North Carolina began the season on Saturday with a 56-29 victory against Liberty. The Tar Heels host San Diego State this Saturdy at Kenan Stadium. And, as always, UNC coach Larry Fedora met with media members on Monday for his usual weekly press conference.
Each week in this space, I'll offer up some thoughts on the four most interesting things that came up during Fedora's press conference. Let's get to it:
I wrote about this earlier today, about the apparent end of the Tar Heels' quarterback competition between Marquise Williams and Mitch Trubisky. Williams is the starter. Trubisky the backup. And it will remain that way, it seems, barrring some sort of dramatic turn of events.
It was a bit surprising to hear Fedora so firm on this. He had, after all, been the opposite of that throughout the preseason, and as recently as last week, when he said it gave him “pleasure” to keep us – especially us in the media – in such suspense.
Only we weren't really in that much suspense. It seemed probable – highly likely, even – that Williams would start against Liberty on Saturday. And he did. But it also seemed likely, at least to me, that the competition would stretch on into the season.
Alas. It won't. At least that's how Fedora made it sound on Monday. He rejected the thought that Williams and Trubisky would split reps, as they did throughout preseason practice, and as they did – somewhat evenly – against Liberty (Williams played 10 drives, Trubisky eight).
Now it appears that Williams will be UNC's starting quarterback for as long as plays well enough to hold onto the job. Maybe that's how it was always going to be. Now, though, he's not looking over his shoulder. One bad throw, or poor possession, won't swing the pendulum out of his favor.
Staring back at him in black and white on stat sheet, the numbers angered Fedora after the victory against Liberty on Saturday: 10 penalties for 60 yards and this, after spending a lot of time in the offseason focusing on decreasing the number of penalties.
Fedora and his staff broke everything down on Sunday, as they normally do after a game, and they studied the penalties in particular. Five of them were false starts, and four of those came from UNC's young centers – Lucas Crowley, a sophomore, and Brad Henson, a redshirt freshman.
Eliminate those, Fedora said, and “you start becoming a little more respectable.”
In addition to the false starts, UNC committed three illegal procedure penalties on defense – including the confounding 12-men-on-the-field penalty that came on a 3rd-and-2, and allowed Liberty a first down inside the Tar Heels' 20. The Flames scored not long after.
What added to the frustration on that penalty was that it came out of a timeout. A timeout UNC had called to set its defense.
“And I'll take (blame for) that one,” Fedora said.
He said what happened was this: Tim Scott, who moved from safety to cornerback on Saturday because UNC suspended four players, became confused, and didn't know where he was supposed to be on that particular play.
“It's frustrating,” Fedora said. “No doubt about it. I mean, coming from the sideline. It's definitely frustrating. But again, I'll take it. Because Tim wasn't sure if he was playing the corner or the safety in the situation, and that was just – if we would have had our normal starters in the game, I don't think that would have happened.”
UNC entered the season with no shortage of concerns on both lines. The two best players on UNC's offensive line (left tackle James Hurst and center Russell Bodine) moved on to the NFL after last season, and the best player on the defensive line (defensive end Kareem Martin) did the same. And like Martin, Tim Jackson, a dependable defensive tackle, was a senior last season.
And so UNC broke in a lot of new starters up front on Saturday. John Ferranto at left tackle. Will Dancy at left guard. Lucas Crowley, the center, was starting his second game. On defense, Dajaun Drennon started for the first time at defensive end.
The numbers, at least, weren't great. UNC had just one sack against Liberty. The Tar Heels also allowed 88 yards rushing in the first half – 12 more than they gained.
You'd think UNC would have a significant advantage up front, on both sides, against Liberty, an FCS opponent that can't compete with a Power 5 conference team when it comes to much – least of all recruiting and offering scholarships to prospects with Division I-A talent. What happened on Saturday, though, told us something different.
Liberty held its own with UNC on both sides. It could be because the Flames aren't bad up front. UNC, though, expected to be better.
“I'd give them about a middle of the range – somewhere around a C,” Fedora said of the offensive and defensive lines. “I don't think that they did anything really special, but I don't think that they were really bad, either.
“I thought that we made enough mistakes on both sides of the ball in the fronts to not grade out extremely well. The effort was good. So that wasn't a problem. It wasn't effort, it wasn't their energy. It was just – the growing pains that you're going to have with a young offensive line that's trying to gel.
“And the same thing a little bit defensive line wise.”
Fedora believes he knows enough about Rocky Long, the San Diego State head coach, to know what to expect on Saturday – especially from the Aztecs' defense. Fedora put it this way: “Chaos.” That's what he's expecting. For San Diego State to be chaotic defensively.
“It will be chaos on that side of the ball,” Fedora said. “If it's anything like he's ever been in the past, I mean he's moving guys around, there's all kinds of exotic blitzes and different coverages.”
Fedora was an assistant at Air Force in 1998 when Long – who has a great name for a football coach – was in his first season as head coach at New Mexico. The teams played, and New Mexico had a junior linebacker named Brian Urlacher.
It might be Fedora's enduring memory of Long, how he used Urlacher.
“I remember that because I remember he lined up at almost all 11 positions on defense and then returned punts, also,” Fedora said. “I mean, he was something.”
Long likely doesn't have an Urlacher now, at San Diego State. But he still has his wild schemes and blitz packages, and he still incorporates all that defensive movement, guys coming and going from every direction, making the chaos difficult to identify until it might be too late.
“They're not a big defensive line, but they're moving constantly,” Fedora said. “It's times there will be – there will be times in the game they never put a hand in the ground on the defensive side of the ball. And you won't know who's coming where. It's unique in what they do.”