In our season opener edition of 10 Keys, take a closer look at our topics of discussion that will likely determine the outcome of Saturday's UNC-Elon tilt in Kenan Stadium. Gametime is 12:30 pm.
DEAL WITH MELLETTE
UNC's secondary could have a potential problem on its hands in the form of Elon's Aaron Mellette, a dynamic 6-4 wide receiver who led the entire FCS nationally last year in receiving yards (1,639) and receptions (113), and could very well be playing on Sundays soon. He'll undoubtedly be quarterback Thomas Wilson's favorite target Saturday afternoon, as he was all of last season, and the Tar Heels will have to keep a particularly close eye on him.
One way of looking at it is if UNC can neutralize everyone else for Elon then Mellette can have his catches and it won't matter. But if the Tar Heel secondary can hold Mellette in check and under his typical production of 10-plus catches and over 100 yards, the Elon offense could sputter. Elon doesn't figure to have a realistic chance of beating Carolina unless Mellette has a game of monumental proportions, but the flip side is that UNC could really render the Phoenix largely impotent through the air if they slow him down. It's a legitimate swing situation.
RUNNING TO THE FOOTBALL
Everything about this new 4-2-5 defensive scheme the Tar Heels will employ this year is geared toward speed. The two hybrid positions ('Ram' and 'Bandit') are there to increase team speed. The purpose of this is to get as many people to the ball as quickly as possible. There will be missed assignments.
There would be missed assignments if UNC were running the same defense it had run for 10 years, but with a new concept and the nerves of the first game, there will most certainly be some people out of place. The beauty of speed is it can erase such mistakes before anyone has a chance to notice. It will be of great importance for morale and production that whoever is on the field playing defense for the Tar Heels moves fast and furiously for the entire game.
It's obviously going to be an exciting time at high noon on Saturday for UNC quarterback Bryn Renner, who is already an excitable guy. But with all eyes on him, it's going to be important, especially early in Saturday's contest, for Renner to play within himself and try not to win the game on a single play. As a competitive gunslinger there's no doubt Renner is going to be looking to attack early and often, and so will offensive coordinator Blake Anderson more than likely. But Renner needs to reign in his enthusiasm to his advantage and play with the confidence and self assurance that he should have heading into his second season as starting quarterback.
The offense may be completely different on Saturday for Renner, but the game atmosphere shouldn't come as a surprise. This isn't his first rodeo, even if it might be his first time at the helm of the spread offense. It's going to be important for Renner Saturday and all season to remember what he's got surrounding him and remember that he doesn't have to do it by himself. By playing with self assurance and poise, letting the game come to him and taking what the defense gives him, he's much less likely to be forced into trouble and untimely mistakes.
STOPPING THE RUN
The goal of every defense is to stop the run so it can dictate when an opponent throws. This new defense is no different. Fedora said from the outset there will be blitzing and pressure on opponents, but the effectiveness of such tactics decline immensely when a defense cannot stop an opponent from running successfully.
How well the defensive line plays is going to determine much of the success or failure Carolina has in stopping the run. Linebackers need those big guys in front of them to keep the holes plugged and the offensive linemen occupied in order to chase down ball carriers and attack the short passing game. If the safeties end up making too many tackles, then there will be trouble for the Tar Heels.
THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER
UNC's fanbase and the entire Atlantic Coast Conference could get its first real taste of the potential of Romar Morris on Saturday, as he's likely to see several carries as one of Carolina's primary backup running backs. Most everyone knows how much talent Giovani Bernard has, and there have been some flashes from A.J. Blue, but this will be Morris's first chance to shine in front of the Kenan Stadium faithful.
Depending on the game's flow and time of possession, UNC could run the ball as many as 30 to 40 times if not more on Saturday, and there's no question that Bernard, Morris, and Blue will all get a shot. Head coach Larry Fedora has said they're going to play the hot hand, so there's ample opportunity for all three of them to prove themselves.
With all three guys looking to solidify their role in the backfield, and with motivation to succeed so they'll get more chances, it's a potentially combustible and dangerous combination for Elon's defense to try and stop. The Phoenix defense hasn't seen a trio of running backs with the athleticism and speed of this group, and if they're all feeding off each other and playing well, things could get out of hand.
RIGHT PLACE AT THE RIGHT TIME
Some of the worst defensive moments for Carolina in the last 14 years have come about as a result of players being in the wrong place when the ball is snapped. Getting in the right position is about more than understanding the scheme. It's about concentration and having one's mind singularly focused on playing football. This is where the Tar Heels will need to have their heads, not just this Saturday, but for the rest of the season.
If all 11 players are where they are supposed to be when the ball is snapped, then it stands to reason they have a better chance to getting to the ball. The fewer times opponents can find people lined up out of position translates into less opportunity to take advantage of the Tar Heels.
SPREADING THE WEALTH
There's going to be no shortage of receiving options for Renner Saturday and throughout the season, and it's going to be important for him to set the tone right out of the gate that he's going to share the ball around to a lot of people. It's a fundamental component of the spread offense to get the ball around (hence the term 'spread', right?) and at Southern Miss it was paramount to Fedora and Anderson's offensive approach.
UNC will go into two tight end sets at times on Saturday. They'll go three, four, and perhaps even five-wide at times. They're going to throw a bunch of formations at Elon to try and challenge them. And there's going to be balls thrown all over the place, and the list of guys who could wind up with catches for the Tar Heels is extensive.
For Carolina, it's essential to set the tone out of the gate that Renner isn't going to rely on Erik Highsmith. Jheranie Boyd could really step up and send a message not only through the ACC but also nationally that he's finally ready to have a complete season and fulfill his Rivals 100 pedigree out of high school. Sean Tapley can also send a message that UNC has multiple weapons through the air. Tight ends Eric Ebron, Jack Tabb, and Sean Fitzpatrick all figure to take part in the action. Even the running backs could catch a pass or two.
More often than not, when UNC has struggled on defense in the last few years it has been because the Tar Heels failed to take advantage of third down opportunities. This has unfortunately included times when teams needed lengthy yardage to get the first down. And if Elon is to make any kind of game of it, they'll have to have tremendous offensive success on third downs.
The players on this year's UNC team say the style of defense in the past held them back. Time will tell. However they do it, and whether it is due to the new scheme, this team has to get off the field on third down and avoid long, time-consuming drives. Third downs for Elon in this game are likely going to consist of violent collisions between offensive linemen and blitzing Tar Heels, a lot of confusion along the line of scrimmage, and if Dan Disch and Vic Koenning have their way, a few sacks of Wilson.
On the flip side, UNC needs to take advantage of third downs on offense---particularly those short-yardage running third downs---in order to wear Elon down and keep their defense on the field. It's going to be a tall enough order for an overmatched Phoenix defense to deal with the speed on UNC's offense, but by stretching them out by extending the chains on third down, things could get easier and easier as the game wears on.
A BIG BOOT
UNC senior place kicker Casey Barth is back, and nothing would make his coaches, his teammates, and Tar Heel fans happier for him to blast his first kickoff of the season into the end zone for a touchback. It's not something that's happened with a great deal of regularity over the years for Barth, but all summer his right leg has looked like a thunderbolt. His distance and accuracy on field goals seems to be back and better than ever before.
It may take some time for Barth to kickoff into the end zone, and it may not happen at all. In fact, UNC could look to either Thomas Moore or Miller Snyder over the course of the season. But everything we've seen this summer indicates that Barth is ready to have a breakout return this fall in his final season as a Tar Heel. It would certainly help his stock to show he can kick off deeper than in the past, and it would naturally be a good thing for the Tar Heels.
One of the best friends a defense can have is excellent punter and punt team. The Tar Heels' defense needs consistency from its punt team. They need long, high-hanging punts that are difficult to return and coverage that gets to the ball in mass and in a hurry. The more yards between an opponent and the goal line, the more chances there are to stop it or force turnovers.
Fedora has emphasized special teams from the day he was introduced as head coach. Now the time has arrived to show his desire for good special teams can be translated into effective play, and one of the most important areas is going to be consistently punting the ball for a solid net average.