North Carolina coach Larry Fedora talked a lot Monday about the “small things” – a phrase he repeated often – about “details,” another word he said over and over. Those small things and details, Fedora said, are what’s holding the Tar Heels back – at least they were during a 34-17 defeat against Virginia Tech on Saturday.
That was UNC’s third consecutive loss, and the schedule doesn’t get any easier. The Tar Heels will play at No. 6 Notre Dame this weekend, and then play against No. 22 Georgia Tech, which has won 14 of its past 16 against UNC, next week. Then, two road games await. Fedora isn’t one to get too far ahead of himself, and so the focus is on now – on the trip to Notre Dame.
UNC has some issues – plenty of them – and so the question now becomes whether it can salvage the season despite those problems, and whether the problems can be fixed this season. So here’s a look at what has gone wrong and whether they can be remedied soon:
The problem: The offensive line’s overall play.
Small things: Landon Turner, the junior right guard, said Monday that some guys are experiencing issues with their footwork and “just taking bad steps.” False starts have continued to be an issue, as well.
Big things: The Tar Heels are young and inexperienced and would be even at full strength. But they haven’t been at full strength. Turner missed two games with a knee injury before returning Saturday. Right tackle is a significant problem, with Jon Heck and Kiaro Holts banged up. As good as Turner is – and he should be an all-conference candidate – UNC lost its two best linemen from last season, and those voids created by left tackle James Hurst and center Russell Bodine loom large.
How fixable is it: The small things can be addressed. There’s only so much that can be done here overall, though. The Tar Heels are young. They’re not all that good up front. At times, the line has played pretty poorly. Fedora said before the season that the team’s success would hinge on the line’s play, and he was right. The issues have severely limited the offense.
The problem: The running backs haven’t been productive.
Small things: Fedora hasn’t mentioned any “small thing” problems. Which means the problems here likely are the result of
Big things: A main issue has been the line, which hasn’t created holes and space. And so the results have been what you might expect. Still, there were a lot of expectations entering the season. UNC seemed to have a stable of good backs, led by T.J. Logan and Elijah Hood, the top running back prospects in the state the past two seasons. Through five games, no UNC running back is averaging more than Hood’s 33.2 yards per game. UNC ranks 92nd nationally in rushing offense, and production has been lacking more than anyone could have imagined.
How fixable is it: Boy, it doesn’t seem really fixable, does it? Fedora and the staff don’t seem to have a lot of faith in anyone in the backfield. Hood is averaging about eight carries per game, and Logan about six carries. The past two weeks, though, Logan has run for 8 yards on four carries. The issues here, whatever they are – in addition to the poor blocking – don’t seem to be all that fixable.
The problem: The defensive line has, at times, really struggled.
Small things: As with the running backs, there hasn’t been a lot of talk of small-thing problems. So we’ll move onto
Big things: First things first. The line has improved. After a rough start, this group probably has come the furthest. The Tar Heels have generated more pressure on quarterbacks and have been much better against the run the past two weeks. Even so, UNC is missing the kind of top-end talent it has had during recent years. Outside of Norkeithus Otis, the Tar Heels still don’t have a proven pass rusher, and depth is lacking, too.
How fixable is it: The recent improvement is encouraging. UNC has had six sacks the past two weeks, and it had Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Brewer on the run a lot Saturday. And after allowing 4.8 and 7.5 yards per carry against San Diego State and East Carolina, the Tar Heels have given up 2.1 and 3 yards per carry the past two weeks. So, some improvement.
The problem: Defensive breakdowns that lead to long passing plays.
Small things: A lot of the so-called “small things” have led to UNC’s problems. A misunderstanding in Clemson’s formation led to the Tigers’ first touchdown – on a 74-yard pass two weeks ago. In the first four games, at least, the Tar Heels were plagued by poor communication and mental lapses that left guys open.
Big things: It’s possible we overestimated UNC’s talent in the secondary, which was thought to be a strength. Outside of cornerback Brian Walker, no one really has distinguished himself. So personnel seems to be an issue. So, too, does the fact that three years into playing this defense, a lot of the same breakdowns keep occurring. Whatever the reason, whether mental or some detail a player missed, it has to be discouraging that the Tar Heels keep having these issues.
How fixable is it: The Tar Heels played better against Virginia Tech. There weren’t really any memorable breakdowns in the secondary. Then again, the Hokies’ offense isn’t known for exploiting such things, and it’s far less potent than East Carolina and Clemson. So part of this problem will fix itself, because the Tar Heels won’t often face what it did against ECU and Clemson. Still, UNC is allowing 8.5 yards per pass attempt, which is tied for 118th nationally. The Tar Heels left people open against Liberty and San Diego State, too, and barring a dramatic turnaround, this likely is to remain a problem.
So there you have it. UNC has a lot of problems.
“Small things,” have gone wrong, as Fedora said Monday. He insists those are the root of the Tar Heels’ larger issues. And in some cases they might be. Still, the Tar Heels have some fundamental issues that might be too deep to be fixed this season.
Andrew Carter is the UNC athletics beat reporter for The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer. Follow him on Twitter @_andrewcarter .