Tar Heels' inexperience is exposed

Staff WriterOctober 6, 2009 

— After two losses to open the ACC season, North Carolina will subscribe to the KISS philosophy of football -- keep it simple, stupid.

Outfoxed by Virginia's 3-4 defense, at least in part because they tried to do too much on the offensive line, UNC coach Butch Davis said Monday the Tar Heels (3-2, 0-2 ACC) will simplify their approach on offense for Saturday's game with Georgia Southern.

After 10 points and 56 rushing yards in two games, it's clear the Heels, once 3-0 and ranked in the Top 25 with visions of an ACC title, need to try something different, Davis said.

"When you are struggling offensively, and that's where we are right now, you've got to look at what we're trying to do, and you have to look and say how much simplification will help these guys in the execution," Davis said.

There will be no changes in the starting lineup, left tackle Kyle Jolly's sore ankle notwithstanding, and Davis was steadfast in his support of offensive coordinator John Shoop on Monday.

"I think John's bright, he's smart," Davis said. "I don't think he needs defending."

The offensive numbers have a portion of the UNC fan base howling at Shoop. The Heels rank 103rd in rushing offense (100 yards per game), 113th in total offense (280.8 yards per game) and 107th in scoring offense (18.6 points per game).

"I know this offense is better than it has shown on the field," quarterback T.J. Yates said.

After a team-wide re-evaluation Sunday, Davis emphasized Monday that the Tar Heels need to fix what's "fixable" and not worry about the rest.

Three aspects the Heels need to focus on, and not just for Georgia Southern's visit Saturday, but for the final seven games:

•Blitz protection.

Because of injuries, UNC starts backups at center and left guard. Georgia Tech knew that, and so did Virginia.

Even though everybody in the stadium knew Tech and UVa were going to attack the left side of their inexperienced line, the Heels were helpless to stop it.

Davis said both ACC teams have exploited UNC's line to the point that they were running free to the quarterback or into UNC's backfield.

That's not a function of talent, Davis said, but of inexperience and not understanding where the blitz is coming from. Davis said the wrong pre-snap read of the defense has been the culprit for many negative-yardage plays.

"Getting our offensive line all on the same page with the right identification, that's one thing that's fixable," Davis said.

With a bye next week, it's unlikely either center Lowell Dyer (shoulder), left guard Jonathan Cooper (ankle) or tight end Zack Pianalto (foot) will return from injury against a Championship Subdivision opponent. So it will be up to the same group of replacements -- center Cam Holland, left guard Greg Elleby and tight end Ed Barham -- to improve the protection.

Besides identifying the correct players to block, one way to offset pressure is to use more players to block. A second tight end, a fullback or keeping the halfback in are all ways to help an unstable offensive line.

That means fewer bodies in the passing routes, but it also creates more time to find receivers. The Heels have done this successfully this season but need to do it more.

When they don't max-protect, Yates is either throwing with two defenders in his face or trying to throw on the run, and neither is his forte.

•Break tendencies.

Part of the self-evaluation Davis talked about Monday is scouting your own team like you would an opponent.

North Carolina likes to run on the first play of each possession. The Heels had nine possessions before Virginia took a 16-3 lead and forced them into passing mode. They ran six times, for a total of 11 yards, on the first play of those nine possessions.

On the first series of the game, UVa linebacker Steve Greer stopped UNC running back Shaun Draughn for minus-2 yards on each of the first two running plays. Greer was in UNC's backfield so fast, it looked like he was in the huddle with Draughn.

Against Georgia Tech, before the Heels fell behind 17-0 in the fourth quarter, UNC ran on the first play of each possession five of eight times for only 11 yards.

Conversely, one of UNC's best plays against Virginia was a 23-yard run-and-catch by receiver Greg Little on a clear-out route on first down.

On all first down plays against Virginia, UNC rushed for 18 yards on 11 carries and passed for 45 yards on nine attempts.

Sometimes it's not a change that's needed but a change of pace.

•Spread the wealth.

Without explosive receivers Hakeem Nicks or Brandon Tate, UNC doesn't have a go-to offensive weapon.

The idea was to replace their departed receiving numbers by committee. Against East Carolina, a 31-point outburst, the Heels got six catches from Erik Highsmith, five from Little and a 59-yard TD catch from Jheranie Boyd.

Highsmith caught six passes against Tech but only two against UVa. Little had two catches at Tech and six against UVa. Boyd had two catches in each game but for a total of 17 yards.

"[Little] needs the help from the other the guys on the same day," Davis said. "It can't be Erik Highsmith for seven [catches] and somebody else for zero, zero, zero."

Poor line play didn't leave much room for running backs Draughn and Ryan Houston in either ACC game, but the season split in carries has heavily favored Draughn (74) to Houston (34).

Davis said Houston, who averages 4.7 yards per carry, would get more work but pointed out Draughn was a better pass-blocker.

"We've got to work more on the blocking aspect of it than the running aspect at times," Davis said.

Notes: Jolly suffered an ankle sprain in the second half of the Virginia loss, but Davis said, "Right now it's not anything to worry about."

•Saturday's game (3:30 p.m.) won't be televised, but it will broadcast on ESPN360.com.

jp.giglio@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8938

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