Buck Sanders: This Saturday the Tar Heels face an undefeated and eighth-ranked Clemson team in Death Valley. The Tigers have a lot of weapons offensively – Andre Ellington, Tajh Boyd, Dwayne Allen, and maybe the best true freshman in the nation in Sammy Watkins. Can UNC’s defense regroup enough to have a chance to win on Saturday?
Quincy Monk: Of course our defense can regroup after last Saturday’s lost to Miami. Our team has to take pride in their play and come out to play aggressive and physical. This is a great opportunity for our defense to make a statement in giving Clemson its first loss of the season. We all know that Clemson has some great athletes, so as a defense we need to take it amongst ourselves to shut their playmaker down. This should be the mindset of our team.
Mark Paschal: Clemson is obviously very talented. Ellington is one of the best running backs in the league - he is slasher and our run defense will be challenged. However, I am much more concerned about the passing attack Clemson has shown. Dwayne Allen is one of the best tight ends in the country and Sammy Watkins is an explosive athlete that can kill your defense if the blink of an eye. UNC will have to regroup quickly if they plan on slowing this Clemson team down. What happened on Saturday, happened. These defensive players have got to move on and focus on the next opponent if we want to be successful this week.
Buck: Unless some dramatic change occurs, it looks like the Tar Heels are going to have to put at least 30, maybe 40, points on the board to have a chance to beat the Tigers – they’re averaging 38 points per game. Do you agree? If so, how best can UNC’s offense be effective against Clemson on Saturday?
Scott Lenahan: That’s really tough to say. But if we are comparing statistics from the season alone, then yes. Albeit, this is college football and all you need are a few mental errors from the other team to significantly turn the tables (as seen in the Miami game this past weekend.) But let’s let bygones be bygones. This Saturday the offense that Clemson will be serving us in heavy portions needs to be kept off the field. The ability for us to run the ball this weekend is crucial. The more plays and longer time of possession this week is paramount to having success. Once they stack the box to stop the run, we need run play action and take a shot down the field. Also, watch for Clemson to key on Dwight Jones. Renner has clearly been focusing on him and needs to spread the ball more. At times we try to get a little too fancy schematically and need to focus on what we do best. Letting the big hawgs clear the way and eagerly watch Neo Geo electrify us with his runs.
Deems May: If we play defense like we did in the second half against Miami then we will not need to score 30. Our defense played the second half like I thought we would play all year. Sylvester Williams stepped up big time and I thought Quinton Coples had his best game. We obviously have to get pressure on their QB. I know we gave up some big plays against Miami, but a couple of those we had excellent coverage. Harris hasn’t made throws like that in four years. You have to give them credit. Hopefully we’ll cause their QB to hurry, but we have to generate pressure and contain him in the pocket.
Buck: Sammy Watkins may not only be the best true freshman in the nation, he may be the best wide receiver in the nation, regardless of class. What can UNC’s defense do, schematically, to help limit the damage he can do? Or is it a case of UNC’s secondary having to give a supreme effort?
Mark: You have to play a guy like this with a jam or reroute at the line of scrimmage and play with a safety over the top. This will eliminate a lot of the deep balls and will also help with any quick route he runs. Freshman wide outs struggle the most with jam coverage. Withers will have a good scheme in place (see what we did to Calvin Johnson my senior year).
Quincy: Sammy Watkins is playing some outstanding football right now, compiling over 700 yards receiving, which is pretty impressive. What UNC’s defense needs to do is apply some pressure on Clemson’s quarterback to prevent him from getting easy looks to find Watkins open in coverage. We could also probably use some sort of bracket coverage, where we have a safety over top to prevent Watkins from being exposed to pure one-on-one coverage. We also need to make sure as a defense we stress the importance in pursuing to ball to help prevent any big plays from occurring.
Buck: If the Clemson defense has any weaknesses, it may be rushing defense – they’re giving up almost 180 yards per game rushing. Is it a viable strategy for the Tar Heels to try and play ball control offense, at least early on in the game? Is that their best shot at containing a powerful Clemson offense? Is North Carolina’s rushing game up to that task?
Deems: I haven’t seen Clemson play, but they gave up a lot of points to a Maryland team that had been struggling. If they are giving up 180 on the ground, I look for Clemson to stack the box and not let Gio Bernard beat them. Renner will have to complete some passes and get them out of 8-9 man box.
Scott: No doubt it’s important, but we need to have Renner in good form to be able to take the pressure off when they stack the box. Gio does a better job of running the ball when we spread the offense and don’t have so many tight bunches and formations. He needs gaps to shoot and alleys to run, he’s not your prototypical power back that is going to pound it for 3 yards and a cloud of dust. He still can, but doesn’t have the build to sustain that all game. We need Renner to get into a rhythm early in the game and feel comfortable in the pocket to have a truly successful day.
Buck: To some degree every defense has to decide whether to bring extra pressure in passing situations, or to have extra defenders in coverage. Having extra defenders in the secondary doesn’t seem to have really benefited North Carolina’s pass defense – is it time to get more aggressive defensively? Can the Tar Heels be aggressive against a team like Clemson, that can hurt you offensively in so many different ways?
Mark: That’s a tough question, Buck. If we bring pressure and all of our defensive backs have their back turned to the quarterback in man-to-man coverage, Tahj Boyd will kill you with his feet. Or worse, if we miss a tackle on a quick pass in a pressure package (also known as a sight adjust or hot route for the offense) Sammy Watkins will score a touchdown. I agree, we need more pressure on the QB, but we also have to guard someone. Wide receivers cannot keep running uncontested in the secondary if we want to beat Clemson. I think we need a healthy dose of pressure with four D-lineman plus one backer this week.
Quincy: I think it would be nice to see us become more aggressive on defense. It seems in recent weeks, we have allowed opposing teams to get into a good rhythm and become more comfortable in the backfield. With the game against Clemson, I think it’s going to be very important for us to get off to a fast start. It’s going to be a very hostile environment that the Heels will face so therefore it will be extremely important to come out aggressive and to create key turnovers off of our defensive pressure.
Buck: Through seven games this year, North Carolina’s tight ends only have 12 catches – four each for Eric Ebron, Nelson Hurst, and Christian Wilson. In previous years the tight ends and H-backs have been much more heavily involved in the passing game. To what do you attribute the dramatic decrease in the number of throws to the tight ends? How does it hurt the offense when defenses know that the tight ends aren’t often a real option in the passing game?
Scott: Obviously the plays haven’t changed significantly, so my next thought of course goes to whose distributing the ball. Now, I think that Renner has been doing a great job and has been surprisingly good to begin with, but he’s still young in the sense that he will force throws and not necessarily take what a defense gives him. I think that is something that comes with experience and being able to do multiple check downs. He’s built a lot of trust in Dwight Jones and will seek him out in big play situations, almost what Zack Pianalto was for us at times. Maybe the roles have just switched, but I’d certainly like to see our tight ends get more work. It certainly adds to the dynamics of preparation for the other team when the TE is a serious threat.
Deems: I think the two young guys have a lot of potential. I know I was excited to see the TD by Ebron in the Georgia Tech game. If we have a threat down the middle in the TE, then we get them out of Cover 2 or any ‘Sky” coverage where they roll on the top of Dwight Jones (essentially doubling him). Not having that middle threat definitely has hurt us in the passing game as everyone can see how other teams utilize the TE to keep people honest in the middle. If I had to guess, our older guys give us better run blocking and blitz pickup. It’s hard for a rookie to step right in and get all of those pick-ups and block junior/senior defensive ends.
Buck: Clemson’s Death Valley is known as one of the toughest places to play in the ACC – Howard’s Rock, the run down the hill, the “open bar” tailgating, a stadium that seats over 80,000 fans – it’s one of the few ACC venues that rivals the SEC experience. As a former player, did that type of atmosphere get you fired up to play, even as a visitor?
Deems: Not really. I believe you have to be ready to play each and every week no matter where you are. Every time you put on a Carolina helmet, you represent a lot people who give their hard-earned money to allow you to go to the greatest school in the country. You only have 12-13 chances a year to do this. To not be fired up at every game is a huge disservice. The last two weeks have been inexcusable how flat we have come out. It’s time for leaders to emerge on both sides of the ball and not stand for it…. Crowds are loud everywhere, the best sound is silence on your opponent's turf, no matter if its 8 or 80,000.
Scott: Playing at Clemson was one of my first games starting on the road, and probably the worst shellacking we took all season too. But there really is nothing like watching them rub Howard's Rock and run down the hill as they taunt you to get you really ticked off. Maybe something about the showmanship that just makes you angry. See, I’m already getting fired up. The stadium was built extremely vertical so it feels like the fans are right on top of you, which adds to the noise. It really is a cool experience, especially on the ride in. There is only one way in and it’s packed with Orange. This is a game that if you can’t get fired up for, then you aren’t getting fired up for any.
Mark: You want to play in big games with an exciting atmosphere. Clemson has that, especially when they are No. 8 in the country. To be honest, we played down there my sophomore year, John (Bunting)’s last year as head coach, and we got absolutely demolished. It was awful. I hate Clemson and hate thinking about that game. I hope we are able to harness some frustration this week and come down there and shock them early, take the crowd out of the game and take the fight to Clemson. If not the atmosphere could overwhelm us; none of our guys have seen anything quite like this yet.
Quincy: I remember playing down in Death Valley my senior year in 2001 and the atmosphere was crazy. At the time, Clemson was a ranked team and they scheduled us for their homecoming, so we felt disrespected that they had the nerve to schedule us for homecoming. We took it on ourselves to come out and play aggressive to take Clemson’s crowd out of the game. We beat Clemson that day 38-3. As a former player, you have to get excited to play in such a hostile environment.
Scott Lenahan manned the center position in Chapel Hill from 2003-07, overlapping two coaching regimes. Nicknamed 'Tank' for his weight room exploits, he earned the top senior honor on the '07 Tar Heel team.
Deems May excelled at tight end for UNC and was drafted in 1992, playing eight seasons in the NFL. He's since become a fan favorite for his candid commentary on the Tar Heel Sports Network.
Quincy Monk recorded 247 tackles at linebacker during his Tar Heel career from 1998-2001. He was drafted into the NFL and spent three seasons in the professional ranks.
Mark Paschal was a team captain for the Tar Heels in 2008. As a middle linebacker, he led the team in tackles prior to a career-ending injury and didn't miss a game in his career up until that point.