The Tar Heels ran roughly 140 plays during the two-hour scrimmage in near-freezing temperatures. The scoreboard was heavily skewed in the offense’s favor – 86-7 – thanks to a big-play running game and a goal line offense that scored five touchdowns on consecutive possessions.
Senior running back A.J. Blue took a screen pass 80 yards for a touchdown on the fourth play, while sophomore Romar Morris topped his teammate’s effort 17 plays later with a 98-yard touchdown scamper out of a two-back set.
Senior defensive end Kareem Martin joked on Wednesday that the defense was going to shut its counterpart down in Charlotte.
“I think we had about 86 points on the board, so I don’t know what he was talking about,” Morris said following the scrimmage.
The initial thoughts on offense’s performance all came back positive.
“I think we had three balls on the ground for the running backs, but as far as the whole, we scored points,” fifth-year senior quarterback Bryn Renner said. “We put the ball in the end zone. The running backs did a great job running through the holes and the line did a great job blocking.”
Blue and Morris added several more highlights out of the backfield, while true freshman Khris Francis displayed his quickness and vision with a few runs that turned negatives into positives. With Gio Bernard preparing for the NFL Draft next month, the running back returnees understand the need to replace No. 26’s production.
“We talk about it every day,” Morris said. “We knew Gio was going to leave at the end of the season, but A.J. and I have been talking about how we’ve got to be the next men up. We’ve got to keep grinding and act like there’s no difference from when Gio was here. We’ve just got to make a good effort at it.”
Although Blue and Morris both split snaps with the ones, UNC head coach Larry Fedora confirmed once again that Blue would be the starter by a narrow margin if a game was being played today.
“For one, he’s the leader on the offense right now,” Fedora said of Blue. “Him and Bryn [Renner] are probably the two guys that have stepped up and been leaders. Blue’s a hardnosed runner. He does a great job in pass protection. He’s going to put his pads down and run behind his shoulder pads. He can catch the football and he can make plays.”
Renner, for his part, was in command of UNC’s offense from the first snap. After struggling this time last year to pick up Fedora and offensive coordinator Blake Anderson’s offensive scheme, the senior signal caller is now comfortable and building toward a strong final season in Chapel Hill.
“That was the biggest I worked on in the offseason – the leadership role,” Renner said. “Trying to take this offense under my control and push the tempo a lot. Coach Anderson has been doing a great job getting on me about doing that in practice and I think it improved tonight.”
“The thing that’s been nice about Bryn is that he just picked up where he was the last five weeks of the season and really has moved forward from there,” the second-year UNC head coach said. “He’s worked hard on being a good leader and managing the game. I think you saw a little bit of that tonight.”
As usual, however, the starting quarterback was second in line for the most attention received at the QB position as true freshman Mitch Trubisky displayed a combination of arm strength and elusiveness that continued to improve as the scrimmage went along.
“Mitch ought to still be in high school and he commanded the offense pretty good out there today,” Fedora said. “He never lost it. He understood what was going on. They understand what he’s wanting to do, and so that’s a good thing. I think that was big for him just to get live reps tonight.”
One question mark entering Thursday’s scrimmage was how well a rebuilt offensive line would hold up against an experienced defensive line. Pretty good, as it turned out.
“The O-line is coming along,” Morris said. “Every week they’re getting better. I can see it from the first practice up until this scrimmage. They were good at first, but they’re getting better every week.”
UNC’s defense, while lacking a star standout, received some quality play from Bandits Shakeel Rashad and Junior Gnonkonde, cornerbacks Malik Simmons and Terry Shankle and linebackers Nathan Staub and Dan Mastromatteo.
Fedora told reporters following the game that depth chart changes at all positions would be up for discussion on Monday after reviewing the scrimmage film.
** One trouble area for the Tar Heels on Thursday was at punt return. UNC fumbled three punts, including one mistake by Morris that bounced into Brandon Ellerbe’s hands for the defense’s lone score of the night.
“Did we catch one tonight?” Fedora said when asked about his punt return unit. “Are you concerned? I’m concerned. Yeah, we’ve got a long way to go at that position. A long way to go.”