This week, I enlisted the help of Andrew Carter, who covers North Carolina football for the Raleigh News & Observer to help preview this week's game between the Panthers and Tar Heels. Here are Andrew's responses to a couple of questions...
1. What are the reasonable expectations for Marquise Williams as he steps into the role of full-time starter? Did he show enough in spot duty behind Bryn Renner to inspire confidence? How will the offense look different with him under center?
The offense is still basically the same, except that Williams has much more mobility. That's beneficial for two reasons. For one, Larry Fedora's spread offense simply works better with a more mobile quarterback who can get out of trouble and keep plays alive with his running ability. Second, UNC's offensive line has struggled this season, and Renner's lack of mobility really hindered the offense. Williams is much better suited to escape pressure.
As for how well-suited he is to be the full-time starter – I'd say there's a lot more confidence in Williams now than there would have been at the beginning of the season. He has played well and exceeded expectations, which weren't all that high for him after he was out of school last spring because of an academic suspension. Before Renner's season-ending injury, he and Williams had rotated, with Renner seeing probably about 70 percent of the snaps.
That rotation had been in place since after the Virginia Tech game earlier last month. Renner sat that out with a foot injury, and Williams played well – but threw two interceptions – in his first career start. Williams is still raw, but he's come a long way this season. The coaching staff has opened up the playbook to him. His running ability adds a dynamic to the offense that had been missing. Renner is the better quarterback, but with how the offense is built this season – an inexperienced offensive line, no lead running back – Williams might be the better fit.
2. How have teams been able to shut down Eric Ebron this year? He only had two catches against Virginia, but the offense still put up 45 points. Who are other receivers that need to step up if Ebron is double-teamed?
A lot of teams have double-teamed Ebron this season. In fact, I'd say he's faced that at least a few times in every game. He's in a different category athletically, and there's a reason why he's expected to be a first-round pick in the draft in April. So, naturally, he commands a lot of attention from opposing defenses.
On the other hand, too, UNC at times could do a better job of getting him the ball. Sometimes he's not as involved in the offense as he needs to be, and that's not always because the defense has done a great job covering him. It's also just a product of Fedora's offense that a lot of receivers are going to touch the ball.
While Ebron is the Tar Heels' best offensive player, they aren't without some other good receivers. They're all young, too. Bug Howard, a freshman, is tall and fast and will be a good player. He's a deep threat down the field. Ryan Switzer, another freshman, can make some plays out of the slot. And Quinshad Davis, a sophomore, has all-ACC potential. Behind Ebron, he's UNC's second-most reliable receiving target.
3. After a rough start, the UNC defense has held three consecutive opponents under 20 points. How much of that is defensive improvement and how much of it is the quality of opponent the Tar Heels faced in those three games? Are there any defensive players in particular Pitt will need to watch out for Saturday?
I think it's both. It's easy to say that the competition hasn't been as good, and that's true. UNC's most difficult games were pretty much all in the first half of the season: South Carolina, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Miami. The Tar Heels lost to all those teams, and also lost to East Carolina, which gave UNC by far its most embarrassing defeat of the season.
Boston College, N.C. State and Virginia aren't what I'd call good teams, but UNC's defense deserves some credit, too. This is a defense that had a way of making good offenses look great, average offenses look good and bad offenses look even better than average. And in recent weeks, UNC hasn't done that.
The big change is that the Tar Heels have pretty much eliminated the big plays that badly hurt them earlier this season. There haven't been the breakdowns in pass coverage that we routinely saw in the first half of the year. In fact, UNC has only allowed one passing touchdown in its past four games. That's a huge accomplishment for this group. During that span, the Tar Heels have also intercepted eight passes.
Some players to watch on this defense: Kareem Martin, the senior defensive end, has played really well during the past three or four games. The pressure he's putting on opposing quarterbacks has made a big difference in the improvement of the pass defense. In the secondary, Tre Boston is a wild card. He can make a play or two, but has also been known for giving up a lot. But he has been more consistent in recent weeks.
4. Year two of the Larry Fedora era hasn't exactly gone according to plan in Chapel Hill. How have the players and coaches handled the losses in a year where many pegged them as division contenders? Is there confidence that Fedora is still the right guy for the Tar Heels?
When UNC was 1-5, it would have been fair to call it one of the most disappointing teams in the country. Even with all the Tar Heels lost – Giovani Bernard, three offensive linemen who were drafted, their two best defensive players (Sylvester Williams and Kevin Reddick) – there was still optimism and a lot of belief among the coaches that this team had a realistic chance of winning the Coastal.
Hasn't turned out that way, obviously. But I think the staff does deserve some credit for keeping the team together amid some difficult circumstances. The loss to Miami was especially brutal – the Hurricanes scored the game-winning touchdown with 16 seconds to play – and it would have been easy, and a little cliché, if this team had just packed it in. Instead, UNC has responded with three straight wins. Yeah, the competition has something to do with it, but UNC was dominant in two of those games, and beat Boston College and Virginia as badly as just about any team has.
Fedora is still on good footing. Yeah, the fans weren't happy with the ugly start. And no, even a 7-5 finish won't erase what happened earlier in the year. But I think the sane fans understand it will take a while for him and his staff to bring in their preferred players and really get their system in place. Fedora inherited some top-end talent, for sure, but UNC doesn't have a lot of depth. The top 15 players are good, but the lack of depth among players Nos. 25-60 are a big part of the problems. There just isn't much there, and UNC had three recruiting classes effectively go to waste for a variety of reasons: the NCAA investigation that hung over Butch Davis' final year, the uncertainty that surrounded the program after that, under interim coach Everett Withers, and then the staff change when Fedora took over.
If Fedora's going to fix the mess, it will take more than two seasons. I think people are starting to realize that.