Personnel losses, familiar problems doom Tar Heels to worst start in 6 years

acarter@newsobserver.comOctober 15, 2013 

— On the outside, at least, North Carolina players and coaches expressed confidence amid voids that have only become more glaring.

The defense would be better, coach Larry Fedora said, because of familiarity. The offense would be improved, he said, because the Tar Heels would play with more instinct.

That’s what Fedora and his assistant coaches said in August. Two months later, though, looking back at the Tar Heels’ 1-4 start, there were signs then that UNC might find itself where it is now – mired in a three-game losing streak that is its longest since 2007.

“We all hoped that it was just going to jell and you were going to continue on the same track,” offensive coordinator Blake Anderson said this week – speaking about an offense that last season set numerous records.

“But I think down deep, I’ve done this long enough to know that we had a really special group … a year ago that took a tremendous amount of pressure off of everything else.”

Diagnosing what’s gone wrong at UNC, which will host No.10 Miami on Thursday night, begins with understanding the Tar Heels’ inability to replace what they lost from a season ago. The questions that surrounded those voids have been answered in the negative – at least for now, five games into what’s becoming a miserable season.

The questions then were simple: Will the running game continue to thrive without Gio Bernard, who left after three seasons as one of the most productive backs in school history? Can the offensive line come together despite losing three players who became NFL draft picks? Will the defense improve without its two best players from a season ago?

The answers now are just as simple: No, no and no.

“Those are guys that you miss,” said Anderson, speaking, among others, of Bernard and Jonathan Cooper, the former All-American left guard. “You miss (them) from Day One and it’s just going to take some time to develop those other parts of the program.

“You can see on Sunday (in the NFL) that they’re some pretty good guys we’re not playing with right now.”

The personnel losses only explain so much. Even amid those losses, the Tar Heels began the season with grand aspirations: a Coastal Division championship. A spot in a marquee bowl. Those goals seemed realistic, given the team’s 8-4 finish last season, when UNC would have played in the ACC championship game had it been eligible.

The season-opening loss at then-No. 7 South Carolina – a defeat that came in a nationally televised Thursday night game – wasn’t unexpected. Nor was the victory that followed against Middle Tennessee State. The season began to unravel, though, in a place where UNC hasn’t won since 1997.

The Tar Heels held a 20-14 halftime lead at Georgia Tech. Since then, UNC has been outscored 96-48.

The culprits in defeat have become familiar: An inability to stop long, game-changing plays on defense. An equal inability to create those plays on offense. An uncanny knack for the self-inflicted wound. In three consecutive games, a Tar Heels penalty has wiped away a touchdown.

Those are the big-picture reasons UNC is considered by some to be among the most disappointing teams in the nation. On the more micro level, the problems have remained consistent, too: the failures of the offensive line to jell. An inability to communicate on defense. A running game that has mustered an average of 100 yards per game, which ranks 114th nationally.

UNC’s ineffective rushing offense has, perhaps, been the greatest reason for the team’s struggles. Bernard made it look easy. He had nine runs of at least 20 yards, seven of at least 30 yards and five runs of at least 40 yards last season. Combined this season, Romar Morris and A.J. Blue – the two players most responsible for replacing Bernard – have two runs of at least 20 yards. Morris, who recently has been slowed by an injury, has both.

“Eventually, you want that switch to turn,” Blue said. “And it just hasn’t turned yet. And it’s kind of frustrating, you know, but it’s just something that we’ve got to keep working at.”

That has become a theme for UNC: keep working and results will come. Keep believing, and the season will turn.

Fedora started to respond to a question about the offensive line after practice this week, and instead provided an answer that could be applied to any aspect of his team.

“We’re not where we want to be,” he said. “But I’m not sure we’re where we want to be at any position on the field right now. If we were right now we wouldn’t be in the situation we’re in. So we’ve got a lot of improvement to make across this team.”

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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