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Heel Tough Blog: Virginia Preview

The Tar Heels might face their most important test of the season in Kenan Stadium on Saturday night when the Virginia Cavaliers come to town as the South’s Oldest Rivalry is renewed for the 127th time. The Tar Heels will be looking to avoid a 1-2 start overall and 0-2 start in conference in a season that had some of the loftiest expectations in program history following the season-opening conference loss to Virginia Tech. If the Tar Heels are going to do so, though, they will have to take down a Cavalier team that they haven’t beaten in five years.

Team Breakdowns

Tar Heels

The Tar Heels bounced back on Saturday against Georgia State following the disappointing opener, but there is still plenty of room for improvement. That starts on the offensive line where the unit simply must be better than they have been in the first two games of the season. The unit has been without a key starter in each of those games so far this season, but they are hoping to be at full strength for the first time this year on Saturday. The hope is that that will allow this unit to finally get some push up front and be able to provide running lanes and pass protection for an offense that hasn’t had much of it to this point. The key to that will be Joshua Ezeudu’s ability to play on Saturday night. If he can play, that could go a long way towards helping a running game that is struggling out of the gate. Ty Chandler has shown some flashes of what the Tar Heels thought they were getting this offseason, but he needs to be a little more decisive than he has been out of the gate. Not having D.J. Jones available the other night was noticeable and hopefully he will be available for this game to provide a similar spark to the one that he gave in the opener. The good news is Sam Howell got back on track with a historic performance this past Saturday and Virginia is a team that he has thrived against so far in his career. Howell’s group of pass catchers showed a lot of promise on Saturday and will look to carry that success into this game. Josh Downs has fully taken over the go-to option role with a tremendous start to his season, but the emergence of Antoine Green and Kamari Morales were the most encouraging takeaways from the group's performance against Georgia State.

The defense continues to show plenty of promise, but injuries are a roadblock that the team will now have to deal with. Ja’Qurious Conley has been the best defensive player for the Tar Heels this season following his move to safety, but it’s unknown how much he’ll be able to play and how effective he'll be with a club on his left hand. That means that Trey Morrison needs to continue his strong start and Giovanni Biggers and Cam’Ron Kelly must now step up in the additional reps they’ll see. At corner, starters Tony Grimes and Kyler McMichael will be expected to play as much as possible this weekend with Dae Dae Hollins now done for the season and Storm Duck still being worked back slowly from lower body injury back in the spring. Duck may see some action on Saturday, but Obi Egbuna is the guy who may see the biggest boost in reps because of it, something that is a bit concerning just because of Egbuna’s lack of experience. The Tar Heel defensive line has some positive flashes, led by the emergence of Jahvaree Ritzie pairing with the experience of Raymond Vohasek and Myles Murphy. The team needs more consistency from the unit, especially early in games, and needs to get more pressure overall, but there are some signs of growth here early on. The linebacking corps has been hit or miss as well so far this season, but Jeremiah Gemmel is still a steady leader in the middle and Cedric Gray is beginning to show signs of someone who can be more involved going forward.

The special teams unit has looked solid so far. Mack Brown was thrilled with the fact that the team blocked a punt the other night, but does want to see more from his return units, primarily the punt return group. Punter Ben Kiernan has looked strong early on this season and Jonathan Kim continues to thrive in the kickoff role as one of the best in college football. Kicker Grayson Atkins hit a big time kick in the opener against Virginia Tech, but did miss from 34 the other night, something that hopefully was just one tough miss.


The Cavaliers are off to a tremendous start to their season and look to be a contender once again in the Coastal. Quarterback Brennan Armstrong had graded out as the nation’s top player at the position in the first two weeks of the season and has taken a major step forward early on in the season. His success in the passing has been aided by a veteran group of pass catchers that are off to a strong start. The Cavaliers have five players that have already reached the 100-yard receiving mark so far this season led by Dontayvion Wicks on the outside and big tight end transfer Jelani Woods causing problems for defenses in the middle of the field. The Cavaliers have an extremely experienced group along the offensive line, anchored by their center Olusegun Oluwatimi and right guard Chris Glaser. The group so far has done a great job in pass protection, allowing just one sack in the first two games of the season. The Virginia run game is a weakness with this team, though, as no running back has hit the 100-yard mark yet and Wayne Taulapapa is someone that the Tar Heels have had success stopping in past couple of meetings.

Defensively, the Cavaliers have been stingy as well out of the gate, granted against two lesser opponents. The linebacking corps is the strength of the unit, led by veterans Nick Jackson and Noah Taylor, who are both off to great start to their seasons. The secondary is in good shape as well, with Joey Blount and Anthony Johnson as the standouts at safety and corner, respectively. The defensive line looks to be the one area of weakness but this is a group that has helped the team hold their first two opponents run games.

The special teams group might be the biggest overall concern with this team. Justin Duenkel is 2-4 so far this season on field goals, something that could be important in a game like this that could be close. Billy Kemp IV has been solid as a punt returner, but hasn’t been able to provide much in the kick return game. Punter Jacob Finn, though, is off to a strong start to his season, averaging 46.0 yards per punt on five punts so far this year.

Team Stats

Tar Heels

Off. PPG: 34.5 (T-45th)

Off. PYPG: 307.0 (22nd)

Off. RYPG: 173.5 (57th)

Off. TYPG: 480.5 (30th)

Off. 3rd Down %: 35.0 (86th)

Def. PPG: 17.0 (T-40th)

Def. PYPG: 129.5 (11th)

Def. RYPG: 154.0 (83rd)

Def. TYPG: 283.5 (31st)

Def. 3rd Down %: 36.7% (T-70th)

Sacks: 2.0 (T-104th)

Interceptions: 2 (T-41st)

Turnover Margin: 0 (T-64th)


Off. PPG: 42.5 (T-20th)

Off. PYPG: 381.0 (6th)

Off. RYPG: 169.5 (60th)

Off. TYPG: 550.5 (10th)

Off. 3rd Down %: 43.5% (T-57th)

Def. PPG: 7.0 (4th)

Def. PYPG: 155.0 (T-23rd)

Def. RYPG: 105.0 (42nd)

Def. TYPG: 260.0 (T-18th)

Def. 3rd Down %: 29.0 (T-29th)

Sacks: 5.0 (T-47th)

Interceptions: 1 (T-63rd)

Turnover Margin: 0 (T-64th)

Keys To The Game

Treat This Game Like a Rivalry Game

While this game may be labeled the South’s Oldest Rivalry, the Tar Heels sure haven’t treated it like a rivalry recently. In the meantime, Virginia has been treating this as such, playing some of their best games of the season in this matchup the last four seasons. If the Tar Heels want to win this game, they need to treat this as the rivalry game that it is and come ready to play, especially up front.

Be Effective Running the Football

The stats would show you that the Tar Heels are having some solid success on the ground, but the team really hasn’t been all that productive, especially the running backs. The offensive line has to be able to open holes for these backs, but the Tar Heels need some guys to also step up and make something happen amongst that group in the backfield. In order for this offense to be at it’s best, the Tar Heels need to be able to run the football, even if that means more designed runs for Sam Howell.

Don’t Get Fooled by the Eye Candy

This is a big part of what Robert Anae and the Virginia offense does to try to confuse opposing defenses and this is something that the Tar Heel defense needs to be ready for. With this staff having played this Cavaliers team twice already, this stuff shouldn’t throw them off the way it did at times a year ago. As Mack Brown said on Wednesday, the guys need to just focus on their assignments and make the plays when they are there.

Injury Report

Tar Heels

OUT- Dae Dae Hollins (lower body)

DOUBT- Beau Corrales (sports hernia)

QUEST- Brian Anderson (lower body), British Brooks (undisclosed), Joshua Ezeudu (undisclosed), D.J. Jones (undisclosed)

PROB- Khafre Brown (lower body), Ja’Qurious Conley (hand), Storm Duck (lower body)


OUT- Chico Bennett Jr. (Achilles), Lavel Davis (Achilles)

Projected Starting Lineups

Tar Heels Offense

QB# 7 Sam Howell, So.

RB#19 Ty Chandler, Sr.

WR# 0 Emery Simmons, Jr.

WR# 3 Antoine Green, Sr.

WR#11 Josh Downs, So.

TE#84 Garrett Walston, Sr.

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#56 Tomari Fox, 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# 7 Eugene Asante, Jr.

CB#20 Tony Grimes, So.

FS# 4 Trey Morrison, Jr.

SS# 0 Ja’Qurious Conley, So.

CB#1 Kyler McMichael, Jr. OR #29 Storm Duck, So.

NB# 2 Don Chapman, 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#19 Ty Chandler, Sr.

PR#11 Josh Downs, So.

Virginia Offense

QB# 5 Brennan Armstrong, Jr.

RB#21 Wayne Taulapapa, Sr.

WR-X# 3 Dontayvion Wicks, So.

WR- Z# 2 Ra’Shaun Henry, Sr.

WR-SL# 4 Billy Kemp IV, Sr.

TE# 0 Jelani Woods, Sr.

LT#54 Ryan Nelson, Sr.

LG#52 Joe Bissinger, Jr.

C#55 Olusegun Oluwatimi, Sr.

RG#69 Chris Glaser, Sr.

RT#72 Ryan Swoboda, Sr. Defense

LDE#95 Adeeb Atariwa, Sr.

NT#90 Jahmeer Carter, So.

RDE#91 Mandy Alonso, Sr.

SAM# 7 Noah Taylor, Sr.

BUCK# 6 Nick Jackson, Sr.

MIKE#13 Hunter Stewart, So.

WILL# 4 Elliott Brown, Sr.

FCB#23 Fentrell Cypress II, So.

SS#29 Joey Blount, Sr.

FS# 1 Nick Grant, Sr.

CB# 3 Anthony Johnson, Sr.

NB# 2 De’Vante Cross, Sr. Special Teams

K#66 Justin Duenkel, So.

KOS#66 Justin Duenkel, So.

P#16 Jacob Finn, Sr.

LS#57 Tucker Finkelston, Jr.

H#13 Jared Rayman, So.

KR# 7 Mike Hollins, So.

PR# 4 Billy Kemp IV, Sr.



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