, has played well.
Peterson and Turner join senior left tackle James Hurst and junior center Russell Bodine, two All-ACC candidates. From left tackle to right guard, the Tar Heels’ line has the potential to be among the best in the conference. Right tackle, though, remains a concern – as I wrote about in a story here.
The good news for UNC, at least, is that the right tackle position isn’t without talent. Jon Heck, the son of an NFL offensive line coach, is a cerebral, technically-sound player who would start at right tackle if the season started today. Kiaro Holts, whom coaches were hoping would seize control of the position, is a former highly-recruited prospect who has been beset by injuries, but whose talent has never been a question. Nick Appel and John Ferranto have played well enough in the preseason, too, to receive first-team reps at right tackle.
UNC is still seeking clarity at the position, which is important for the sake of the line’s consistency and continuity. Overall, though, the line has made a relatively smooth transition after losing three NFL players.
3. The offense shouldn’t lack for playmakers.
Much has been said, and written, about Eric Ebron, the UNC tight end who must catch at least 12 touchdown passes to meet Fedora’s expectations. Ebron, Fedora and his staff believes, has the talent to be a future first-round NFL draft pick, and it’d be difficult to find a more physically-able tight end in the nation. He should have a big year.
The Tar Heels’ offense, though, doesn’t lack for explosiveness and playmaking ability. Among the players that Fedora spoke most often about during the preseason were two freshmen: Ryan Switzer and Jonathan Howard, who is often referred to by his nickname, “Bug.”
Switzer and Howard are both receivers but they couldn’t be much more opposite, physically. Switzer, a Parade All-American from West Virginia, is listed at 5-foot-10 but that might be a slight exaggeration. Howard, from Georgia, is 6-foot-4. Both made various high school All-American teams, and both arrived at UNC in part thanks to the allure of playing in Fedora’s up-tempo, wide-open spread offense.
And both, it seems, will have a chance to contribute immediate. Switzer, in fact, practiced with the first team throughout much of the preseason. He has the makings to be a dangerous slot receiver. Howard, meanwhile, is similar physically to sophomore Quinshad Davis, who caught 61 passes last season.
Depth at receiver was a constant issue last season, but it shouldn’t be this season. Davis, Fedora said, will have a chance to catch 100 passes. The freshmen should contribute. Sean Tapley, a junior receiver, has had a productive preseason, Fedora said.
The numbers are good at running back, too, with returnees Romar Morris and A.J. Blue, and freshmanKhris Francis and T.J. Logan. It’d make sense if one of either Francis or Logan redshirted, but both have played well throughout the preseason, and both stand a good chance to contribute. Plus, Blue has been banged up throughout the preseason, and if those injuries persist UNC might want to use both Francis and Logan.
So those are the three things we learned …
Some things we didn’t learn:
--Who’s the backup quarterback? Marquise Williams and Mitch Trubisky spent the preseason going back and forth. My guess: Williams would replace Bryn Renner in short-term situations, or if an injury happened late in the season. If for some reason Renner can’t play for an extended time early on, though, Trubisky just might be the guy.
--Will the secondary be better? This is a unit that was at times scorched last season. Everybody is back, but we won’t know if that’s really a good thing or not until we get into the season. Tre Boston, the preseason All-ACC safety, said earlier this week he has worked on not gambling as much, and remaining disciplined in his coverage.
--What relative unknown on defense is best-suited to emerge as a key player? We know about Boston, Hughes, Kareem Martin and Tim Jackson. But for this defense to reach its potential, it’s going to take someone coming out of nowhere, relatively, and becoming a really good player. I’d go with Norkeithus Otis, the bandit. Strong preseason.
Nine days.
- Andrew Carter

Read more here: