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Heel Tough Blog: NC State Preview

The Tar Heels 2021 season hasn’t gone anywhere near as expected, but they have a chance to still match their season win total from last year and build some momentum heading into a crucial fourth season for the second Mack Brown era. That all starts on Friday when the Tar Heels look to complete the triangle sweep and take down the NC State Wolfpack for a third straight season. Doing so would put a positive spin on what could have been a significant step back from the progress that was built in the first two years of Brown’s return.

Team Breakdowns

Tar Heels

It’s usually hard to say that the performance of a football team is dependent on the status of one player, but it sure feels like it is for the Tar Heels in this one. The expectation is that quarterback Sam Howell will be able to go in this one and that is desperately needed, as is protection for him after he missed his senior day game with Wofford. There is no telling exactly how healthy Howell is, so he will need help from the group around him, which has shown a lot of improvement from early in the season. Ty Chandler just surpassed the 1,000 yard mark this past weekend and has steadily become a big part of this offense’s success as the season has gone along. He will need to be productive in this one and having both D.J. Jones and Caleb Hood in the fold behind him will also be helpful for this one. They will also need the wide receiving duo of Josh Downs, who is closing in on multiple single season records for a wide receiver at Carolina, and Antoine Green to continue to produce at the rate that they have in the second half of the season. The success of this offense, though, heavily depends on the play of the offensive line that continues to be as inconsistent as any unit on this 2021 team. They will need to be locked in for one of their best performances of the season in this one in what will be one of their biggest tests of the season.

The Tar Heel defense stepped up in the second half against Pittsburgh in what might have been their best half of the season and they will need to see that type of effort in this game, as well, if they want to win this one. They will have to do so without one of their best players, as well, with Ja’Qurious Conley done for the season due to a knee injury. That makes it critical for the defensive front to be able to get pressure to take some of the responsibility off of the defensive backfield. The Tar Heels defensive line is another unit that hasn’t been able to shake off their inconsistencies either, but this has be a week where, similar to the Duke and Pittsburgh games, the group can win their one-on-ones and finish plays in the backfield. Veterans like Myles Murphy, Tomon Fox and Raymond Vohasek will be amongst those looked to to play one of, if not their best, games of the season. They will need to get some help from the linebacking unit, which has been the most solid element of this defense this season thanks to Jeremiah Gemmel and Cedric Gray in the middle. On the back end, Trey Morrison will likely move back to the nickelback position that he played in his first two seasons of his Tar Heel career, leaving Giovanni Biggers and Cam’Ron Kelly to handle the bulk of the snaps at the safety spots for this one. It could also mean expanded roles for Cameron Roseman-Sinclair and DeAndre Boykins off the bench to give guys breathers. Tony Grimes, Storm Duck and Kyler McMichael will have to be able to help slow down a productive trio of wide receivers that the Wolfpack have.

The Tar Heel special teams unit has shown major improvement from last year, but losing Conley hurts them in the kick return department considering that he has been the team’s best option back there this season. The rest of the unit, though, remains in really good shape, led by the growing consistency of Grayson Atkins who has become extremely reliable, especially in important moments for the team this season. Punter Ben Kiernan hasn’t been needed often this season, but continues to be a weapon for this team and Josh Downs has been a very solid punt returner this season. The coverage units have been strong all season long and they will need to be great on Friday against one of the better return games in the country.

NC State

The Wolfpack enter the game with a chance to still make the ACC Championship and the Tar Heels need to be ready for a powerful team on both sides of the football. Quarterback Devin Leary is yet another ACC quarterback that is having a really good season this year and is the best football of his season coming into the one. He has a trio of wide receivers to throw to in Emeka Emezie, Devin Carter and Thayer Thomas, all of whom have reached 500 yards receiving this season. The running backs have been solid but nothing spectacular so far this season led by Zonovan Knight and Ricky Person Jr.. The offensive line is the strength of this offensive unit, led by one of the best offensive tackles in the entire country in Ikem Ekwonu.

Defensively, the Wolfpack provide one of the stiffest tests that the Tar Heel offense has faced this season. The Wolfpack don’t have that dominant defensive lineman that they have had in the past, but they do have a lot of solid players all along the unit that the Tar Heels need to be prepared for. At linebacker, the team has lost their two preseason All-ACC players in Payton Wilson and Isaiah Moore, but have seen breakouts from Drake Thomas and Devon Beatty that have kept this unit in good shape. The secondary is as good as it has been in any other year, but that will probably be the area that the Tar Heels will have to be able to attack in the passing game if they want to win this one.

The Wolfpack special teams unit is in good shape, as well. Zonovan Knight is a dangerous kickoff return man who has made teams pay recently and punter Trenton Gill is one of the best punters in the entire country. Punt return Thayer Thomas has had a solid season as the punt returner, as well. The one area of concern is the kicker spot where Christopher Dunn has been up and down, especially from deep, this season.

Team Stats

Tar Heels

Off. PPG: 37.0 (14th)

Off. PYPG: 270.2 (26th)

Off. RYPG: 212.7 (19th)

Off. TYPG: 482.9 (10th)

Off. 3rd Down %: 47.1% (14th)

Def. PPG: 31.4 (98th)

Def. PYPG: 236.8 (81st)

Def. RYPG: 175.1 (98th)

Def. TYPG: 411.9 (88th)

Def. 3rd Down %: 42.5% (98th)

Sacks: 21.0 (T-86th)

Interceptions: 11 (T-31st)

Turnover Margin: +1 (T-56th)

NC State

Off. PPG: 33.0 (33rd)

Off. PYPG: 292.2 (19th)

Off. RYPG: 127.4 (99th)

Off. TYPG: 419.5 (T-54th)

Off. 3rd Down %: 41.3% (62nd)

Def. PPG: 18.7 (T-13th)

Def. PYPG: 213.1 (46th)

Def. RYPG: 107.2 (17th)

Def. TYPG: 320.3 (18th)

Def. 3rd Down %: 29.5% (6th)

Sacks: 28.0 (T-45th)

Interceptions: 14 (T-9th)

Turnover Margin: +5 (T-27th)

Keys to the Game

Get Off to a Fast Start

This has been one of the major issues for the Tar Heels on the road this season, mainly on the offensive side of the football. One of the biggest issues for this team is the fact that they just haven’t seemed to be ready to go for some of these road games, but this should not be an issue in this game against your hated rival. Getting out to an early lead could be a huge benefit to this cause.

Limit the Penalties

The Tar Heels had just three penalties against Wofford on Saturday, but in their last five games against FBS opponents, the team is averaging 10.8 penalties and 101.8 penalty yards per game. The penalty issues were a huge factor in the losses to Pittsburgh and Florida State and while this game will get chippy, the Tar Heels have to be able to limit penalties if they want to win this one.

Pressure the Quarterback

This is important for the success of any defense and is going to be needed regardless against Devin Leary, who has settled into a groove late in the season, however Conley’s injury makes this even more important. This secondary needs the help that they haven’t really received all season and it is up to Jay Bateman to also get creative to create some pressure.

Injury Report

Tar Heels

OUT- Ja’Qurious Conley (knee)

QUEST- Beau Corrales (sports hernia)

PROB- Jeremiah Gemmel (undisclosed), Sam Howell (upper body), D.J. Jones (undisclosed)

NC State

OUT- C.J. Clark (undisclosed), Cyrus Fagan (bicep), Isaiah Moore (knee), Payton Wilson (undisclosed), Chandler Zavala (undisclosed)

Projected Starting Lineups

Tar Heels Offense

QB# 7 Sam Howell, So.

RB#19 Ty Chandler, Sr.

WR#83 Justin Olson, So.

WR# 3 Antoine Green, Sr.

WR#11 Josh Downs, So.

TE#84 Garrett Walston, Sr. OR #88 Kamari Morales, So.

LT#72 Asim Richards, Jr.

LG#75 Joshua Ezeudu, Jr.

C#69 Quiron Johnson, Sr.

RG#73 Marcus McKethan, Sr.

RT#74 Jordan Tucker, Sr. Defense

END#25 Kaimon Rucker, So.

NOSE#51 Raymond Vohasek, Jr.

TACKLE# 8 Myles Murphy, So.

OLB#12 Tomon Fox, Sr.

OLB#17 Chris Collins, Jr.

ILB#44 Jeremiah Gemmel, Sr.

ILB#33 Cedric Gray, So.

CB#20 Tony Grimes, So.

FS#27 Giovanni Biggers, Jr.

SS# 9 Cam’Ron Kelly, Jr.

CB#29 Storm Duck, So.

NB# 4 Trey Morrison, Jr. Special Teams

K#17 Grayson Atkins, Sr.

KOS#95 Jonathan Kim, Jr.

P#91 Ben Kiernan, Jr.

LS#61 Drew Little, Jr.

H#91 Ben Kiernan, Jr.

KR# 0 Ja’Qurious Conley, So.

PR#11 Josh Downs, So.

NC State Offense

QB#13 Devin Leary, So.

RB# 7 Zonovan Knight, So. OR # 8 Ricky Person Jr., Jr.

WR-X#88 Devin Carter, So.

WR-Z#86 Emeka Emezie, Sr.

WR-SL# 5 Thayer Thomas, Jr.

TE-Y#28 Dylan Parham, Sr.

HB# 6 Trent Pennix, So.

LT#79 Ikem Ekwonu, So.

LG#54 Dylan McMahon, RFr.

C#50 Grant Gibson, Jr.

RG#53 Derrick Eason, So.

RT#56 Bryson Speas, Jr. Defense

LDE#99 Daniel Joseph, Sr.

NT#48 Corey Durden, Sr.

RDE#90 Savion Jackson, So.

SAM#31 Vi Jones, Jr.

MIKE#32 Drake Thomas, So.

WILL#26 Devon Betty, Fr.

LCB#25 Shyheim Battle, RFr.

SS#12 Devan Boykin, Fr.

FS#10 Tanner Ingle, Jr.

RCB#24 Derrick Pitts Jr., Sr.

NB#13 Tyler Baker-Williams, Jr. Special Teams

K#32 Christopher Dunn, Jr.

KOS#99 Trenton Gill, Jr.

P#99 Trenton Gill, Jr.

LS#91 Joe Shimko, So.

H#99 Trenton Gill, Jr.

KR# 7 Zonovan Knight, So.

PR# 5 Thayer Thomas, Jr.



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