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Heel Tough Blog: Virginia Preview

For a historic 125th time, the South’s Oldest Rivalry is set to be renewed this Saturday. The Tar Heels will begin a three week stretch of very winnable games in Charlottesville as they take on a Virginia Cavaliers team that is coming off of a near road upset over the Miami Hurricanes after a slow start to the season. The Tar Heels will look to end their recent struggles with the Cavaliers, as well, and keep themselves right in the thick of the ACC Championship Game hunt.

Team Breakdowns

Tar Heels

After struggling at times in all three phases against Florida State, the Tar Heels returned to form on Saturday in their beat down of NC State. The offense remains the strength of this 2020 Tar Heel football team, led by one of the nation's top rushing attacks. Javonte Williams and Michael Carter are off to simply spectacular starts to their respective seasons, as both are currently sitting with more than 700 yards from scrimmage thru five games. Both guys have not only torn it up on the ground, rushing for more than 500 yards so far this season, but have also been nice threats out of the backfield, currently sitting fourth and fifth on the team in receptions. Quarterback Sam Howell hasn’t had to shoulder a ton of the load like he had to last year, but when the Tar Heels have needed him to step up, he has. The wide receivers are not on pace to produce like they did a year ago because of just how successful the run game has been. Dyami Brown is having another strong season, while Dazz Newsome has really struggled so far as many defenses have been able to limit his production. Beau Corrales is the team’s second leading receiver, but he will miss his second straight game and his status may be iffy for the remainder of the season. This means young guys like Emery Simmons and Khafre Brown will have to play a bigger role. Tight end Garrett Walston has also shown signs of possibly becoming a bigger part of the receiving game in the last couple of weeks, as he has already had a fantastic season as a blocker. The biggest concern on this offense still remains the line, but the group has played their two best games of the season in the last three weeks. In between those two great performances was their worst performance of the season, showing just how consistent the offensive line has been, especially in pass protection, this season.

The Tar Heel defense also recovered nicely on Saturday after two lackluster performances in the prior two games. The defensive line got off to a strong start to the season, but hasn’t been the same since Raymond Vohasek went down with an injury. Tomari Fox has had a nice start to the season as a pass rusher, but hasn’t been great as a run defender. The interior linebacker behind them hit a slump in the two weeks prior to the game against NC State. Chazz Surratt and Jeremiah Gemmel are still a very formidable force in the middle and just need to avoid another stretch where they miss a bunch of tackles in the open field. The Tar Heels edge rushers have lacked consistency, but when they have been on, they’ve been able to cause a lot of pressure led by Tomon Fox. The Tar Heels’ defensive scheme has involved a lot of blitzing so far this season, which has put a lot of pressure on the secondary. While the corners have held their own, despite Storm Duck and Patrice Rene missing multiple games this season, the safeties have been exposed a bit. Both Don Chapman and Cam’Ron Kelly have been hit-or-miss so far this season in run defense and the prior has been caught with his eyes in the backfield too often leading to big plays down the field in the passing game. Saturday was a nice step in the right direction, but there is still a lot of room for improvement.

Speaking of plenty of room for improvement, the Tar Heels special teams unit is in dire need. Jonathan Kim and Ben Kiernan have been weapons for this team in the kickoff and punting game respectively, but that is where the positives stop. Grayson Atkins has failed to improve the kicking game, which was the reason he was brought in, while the return games have been relatively quiet once again this season. The coverage units haven’t been tested often, but when they have, even they’ve had their issues. This unit needs to frankly be better if this Tar Heel team wants to play for an ACC title, which is still a reachable goal.


The Cavaliers have taken a significant back this season after all that departed after last season, but they have been a much more competitive team than their record shows. The quarterback position is one of the biggest reasons this team hasn’t been able to pick up another win since the season opener. Brennan Armstrong has seen the most action at the position so far this season, but Lindell Stone started two games earlier this year, and in recent weeks, the Cavaliers have used both Iraken Armstead and Keayton Thompson in read option situations in each of the past two weeks. The backfield hasn’t had a bad season, but the running back stable has once again just had average returns, led by Wayne Taulapapa, who has once again handled a bulk of the carries. The wide receiving corps looks promising thanks to Billy Kemp IV and Terrell Jana, the latter of whom had a huge game against a beat up Tar Heel secondary a year ago. Tight end Troy Polijan has also been a solid addition, as he is third on the team in receiving and is someone the Tar Heels will need to gameplan for, especially with the problems that tight ends have caused the team at times this year. The Cavaliers offensive line has had a solid start to the season, as well, anchored by tackle Ryan Swoboda and guard Chris Glaser.

The Cavaliers defense has let up a lot of points early in the season, but did enough to keep themselves in the game a week ago. The linebacking corps is the strength of this defense, led by Nick Jackson and Zane Zandier in the middle of the unit. The Cavaliers have been able to get to quarterback at a pretty solid clip early in the year, as well, led by nose tackle Jowon Briggs and outside linebacker Noah Taylor, who lead the team in sacks. The problem is that when they can’t get to the quarterback, their secondary has been torn apart. This secondary is a far cry from the units that the Cavaliers have had back there in recent years, but the unit is still an optimistic one that has created a few turnovers this season.

The Cavaliers special teams are once again in good shape this season. Brian Delaney and Nash Griffin are one of the top kicker-punter combos in the ACC and even with the loss of Joe Reed from last year, this Tavares Kelly has had a nice starter to his season as the team’s kick returner.

Team Stats (rankings are amongst 101 FBS teams to play a game in 2020)

Tar Heels

Off. PPG: 37.8 (20th)

Off. PYPG: 282.2 (22nd)

Off. RYPG: 249.0 (12th)

Off. TYPG: 531.2 (8th)

Off. 3rd Down %: 45.8 (33rd)

Def. PPG: 25.0 (T-35th)

Def. PYPG: 246.2 (59th)

Def. RYPG: 128.6 (36th)

Def. TYPG: 374.8 (39th)

Def. 3rd Down %: 37.5 (T-39th)

Sacks: 15.0 (T-15th)

Interceptions: 5 (T-25th)

Turnover Margin: +1 (T-34th)


Off. PPG: 23.8 (75th)

Off. PYPG: 247.6 (39th)

Off. RYPG: 164.0 (54th)

Off. TYPG: 411.6 (46th)

Off. 3rd Down %: 32.9% (87th)

Def. PPG: 31.6 (60th)

Def. PYPG: 286.0 (86th)

Def. RYPG: 133.6 (42nd)

Def. TYPG: 419.6 (61st)

Def. 3rd Down %: 37.2 (38th)

Sacks: 15.0 (T-15th)

Interceptions: 6 (T-14th)

Turnover Margin: -5 (T-92nd)

Keys To The Game

Tackle in Open Space

This has been the main reason why the team hasn’t been able to slow down teams with running quarterbacks so far this season and all of the Cavaliers quarterbacks are mobile. This is also a key with a receiving game, primarily Billy Kemp IV, where a bulk of the catches come on short patterns that are designed to allow them to make plays after the catch, so the Tar Heels will have to be able to wrap up and make tackles.

Utilize the Deep Passing Game

The Tar Heels’ running game has been nearly unstoppable out of the gate, but this Cavaliers secondary has really had their trial and tribulations out of the gate this season. In the game against Florida State, the Tar Heels game plan didn’t involve many shots down the field, but that can not be the case in this game. Dyami Brown tore this Virginia secondary apart last year and you know he would love to be able to do it again on Saturday.

Keep Creating Turnovers

Through the first four games of the season, the Tar Heels had created just two turnovers, but on Saturday against NC State the team forced four, including three interceptions. With the struggles this run defense has had with mobile quarterbacks and with just how prone to turnovers this Virginia offense is, the Tar Heels should look to be opportunistic once again in this one.

Injury Report

Tar Heels

OUT- Kedrick Bingley-Jones (leg), Beau Corrales (upper body), Storm Duck (lower body), Ethan West (upper body)

QUEST- Patrice Rene (undisclosed)

PROB- Ja’Qurious Conley (undisclosed)


OUT- Nathaniel Beal III (knee), Ugo Obasi (undisclosed), Dontayvion Wicks (undisclosed)

DOUBT- Lavel Davis (undisclosed)

QUEST- Ronnie Walker Jr. (undisclosed)

Projected Starting Lineups

Tar Heels Offense

QB# 7 Sam Howell, So.

RB# 8 Michael Carter, Sr.

WR# 2 Dyami Brown, Jr.

WR# 0 Emery Simmons, So.

WR# 5 Dazz Newsome, Sr.

TE#84 Garrett Walston, Sr.

LT#72 Asim Richards, So

.LG#75 Joshua Ezeudu, So.

C#68 Brian Anderson, Jr.

RG#73 Marcus McKethan, Jr.

RT#74 Jordan Tucker, Jr. Defense

NOSE#51 Raymond Vohasek, Jr.

DT#56 Tomari Fox, So.

OLB#12 Tomon Fox, Sr.

ILB#44 Jeremiah Gemmel, Jr.

ILB#21 Chazz Surratt, Sr.

OLB#42 Tyrone Hopper, Sr.

CB#15 Ladaeson Hollins, So.

FS# 2 Don Chapman, So.

SS# 9 Cam’Ron Kelly, So.

CB# 1 Kyler McMichael, So.

NB# 4 Trey Morrison, Jr. Special Teams

K#17 Grayson Atkins, Sr.

KOS#95 Jonathan Kim, So.

P#91 Ben Kiernan, So.

LS#60 Trevor Collins, Sr. (K) #61 Drew Little, So. (P)

H#96 Cooper Graham, Jr.

KR# 8 Michael Carter, Sr.

PR# 5 Dazz Newsome, Sr.

Virginia Offense

QB# 5 Brennan Armstrong, So.

RB#21 Wayne Taulapapa, Jr.

WR#13 Terrell Jana, Sr.

WR#17 Ra’Shaun Henry, Sr.

WR# 4 Billy Kemp IV, Jr.

WR-H#88 Tavares Kelly Jr., Jr.

TE#87 Troy Poljan, Sr.

LT#54 Ryan Nelson, Sr.

LG#79 Dillon Reinkensmeyer, Sr.

C#55 Olusegun Oluwatimi, Jr.

RG#69 Chris Glaser, Sr.

RT#72 Ryan Swoboda, Jr. Defense

LDE#16 Richard Burney, Sr.

NT#19 Jowon Briggs, So.

RDE#91 Mandy Alonso, Sr.

SLB# 7 Noah Taylor, Jr.

BLB# 6 Nick Jackson, So.

MLB# 0 Zane Zandier, Sr.

WLB#11 Charles Snowden, Sr.

FC# 1 Nick Grant, Sr.

SABRE#28 Brenton Nelson, Sr.

FS#29 Joey Blount, Sr.

BC#15 DeVante Cross, Sr. Special Teams

K#26 Brian Delaney, Sr.

P# 2 Nash Griffin, Sr.

KOS#66 Justin Duenkel, RFr.

LS#57 Tucker Fenkelston, So.

H# 2 Nash Griffin, Sr.

KR#88 Tavares Kelly Jr., Jr.

PR# 4 Billy Kemp IV, Jr.


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