North Carolina

For UNC, it’s like the first time again with Georgia Tech triple option

Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas (5) breaks through the Duke defense as he runs for a touchdown in the first half in Atlanta.
Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas (5) breaks through the Duke defense as he runs for a touchdown in the first half in Atlanta. AP

Andre Smith’s introduction to Georgia Tech’s triple-option offense came early in the second quarter last year in Atlanta, on the Yellow Jackets’ third offensive series. The North Carolina coaching staff put Smith in to prepare him for a future that has now arrived.

“He knew that we would be in a situation like this,” Smith, the Tar Heels’ sophomore linebacker, said earlier this week of linebackers coach John Papuchis. “Where Schott would be gone next year, I’d need game experience playing against them.”

“Schott” is former UNC linebacker Jeff Schoettmer. For years, he had been the anchor of the Tar Heels’ defense, in some ways the quarterback of it from his middle linebacker position. Now Smith is in that role, leading the Tar Heels into one of their most challenging defensive tests.

Smith at least has some familiarity with what’s coming against Georgia Tech on Saturday at Kenan Stadium. That one series he played against the Yellow Jackets last year gives him that much, at least, and he described the experience as “very helpful” even if the outcome wasn’t.

On that series, Smith and his teammates forced the Yellow Jackets into a fourth-and-4 near midfield. Georgia Tech went for it and then, Smith said with a tone of shame, “I messed up.”

“I messed up,” he said again, “and they got the first and they ended up scoring. It wasn’t one of my better drives but I definitely learned a lot from it.”

Playing against Georgia Tech (5-3, 2-3 ACC) year after year, and playing against the Yellow Jackets’ unique option offense, especially, often provides one long annual learning experience. Coaches learn over time how to prepare for it. Players learn how to uncover the deception that makes the offense so successful.

As Coastal Division rivals, the Tar Heels (6-2, 4-1) play against Georgia Tech every year. And yet every year, going against the triple option is a little like seeing it for the very first time, regardless of how many times a player found himself on the grass, the victim of one of Georgia Tech’s notorious cut blocks.

Last year in Atlanta, Nazair Jones was among a number of UNC sophomores who’d played at least a little bit against Georgia Tech the year before. He knew, from his experience as a freshman, that he was about to face an offense, and a blocking scheme, unlike any other he’d encounter.

“It helped somewhat, just because I knew what was coming,” Jones, a junior defensive tackle, said earlier this week. “But as far as playing the cut blocks, you’ve really got to get back in the motions of that. And that’s why we’re starting so early in practice, so it doesn’t take us two quarters of the game to get ready to play the cut.”

Last year it took at least that long. Georgia Tech built a 21-0 lead and it looked for a long while like the Tar Heels’ Atlanta misery would continue. Slowly, though, UNC worked its way back into the game and eventually completed a comeback victory that is one of the best in school history.

UNC’s 38-31 victory at Georgia Tech on Oct. 3, 2015, was the Tar Heels’ first in Atlanta since 1997. That improbable rally forged a never-say-die culture that continues to endure, one that undoubtedly helped the Tar Heels in dramatic last-second wins against Pittsburgh and Florida State earlier this season.

Looking back, UNC coach Larry Fedora said earlier this week, that victory a year ago “pretty much propelled us.” The Tar Heels went on to finish 8-0 in the ACC and for the first time they played in the league championship game.

“If anybody asks me what was that one point that you knew that you had a chance, it was coming back from 21 down in the first quarter and getting it back to a ball game right before half and then finishing the game up,” Fedora said.

One of the goals this time around against Georgia Tech is to avoid those kind of unenviable circumstances in the first place. UNC found itself in such a deep hole a year ago because its offense sputtered and its defense, again, played with a sense of befuddlement against the triple option.

That was a constant theme against Georgia Tech during Fedora’s first three seasons, under a defensive coaching staff that was replaced after a miserable 2014 season. In the three games against Georgia Tech between 2012 and 2014, UNC allowed an average of 7 yards per play and 46.3 points.

The failure seemed certain to continue midway through the second quarter a year ago, with the Yellow Jackets leading 21-0. Quickly, though, Gene Chizik, then in his first season as the Tar Heels’ defensive coordinator, adjusted and helped his players react to what was coming.

“There’s not as much of a guessing game, because you can actually look at what you did last year and then look at what they did in response to it,” Chizik said of facing the triple option for the second time. “So we didn’t really have that last year. We just had our best educated guess.”

Chizik and his colleagues on UNC’s defensive staff have come up with their own terminology while preparing the Tar Heels for a Georgia Tech offense that is familiar yet foreign. Chizik likes to use “eye candy” to describe all the moving parts and deception the Yellow Jackets employ.

The goal of that eye candy is to cause confusion. Focus too much on the fullback drive, and the quarterback might run past a defender for a sizable gain. Focus too much on the quarterback run, and he might pitch it to another player on the outside.

Then there are all the blocks coming from every which way. Tray Scott, the defensive line coach, likes to use “stab and sprawl.” That’s what he wants his defensive linemen to do in response to Georgia Tech’s cut blocks, which are designed to take out a defensive player at his knees.

“That’s his little rhyme and reason to how we play it,” said Jones, the defensive tackle. “Just stab and sprawl your feet back and go find the ball.”

This will be Jones’ third time playing against Georgia Tech’s version of the triple option. For Smith, the middle linebacker, it will be the second. Some players, like outside linebacker Cole Holcomb, are essentially seeing it for the first time, at least at this level with this kind of speed.

Regardless of how many times any player has seen it, though, Saturday in a lot of ways will be like the first time all over again. The Tar Heels will have to adjust to those cut blocks, again, and keep their eyes in the right place, again.

“When your eyes are bad,” Smith said, “the coordinators up top see it. So they’re going to come back and hit you again and again with the same play.”

That’s what happened to him a year ago, on his first series against this offense. It’s a lesson Smith keeps with him, one that he hopes provides some kind of benefit on Saturday at Kenan Stadium.

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter

Georgia Tech at UNC

When: 12:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Kenan Stadium, Chapel Hill

TV: ACC Network

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