Each week, I’ll (hopefully) talk to a beat writer who covers Duke football’s upcoming opponent. It wasn’t hard to find this guy: Andrew Carter is our UNC beat writer. If you’re not already, follow him on Twitter at @_andrewcarter, and check out his work covering the Tar Heels here.
1. As far as I can figure out, Marquise Williams is pretty personally responsible for UNC's change of fortune of late—like, to a greater degree than we typically see from one individual player. Is that fair to say?
I think that'd be fair to say. UNC will go as far as Williams is capable of carrying it. When he's played really well – at Notre Dame, against Georgia Tech, at Virginia, against Pitt – the Tar Heels have either won or have had a chance to win. He didn't play well at Miami, and looked like he was playing hurt, honestly, and UNC never had a chance in that game. Williams is a tough, gritty player. He's been fun to watch, in a way, but it has also been painful to watch him, too, because he has taken a lot of physical abuse this season. Yet he keeps getting up. He's still not the most technically sound quarterback, and Larry Fedora a lot of the time still doesn't sound all that enamored with Williams' decision-making. But you can't question his toughness and his will.
2. UNC has signed the top running back from the state of North Carolina in the past two recruiting cycles—T.J. Logan and Elijah Hood—yet no one other than Williams can run the ball effectively. What gives?
Hood has been hurt in recent weeks and Logan was probably banged up earlier in the season. It's difficult to know the full extent of UNC's injury situation just because it keeps every as much of a secret as possible, but knowing the extent of Logan and Hood's injuries would probably explain why they've struggled at times this season. To his credit, Logan is coming off of his best game of the season. He ran for nearly 100 yards against Pitt, and looked faster than he has all season. The offensive line also hasn't been too good this season – and it was plain bad early on amid some injuries there. That slowed the progress of the running game. Hood, when he was playing, had some decent games and showed, in stretches, what he's capable of. But it hasn't gone as planned for either of these guys, there's no doubt about it.
3. So it looks bad, but just how bad is UNC's defense? And what's the absolute worst part of it?
It's terrible. No other way to put it. The worst part of it, probably, is that there's no good part of it. There's not one aspect of the defense that you can say: Oh, that part of the defense is OK. At least they're decent there. No. It's bad everywhere. Up front, UNC gets pushed around way too often. It doesn't consistently generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks, and it can't really stop the run, either. The Tar Heels rank in the 100s nationally against the run and the pass, and they've been burned repeatedly by big plays in the passing game and in the running game. Defensive line, linebackers, secondary – it hasn't been good anywhere.
4. Let's talk special teams. Two things jump out at me: UNC hasn't made a field goal longer than 23 yards all year, and Ryan Switzer's preseason Heisman campaign never got off the ground (he has zero punt return TDs this year). Is this unit another weak spot for the Tar Heels?
The kick coverage teams, at least, have been good, and Tommy Hibbard, the punter, has at times been UNC's MVP. But yeah. The two things you mention have definitely been disappointing. The field goal kicking game is just bonkers. This a power-conference team that has no ability, it seems, to make a 30-yard field goal. I'm not sure how that happens. In a close game, UNC is at a clear disadvantage because you can never count on the Tar Heels making a field goal longer than 30 yards. Switzer, I think, has just put an overwhelming amount of pressure on himself to break one. He returned one recently for a touchdown but it was negated because of a penalty (that kind of season) but for a variety of reasons – probably including opposing teams doing a better job of limiting his chances – it just hasn't happened for him.
5. When UNC looks at Duke, what do you think concerns the coaches most?
UNC has done a great job this season of being its own worst enemy at times. Penalties. Stupid plays at inopportune times. Duke, usually, is the opposite. The Blue Devils don't beat themselves and don't turn the ball over. I think that's a concern for Fedora, especially knowing his team's knack for self-destructive mistakes. He said earlier this week that Duke is a team that waits for the other team to make a mistake, and then it capitalizes on those mistakes. So I think the greatest concern for the UNC coaching staff might be the pressure the Tar Heels will be under to play mistake-free.
Thanks to Andrew for his time. And be sure to join us Thursday night!