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Heel Tough Blog: Virginia Tech Preview

Saturday, the Tar Heels welcome No. 19 Virginia Tech to Kenan Stadium for a top 25 matchup that will be a sizable factor in the race for a spot in December’s ACC Championship. The Tar Heels will look to shake off the recent bad luck they have had late in games against the Hokies, as they search for their first win against them since 2015. The Tar Heels will be looking for a rhythm that they haven’t yet been able to establish due to the schedule shifts, but they’ll have to do so with some starters likely out of the lineup.

Team Breakdowns

Tar Heels

Saturday is a chance for this Tar Heel team to get themselves settled in after an unorthodox start to the season. One of the main guys that the team would like to see get settled in this weekend is quarterback Sam Howell, who, similar to the team as a whole, hasn’t been bad, but hasn’t quite been able to match the lofty expectations just yet. Saturday feels like a chance for him to add another statement win to his resume and breakout out of what has been a little bit of a sophomore slump in the first two games of the season. It would help if his wide receiving corps was able to create a little bit more separation, especially the slot receivers led by Dazz Newsome, who have simply struggled to get open. This matchup with Virginia Tech is always a personal one for Newsome after he was passed over by the Hokies in the recruiting process. The offensive line unit is still the biggest concern here, though, especially after Jordan Tucker went down with a lower body injury this past Saturday, leaving huge question marks going forward. Last year, this unit was simply dominated by Virginia Tech and the defensive line the group will face on Saturday is extremely talented once again. The quick pass will be the Tar Heels friend on Saturday, and that is why it is so important that receivers and tight ends are able to get open in this one. The one unit on the offense that has had few worries so far is the running back unit, which is off to another phenomenal start thanks to the combination of Michael Carter and Javonte Williams.

As for the Tar Heel defense, they are off to one of their best starts in recent memory, especially in run defense. The defensive line unit that entered the offseason with so much concern has been fantastic so far, with both Raymond Voahsek and Tomari Fox off to great starts. Unfortunately, Vohasek did sustain an injury in the game on Saturday against Boston College is up in the air, but the emergence of true freshman Kaimon Rucker, who is expected to get his first start will allow the Tar Heels some flexibility to try and find a temporary fix. It also helps that the Tar Heels linebacking corps, led by Chazz Surratt and Jeremiah Gemmel seemed to have taken another step forward from last year, as has Tomon Fox, who is already halfway to his sack total from a year ago. The Tar Heels took a very aggressive approach in the game on Saturday, but with secondary sustaining two more significant injuries on Saturday, you would think that game plan might be adjusted for the next few weeks. Both Storm Duck and Ja’Qurious Conley exited Saturday’s game with injuries, leaving some uncertainty, but the good news is that Mack Brown said that both Patrice Rene and Cam’Ron Kelly, who have had some setbacks while rehabbing their ACL injuries from last year, should be able to contribute a little more going forward. It also helps that Trey Morrison looked great in his first game at safety and should only continue to grow there.

The Tar Heel special teams have picked up right where they left off a year ago, showing some positive signs, but struggling with consistency. Ben Kiernan has been the lone exception, punting great in both games so far this season. Placekicker Grayson Atkins has been perfect from inside of 35 this season, but has missed both of his long field goal attempts so far this season, leading to some concern about the overall field goal range for this team this year. The return games looked solid against Syracuse, but were quiet against Boston College, while the kick coverage units had their struggles in the opener before bouncing back on Saturday. Just as they were last year, the Tar Heels are just searching for some consistency here.

Virginia Tech

The Hokies have been missing almost a fourth of their team in each of the first two games of the season, but are off to a 2-0 start to the season of their own. The main reason they are off to as good of a start as they are is their running game. Led by Kansas transfer Khalil Herbert, the Hokies are one of the top rushing teams in the nation at this point in the season and one would expect them to continue to lean on the running game with the success they have had. Quarterback is a big question mark because of the uncertainty around Hendon Hooker’s status and the struggles that Braxton Burmeister has had out of the gate. The Tar Heels will once again face another talented tight end this weekend in James Mitchell and the Hokies receiving corps is still in solid shape with guys like Tre Turner and Tayvion Robinson. The offensive line is off to a great start to the season, as well led by transfer center Brock Hoffman and junior guard Lecitus Smith.

The Hokies defense entered the season with the humongous task of replacing longtime defensive coordinator Bud Foster and so far their off to decent start. The defensive line looks like one of the tops in the ACC, as they have led a defense that has 19.0 tackles for loss and 14.0 sacks in the first two games of the season. Emmanuel Belmar and Justus Reed have led the way, but the entire unit has been unstoppable to start the season. The linebacking corps is still in solid shape with Dax Hollifield and Rashard Ashby both returning to form a solid tandem in the middle. As for the secondary, losing Caleb Farley was a big blow, but this group is still talented led by veteran safeties Chamarri Conner and Divine Deablo.

The Hokies look to have one of the top special teams units in the ACC this season. Placekicker Brian Johnson and punter Oscar Bradburn form a strong kicking unit for the team and the kick return game is in strong hands with Herbert off to a very strong start. The only question is at punt returner where Tayvion Robinson hasn’t been able to get anything going yet.

The big mystery with the Hokies is who all will be available for them from week to week due to the lasting impact that a COVID-19 outbreak has had on the team. The first two games have seen the Hokies without 20 or more players, including many key starters. There is no telling what the team might look like on Saturday, although you would expect a solid group of player to miss this game for the Hokies.

Team Stats (rankings are amongst 74 FBS to play a game in 2020)

Tar Heels

Off. PPG: 28.5 (T-46th)

Off. PYPG: 264.0 (28th)

Off. RYPG: 168.0 (T-32nd)

Off. TYPG: 432.0 (30th)

Off. 3rd Down %: 48.0 (21st)

Def. PPG: 14.0 (10th)

Def. PYPG: 223.5 (T-23rd)

Def. RYPG: 54.0 (1st)

Def. TYPG: 277.5 (9th)

Def. 3rd Down %: 36.1% (23rd)

Sacks: 10.0 (T-14th)

Interceptions: 1 (T-51st)

Turnover Margin: -3 (T-62nd)

Virginia Tech

Off. PPG: 41.5 (10th)

Off. PYPG: 172.0 (62nd)

Off. RYPG: 319.0 (3rd)

Off. TYPG: 491.0 (14th)

Off. 3rd Down %: 37.5% (T-55th)

Def. PPG: 27.5 (T-36th)

Def. PYPG: 259.0 (42nd)

Def. RYPG: 139.0 (33rd)

Def. TYPG: 398.0 (37th)

Def. 3rd Down %: 30.3% (14th)

Sacks: 13.0 (T-2nd)

Interceptions: 3 (T-23rd)

Turnover Margin: 0 (T-37th)

Keys To The Game

Stick to Your Assignments

This Tar Heel run defense is the best statically in the nation for a reason, but they face their first big test of the season on Saturday. The Hokies running game has been on a roll in the first two games of the season, so the Tar Heel defense needs to be able to take care of business up front and close gaps quickly. Taking care of assignments will be the key to limiting mistakes and ultimately slowing down this Virginia Tech offense.

Neutralize the Virginia Tech Pass Rush

The Hokies have been a nightmare for offensive lines so far and with the Tar Heels offensive line struggling and banged up, they need to find a way to slow down the pressure. Look for the Tar Heels to try to get the ball out quickly on Saturday and allow their playmakers to make plays with the football in their hands. Garrett Walston and the running backs may also see some added pass protection reps to try and lend some extra help.

Make Some Big Plays on Special Teams

Mack Brown has been asking the Tar Heels special teams unit to make some plays and on Saturday would be the perfect time for that to happen. Some big return plays and reliable field goal kicking could go go a long way to helping the Tar Heels pull out a victory in this important ACC game.

Injury Report

Tar Heels

OUT- Kedrick Bingley-Jones (leg)

DOUBT- Ty Murray (upper body)

QUEST- Ja’Qurious Conley (undisclosed), Storm Duck (undisclosed), Joshua Ezeudu (lower body), DeAndre Hollins (upper body), Jordan Tucker (lower body), Raymond Vohasek (undisclosed)

Virginia Tech

OUT- S Devon Hunter (suspension)

QUEST- WR Elijah Bowick (undisclosed), CB Armani Chatman (undisclosed), S Divine Deablo (undisclosed), DE Zion Debose (undisclosed), RB Jalen Hampton (undisclosed), CB Brion Murray (undisclosed), WR Jaden Payoute (undisclosed), WR Darryle Simmons, CB Devin Taylor (undisclosed), LB Alan Tisdale (undisclosed), NB J.R. Walker (undisclosed), CB Jermaine Waller (undisclosed), WR Dallan Wright (undisclosed)

Projected Starting Lineups

Tar Heels Offense

QB# 7 Sam Howell, So.

RB# 8 Michael Carter, Sr.

WR# 2 Dyami Brown, Jr.

WR#15 Beau Corrales, Sr.

WR# 5 Dazz Newsome, Sr.

TE#84 Garrett Walston, Sr.

LT#72 Asim Richards, So.

LG#63 Ed Montilus, So.

C#68 Brian Anderson, Jr.

RG#73 Marcus McKethan, Jr.

RT#69 Quiron Johnson, Jr. Defense

END#25 Kaimon Rucker, Fr.

NOSE#56 Tomari Fox, So.

DT#52 Jahlil Taylor, So.

OLB#12 Tomon Fox, Sr.

ILB#44 Jeremiah Gemmel, Jr.

ILB#21 Chazz Surratt, Sr.

OLB#42 Tyrone Hopper, Sr.

CB#13 Obi Egbuna, So.

FS# 2 Don Chapman, So.

SS# 4 Trey Morrison, Jr.

CB# 1 Kyler McMichael, So.

NB#14 Welton Spottsville, So. Special Teams

K#17 Grayson Atkins, Sr. OR #97 Noah Ruggles, So.

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 Tech Offense

QB# 2 Hendon Hooker, Jr. OR # 3 Braxton Burmeister, Jr.

RB#21 Khalil Herbert, Sr.

WR#83 Tayvion Robinson, So.

WR#80 Kaleb Smith, So.

WR#11 Tre Turner, Jr.

TE#82 James Mitchell, Jr.

LT#77 Christian Darrisaw, Jr.

LG#54 Lecitus Smith, Jr.

C#76 Brock Hoffman, Jr.

RG#61 Bryan Hudson, So.

RT#69 Luke Tenuta, So. Defense

LDE# 9 Justus Reed, Sr.

DT#36 DaShawn Crawford, Sr.

NT# 5 Jarrod Hewitt, Sr.

RDE# 8 Emmanuel Belmar, Sr.

OLB# 4 Dax Hollifield, Jr.

MLB#23 Rayshard Ashby, Sr.


ROVER#33 Keonta Jenkins, Fr.

FS#18 Tyree Rodgers, Sr.


NB#22 Chamarri Conner, Jr. Special Teams

K#93 Brian Johnson, Sr.

P#91 Oscar Bradburn, Sr.

KOS#96 John Parker Romo, Sr.

LS#97 Oscar Shadley, Jr.

H#91 Oscar Bradburn, Sr.

KR#21 Khalil Herbert, Sr.

PR#83 Tayvion Robinson, So.

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