North Carolina sophomore linebacker Jonathan Smith still doesn’t know what to expect.
Preparing for the game against Georgia Tech on Saturday, he and the rest of the UNC defense have been studying film of the Yellow Jackets since the spring. He’s memorized the plays, learned techniques for dodging cut blocks, and done reps against the scout team in practice. But the speed of Georgia Tech’s triple option offense?
You can’t grasp what that will be like until you see it on the field.
“Everything that we’ve learned about the offense, it just puts out the window,” senior cornerback M.J. Stewart said. “This is a totally different monster.”
UNC defensive coordinator John Papuchis never stops preparing for Georgia Tech. He spent a week over the summer planning with the defensive coaches, and the players have been watching film during the spring, summer, preseason practice and Sundays during the season.
“If you wait for the game week to start getting ready, it would be very difficult,” Papuchis said. “I don’t think you would have a chance.”
This year presents unique challenges for the Tar Heels. Junior linebacker Andre Smith is sidelined with a season-ending injury, and junior defensive tackle Jalen Dalton and senior defensive lineman Tyler Powell are battling back from injuries of their own. The losses will leave several young players adapting to the unconventional offense for the first time on Saturday.
Against the Yellow Jackets’ triple option offense, the limited experience and knowledge that the younger Tar Heels have acquired this season won’t help much. Even Stewart, a veteran all-conference candidate, has been tripped up by the same play – a post-wheel route – for three straight years.
The younger players have to keep track of many moving parts. Be wary of the cut block – and the injury risk that comes with a blocker aiming for the legs; memorize your part, but don’t overthink it. Stay disciplined. Against Georgia Tech, one missed assignment could doom the whole defense. Don’t let your eyes wander; don’t do more than your job.
Oh, and be quick about it.
“I think it’s, ‘get to your spot fast,’ ” redshirt freshman defensive end Tomon Fox said. “That’s how I see it.”
Fox said Powell and junior defensive end Malik Carney have given him advice on where to be during different downs. And Andre Smith warned Jonathan Smith of the up-tempo style of play.
Stewart said he’s emphasized the eyes. Facing Georgia Tech’s unpredictability, the margin of error is too small to get distracted by what you think you see.
Though junior linebacker Cole Holcomb is taking charge of directing the defense, Smith still must adjust to the Yellow Jackets’ unfamiliar style while serving as a defensive leader in the middle linebacker position.
In practice, the scout team has tested the defense with cut blocks, and Papuchis is using a couple of quarterbacks who ran the triple-option in high school to give the players a sense of what to expect. Stewart said the scout team has mirrored the look of the Yellow Jacket offense well, but not the pace.
“For somebody who’s never seen it, in three days, they’re not gonna be prepared,” head coach Larry Fedora said. “They surely won’t be prepared for the speed of the game. They may know the schemes, but they won’t know the speed of it.”
At this point, the Tar Heels are not strangers to the triple option conceptually, between the practice reps and the hours of film sessions. They’ve studied the intricacies of the Yellow Jackets’ offense and looked for ticks that could help them predict plays.
But they won’t really know what the offense is like until that first snap.
UNC at Georgia Tech
Where: Bobby Dodd Stadium, Atlanta