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Heel Tough Blog: Virginia Tech Preview

After many months of excitement and speculation, the Tar Heels first game of the 2021 season is officially here. Friday night, the Tar Heels will travel up to one of the most lively environments in college football and a place where they have struggled historically against a Virginia Tech program that has had a lot of success against them since coming over from the Big East. The Tar Heels will hope to rid themselves of those demons up there and get this season full of expectations off to a nice start.

Team Breakdowns

Tar Heels

The Tar Heels, like many teams around the country, will be an extremely experienced one, but the need to replace some talent, primarily at the skills positions on offense. The Tar Heels have the tough task of replacing the most productive running back tandem in all of college football from a year ago with both Javonte Williams and Michael Carter having departed. The good news is, Ty Chandler is a veteran that the staff and many around the sport believe can have a major impact on the team this season and help to mask some of the production lost last season. Behind him, both Caleb Hood and D.J. Jones are primed for solid roles this season as the backfield attempts to look somewhat similar to the 2019 unit. The Tar Heels will have to find some new receiving options for Heisman Trophy candidate Sam Howell to throw the ball to, but some talented options have seemed to emerge. Josh Downs will take over for the steady Dazz Newsome in the slot and is a guy that many around college football thinks can be one of the nation’s most notable breakout players this season. On the outside, filling the shoes of Dyami Brown is a task certainly easier said than done, but Emery Simmons and Antoine Green are veterans that have been raved about so far during the fall. Don’t sleep on Justin Olson, either, who should see some solid reps from the start of the season both in the slot and on the outside. Super senior tight end Garrett Walston is also a veteran presence that could be relied on, especially early in the season, with the rapport he has with Howell. The offensive line is a veteran one but is still a unit that needs to take another step forward this season for this offense to continue being one of the best in college football. Left guard Joshua Ezeudu will anchor the group once, with firmly established veterans like Marcus McKethan and Jordan Tucker also returning and Asim Richards now an established piece at left tackle. Brian Anderson’s status for this game is still up in the air meaning that could be an area of concern heading in, but Quiron Johnson is still a serviceable option in there. The main goal for this unit this season needs to be keeping the pressure off of Howell. The overall success of this offense, though, lives and dies with the third-year starter at quarterback in Howell. Some people are still questioning whether or not he can elevate the players around with so inexperience around him, but it’s hard to be skeptical that he won’t be able to do it similar to 2019. If Howell can continue the path that he has been on through the first two years of his career, there is no reason the Tar Heels can’t be one of the nation’s best offenses once again this season.

Defensively, the expectation is that the team can take a major step forward thanks to the addition of more talent and more depth. Rotation is going to be a key for the team from the get-go, especially along the line. The Tar Heels return every player that played a snap on the defensive line a year ago and the unit has added depth with guys like Kevin Hester Jr. and Kristian Varner stepping up and true freshmen Jahvaree Ritzie and Keeshawn Silver throwing their names into the hat, as well. The unit will once again be led by the combination of Raymond Vohasek and Tomari Fox and Myles Murphy is expected to play a major role, as well. Don’t sleep on Kaimon Rucker as a rotational option, either, after a big freshman season. The edge rushers will once again be led by Tomon Fox, who is back for his super senior season and looks to climb further up the school record book in sacks. Chris Collins was named the starter opposite of him and the staff seems confident in what he brings to the table, leaving Des Evans, who the staff has raved about this offseason, and Tyrone Hopper, who has plenty of experience, as rotational options. Jeremiah Gemmel will be the leader of the defense from the middle of the unit and could easily challenge for first-team All-ACC honors this year. Chazz Surratt’s departure would normally be a big deal because of how productive he was, but Eugene Asante has a chance to ultimately be an upgrade by the end of the season. This is a unit where there has been nearly no rotation in the first two years of Mack Brown’s return, but there might be enough confidence in the group behind the starters to finally start rotating. The defensive backfield is loaded, led by the corners, but is still looking for more consistency, mainly at safety. Tony Grimes, Storm Duck, and Kyler McMichael form one of the best corner trios in the country and Don Chapman for more success in the nickel than he had last year at safety. With him in the nickel, Ja’Qurious Conley has made the move back to safety and will start at the boundary safety spot beside Trey Morrison who is back for his third season at the spot following his move from the nickel. The depth at safety is solid as well, with Giovanni Biggers, one of the breakout stars of the spring, leading the options.

Special teams are an area where Mack Brown has said he wants to see major improvements this year and he has a chance to do that with the athletes that are available to him on this roster. This should allow to be more aggressive in areas like punt block and kick coverage, areas that thrived under Brown at Texas. The kicking game is in good shape thanks to Grayson Atkins taking advantage of his super senior season and junior Ben Kiernan returns to build upon the success that he has had in his first two years with the team. At returner, the team needs to find replacements for Dazz Newsome and Michael Carter, but Josh Downs looks ready to handle the punt return duties and the experience of Ty Chandler and will combine with a speedy Ja’Qurious Conley to try and produce at a higher level than what the unit did a year ago.

Virginia Tech

The Hokies return 15 starters from a year ago, but with the number of players that were affected by COVID, they have a chance to be a much better team than they were in 2020. Replacing Khalil Herbert is a task much easier said than done, but the trio of Jalen Holston, Raheem Blackshear, and Keshawn King is one that people seem excited about. At receiver, the Tayvion Robinson-Tre Turner combination is one of the better ones returning in the ACC this season and productive tight end James Mitchell is also back to provide some help for second year Oregon transfer Braxton Burmeister. He had an up and down season when he played a year ago, but he has shown flashes of what so many people saw from him coming out of high school a couple of times last year. The offensive line won’t be as strong as it was a year ago, but still is in good shape on the left side and will be anchored in the middle by Brock Huffman.

Defensively, the Hokies had a brutal season a year ago, but that was in part because of COVID issues. The defensive backfield was the unit most affected by it, but they look to be in better shape to start this season, primarily depth wise. The defensive line is the unit that has to replace most of any unit on the team, but does have Amare Barno back from a year ago and welcomes Jordan Williams in, a Clemson transfer. The linebacking corps loses the productive Rashard Ashby but returns Dax Hollifield and Alan Tisdale, who will now slide into a starting role.

The special teams unit is a mystery with the Hokies. The team must replace both their kicker and punter with Brian Johnson and Oscar Bradburn departing, as John Parker Romo and Peter Moore are slated to take over those spots respectively. The return games will have options, but the kick return unit will miss Khalil Herbert.

Team Stats (rankings are amongst 127 FBS teams to play a game in 2020)

Tar Heels

Off. PPG: 41.7 (9th)

Off. PYPG: 301.4 (18th)

Off. RYPG: 235.8 (11th)

Off. TYPG: 537.2 (5th)

Off. 3rd Down %: 46.0% (24th)

Def. PPG: 29.4 (65th)

Def. PYPG: 246.7 (87th)

Def. RYPG: 154.2 (50th)

Def. TYPG: 400.9 (58th)

Def. 3rd Down %: 38.0% (43rd)

Sacks: 36.0 (T-5th)

Interceptions: 8 (T-46rd)

Turnover Margin: -2 (T-74th)

Virginia Tech

Off. PPG: 31.1 (43rd)

Off. PYPG: 200.6 (89th)

Off. RYPG: 240.1 (10th)

Off. TYPG: 440.7 (31st)

Off. 3rd Down %: 38.1% (78th)

Def. PPG: 32.1 (82nd)

Def. PYPG: 266.0 (107th)

Def. RYPG: 181.5 (85th)

Def. TYPG: 447.5 (103rd)

Def. 3rd Down %: 40.5% (66th)

Sacks: 36.0 (T-5th)

Interceptions: 12 (T-17th)

Turnover Margin: +3 (T-41st)

Keys To The Game

Win the Battle Up Front

This is one of those keys that can apply to just about every game, but this has been a key area in the last two matchups when it has come to the final result of the game. Last year, the Tar Heels offensive line pushed around the Virginia Tech defensive line and they will have to do the same in this one, especially when they run the football. The Tar Heels defensive line must find more success than they have in the last two meetings, though, something that isn’t as tall of a task as it has been in the past.

Limit the Mistakes

Mack Brown has talked so much these last couple of weeks about how openers are lost more often than they are won, something that the Tar Heels have learned the hard way a few times, mainly in the middle of the Larry Fedora era. Turnovers are one of the main ways that teams can beat themselves in openers, but the bigger concern for the Tar Heels in this game is the ability to limit penalties, an issue that has popped up at times throughout the last couple of years, including in both meetings with the Hokies. Avoiding these mistakes will be important.

Control What You Can Control

This is another thing that Mack Brown has harped on over the past couple of weeks and it is the single most important key to a Tar Heel win. No one should have to tell this team that they will be facing a hostile environment when they take the field or that Virginia Tech would be motivated for this game. As Mack Brown said, this team needs to just focus on playing their best game and letting the other things fall into place.

Injury Report

Tar Heels

OUT- Beau Corrales (sports hernia)

QUEST- Brian Anderson (lower body), Khafre Brown (lower body)

PROB- Storm Duck (lower body)

Virginia Tech

OUT- Changa Hodge (achillies)

QUEST- Emmanuel Belmar (concussion), Matt Johnson (undisclosed), Nigel Simmons (undisclosed)

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, Fr.

FS# 4 Trey Morrison, Sr.

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 Tech Offense

QB# 3 Braxton Burmeister, Jr.

RB# 0 Jalen Holston, Jr. OR # 5 Raheem Blackshear, Jr. OR #23 Keshawn King, So.

WR#80 Kaleb Smith, So.

WR#11 Tre Turner, Jr.

WR# 9 Tayvion Robinson, So.

TE#82 James Mitchell, Jr.

LT#69 Luke Tenuta, So.

LG#54 Lecitus Smith, Jr.

C#76 Brock Huffman, Jr.

RG#68 Kaden Moore, Fr.

RT#60 Silas Dzansi, Jr. Defense

LDE#11 Amaré Barno, Jr.

DT#22 Mario Kendricks, So.

NT#12 Jordan Williams, Sr. OR # 3 Norell Pollard, So.

RDE#45 TyJuan Garbett, Sr.

MIKE# 4 Dax Hollifield, Jr.

OLB#34 Alan Tisdale, So.

FS#33 Keonta Jenkins, Fr.

BS# 7 Devon Hunter, Jr.

NICKEL# 1 Chamarri Conner, Jr.

CB#2 Jermaine Waller, Jr.

CB#44 Dorian Strong, Fr. OR #27 Armani Chatman, So. Special Teams

K#96 John Parker Romo, Sr.

KOS#96 John Parker Romo, Sr.

P#85 Peter Moore, Fr.

LS#97 Oscar Shadley, Jr.

H#85 Peter Moore, Fr.

KR#23 Keshawn King, So.

PR# 9 Tayvion Robinson, So.

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