Each week, I’ll (hopefully) talk to a beat writer who covers Duke’s opponent. Today we have my colleague and friend Andrew Carter, who does a great job covering the Tar Heels. If you don’t already, follow him at @_andrewcarter and check out his work here.
I cannot thank the beat writers that took the time to answer these questions enough. Every opponent was covered.
1. From 1-5 to 6-5, what's been the biggest difference in the turnaround?
A few primary reasons best explain UNC’s turnaround. Let’s start with the most obvious one: the level of competition. The Tar Heels started the season with their most difficult game – at South Carolina – and the schedule remained challenging through the first six games, which included road games at Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech, and a home game against Miami.
All those four games looked like they might be losses before the start of the season and, indeed, UNC lost them all. The Tar Heels also didn’t show up against East Carolina and lost that game, too – though with how well the Pirates played that day it might not have mattered whether UNC came to play or not. The back half of UNC’s schedule hasn’t been as challenging but it’d be dismissive of the overall improvement to credit it to an easier schedule.
Defensively, UNC has been a different team during the second half of the year. Now, this still isn’t some kind of world-beating defense. But the Tar Heels have been solid – and even very good, at times. Offensively, Marquise Williams has exceeded expectations at quarterback, and has played well in place of the injured Bryn Renner. Because of UNC’s shaky offensive line, the more-mobile Williams is the best fit for this offense.
And then UNC is getting some game-changing plays in special teams – specifically from freshman Ryan Switzer, who has returned four punts for touchdowns, all of them coming in the past three games. Overall, too, UNC is making far fewer mistakes than it did early on. This is a team that did a lot of dumb stuff during the first half of the season, and during this winning streak UNC has made winning plays, instead of losing ones.
2. Fedora's spread style offense is better suited for a dual-threat QB, like Marquise Williams. Has the offense been better since he took over for the injured Bryn Renner?
Certain elements of the offense have been better, without question. The running game, which was basically non-existent with Renner as the starter, has been a lot more effective thanks to Williams’ mobility. He’s a better fit for the offense, overall, because he mitigates some of the weaknesses on the offensive line.
Williams’ best strength is his ability to keep plays alive. He’s adept at escaping pressure and giving his receivers more time to get open, or taking off and running for a significant gain.
Still, Williams isn’t the passer that Renner is. The passing game hasn’t been as strong, overall, since Renner’s injury, though Williams is coming off a record-setting performance against Old Dominion. Williams still looks a little bit raw as a passer – almost like he’s more comfortable improvising and making plays when they appear to be breaking down.
3. UNC's defense has also pulled itself out of the bottom of the ACC statistics columns in recent weeks. Where's the strongest part of this defense? How about the weakest?
In recent weeks, by far the strongest part of the defense has been the line. Kareem Martin, the senior defensive end, has been playing like an All-American during the past month or so. He was the best defensive player on the field in UNC’s victory at Pitt – and that’s saying something given the presence of Aaron Donald, the Panthers’ defensive tackle who will surely be a first-team All-American.
Martin has been disruptive in recent weeks, and that has helped the entire defense. Opposing offensive lines are paying more attention to him, and that has freed things up for other players. Opposing quarterbacks have had less time to throw, and that has made the secondary look better.
UNC allowed 10 passing touchdowns in its first five games – and some of those came on long plays in which opposing teams took advantage of blown coverage. In the past seven games, UNC has allowed just four passing touchdowns. The blown coverage and missed assignments that plagued the Tar Heels throughout the first half of the season have been nonexistent pretty much since the Miami game.
UNC’s coaching staff deserves a lot of credit, too, for the defensive turnaround. When things weren’t working earlier this season, it was often a result of confusion and mental mistakes. After the Miami game, the coaches scaled back the scheme and focused on what the players had been doing well. This defense is a simpler, scaled-back version of what UNC was running earlier this season, and it has been working.
4. Ryan Switzer, punt returner extraordinaire (four touchdowns in his last threee games). Is he the individual with the most game-changing potential?
He is without question on special teams. I think Martin and Eric Ebron, the junior tight end who will be playing his final home game on Saturday, have more game-changing potential just because they’ll have far more opportunities to influence the outcome than Switzer will.
That said, Switzer is having just about as good of a year as any punt returner has had in a long time. You’d almost have to be surprised if Duke gave him a chance to return a kick with an open field ahead of him. He single-handedly won UNC the game at Pitt, after the Tar Heels had surrendered a huge lead.
Switzer, a high school All-American from West Virginia, has never lacked for confidence. Now he’s making the plays to back that up.
5. Last year, the Tar Heels suggested, after they lost, that they didn't take Duke seriously (much like the talk after the ECU game this year). What do you think the chances are of that happening again?
I don’t think there’s any chance of that happening again. UNC players this week have been treated to highlights of Duke’s postgame celebration last year – the students rushing the field, the players painting the Victory Bell, all of it. Those highlights have been playing on a loop inside the football building, and they’ve been inescapable to the players. So Duke definitely has UNC’s attention.
Not to mention, UNC already found out what can happen when it doesn’t give an opponent proper respect. Preparation hasn’t been a problem for this team since the ECU game.
The Tar Heels are treating this as a big game. This would be a victory against a ranked team, a victory against a rival that beat UNC last year. And it would be a victory that would likely keep Duke out of the ACC championship game, and I think the Tar Heels want to play that spoiler role. It would also guarantee a winning record for UNC – no small feat given the 1-5 start.
Thanks to Andrew for his time. Look for his kickoff story in tomorrow’s paper.