Tar Heels focused on stopping Duke's Vernon

acarter@newsobserver.comOctober 16, 2012 

— Conner Vernon is likely to leave Duke as the most prolific receiver in ACC history but he hasn’t had his best games against North Carolina. Not that it matters to Tre Boston, the Tar Heels’ safety, and his teammates in the UNC secondary.

“I think Conner Vernon is going to give us a challenge this week,” Boston said on Monday. “He’s definitely one of the best receivers we’ll face this year.”

Boston earned ACC defensive back of the week honors Monday for his performance in the Tar Heels’ 18-14 victory at Miami on Saturday. He had six tackles, intercepted one pass, broke up another and helped hold the Hurricanes to 235 yards passing – 60 less than their average.

But Duke’s receiving tandem of Vernon and Jamison Crowder, a sophomore, might present even more of a challenge when the Tar Heels and Blue Devils play at Wallace Wade Stadium Saturday night. Vernon and Crowder have been the most prolific receiving duo in the ACC.

They rank third and fourth in the conference in receiving yards. They’re also right next to each other in receptions – Crowder second in the conference with 46 catches, and Vernon right behind with 45.

UNC’s pass defense was a point of concern entering the season, after the Tar Heels ranked 78th nationally in pass defense a season ago. The Heels are allowing about 14 fewer passing yards per game this season compared to last, but Vernon will provide UNC’s secondary with one of its most difficult tests to date.

“First of all, he’s played a lot of snaps – a lot of snaps,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said. “And he understands exactly what (Duke coach) David (Cutcliffe) is trying to do with that offense. And he’s very comfortable, he knows how to get open, he knows how to use his body. He’s got good hands. He’s a very intelligent player.

“He’s got great football savvy.”

Vernon earlier this season became the all-time leading receptions leader in the ACC. He’ll enter Saturday needing 218 more yards to break the conference record for career receiving yards.

In three games against UNC, though, Vernon’s production has been modest. He has caught 10 passes for 93 yards against UNC and none of his 18 career touchdown receptions have come against the Tar Heels.

But Vernon’s success – or lack thereof – against UNC came against completely different Tar Heels’ defenses. The Heels after the arrival of Fedora implemented a 4-2-5 scheme, which allows UNC the use of an additional defensive back.

The Tar Heels are allowing an average of 227.3 passing yards per game, which ranks 63rd nationally, but UNC has also intercepted 10 passes – which is twice the number of touchdown passes the Heels have allowed. Duke, which ranks 104th nationally in rushing offense, will likely rely heavily on the pass Saturday.

Fedora said that UNC would have to alter its normal defensive game plan to account for Vernon.

“I don’t think you’re going to shut him down completely,” Fedora said. “He’s going to make some plays – he’s too good of a football player. And you have to understand that, and again it goes right back to, OK, he makes a play, it doesn’t matter. Line up, let’s go. And let’s play the next play.”

Carter: 919-829-8944

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