football Edit

Fall Camp Report, Practice 11: Taylor, Gray, & Copenhaver

UNC held its 11th practice of fall camp Wednesday, and afterward THI was on hand to speak with some of the Tar Heels.
UNC held its 11th practice of fall camp Wednesday, and afterward THI was on hand to speak with some of the Tar Heels. (THI)


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CHAPEL HILL – North Carolina held its 11th practice of fall camp Wednesday morning at the Koman Practice Complex, and it was the last opportunity for the media to see and speak with the Tar Heels until camp formally ends Sunday evening.

Carolina will practice Thursday night, is off Friday, practices at night again Saturday, and Sunday evening before having Monday off, which is the first day of fall semester classes at UNC. The Heels open the season August 27 at home versus FCS member Florida A&M.

Four players were available to speak with the media following practice Wednesday morning: Des Evans, John Copenhaver, Cedric Gray, and Noah Taylor. We ran a report on Evans separately earlier Wednesday, so in this report the focus will be on Copenhaver, Gray, and Taylor.


Noah Taylor

Graduate outside linebacker Noah Taylor arrived at UNC last winter after playing four seasons at rival Virginia. He started in 31 of the 45 games with the Cavaliers. Taylor registered 12.5 sacks for the Wahoos, and is credited by PFF for 36 QB hurries and 86 STOPs, which are plays that result in failures for opposing offenses. He was in on 169 tackles at UVA.

Taylor, who is 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, is UNC’s starter at the jack position, and is considered one of the leaders on defense.

*When Taylor met with the media in the offseason, he said one of his main jobs as a jack is to go get the quarterback, and as part of that, defensive coordinator Gene Chizik wants his team to generate a traditional pass rush, which includes the jack getting to the QB. Taylor said the Tar Heels have made tremendous strides in that important area.

“We’ve made a lot of progress,” Taylor said. “I think it starts with our indie periods. Every day before practice, we have a very specific plan; some days are pass oriented, some days are run oriented, but on those pass days, we’re really focused on getting after the quarterback.

“We’ve done a great job with Coach Chizik involved personally in with me, working with Chris (Collins), and all the other jacks. We’ve been doing a great job, and I can really see the progress, and everybody in our group is getting better day by day.”

*And as for getting a pass rush from the rest of the front line, of which the jacks are occasionally a part, Taylor says that has come along as well.

“Yeah. Across the board we’ve gotten better from Myles Murphy, obviously, Des (Evans), Ruck (Kaimon Rucker), we’ve all just improved tremendously throughout starting in spring ball… We need to get after the quarterback this year. We’re not okay with being good, we want to be great, we want to be one of the best d-lines, one of the best QB-pressure rates, sack rates in the country.”

*Taylor spoke with some of the media before the formal part of the interview started about getting sacks and some fun conversations the players are having about that, but he really does see himself as a high-level pass rusher. So what is required to be a successful getting after QBs?

“You’ve got to have a lot of intangibles to start with,” Taylor said. “You’ve got to be fast, you’ve got to be quick, and when you get to the mental side of it, you’ve got to know how to read sets, which is something I’ve been working on personally.

“It’s a hard thing to do. You’ve got to worry about what the tackle is doing, what the guard is doing – should I come inside, should I not – and you’ve got to know where the quarterback is. You don’t want to rush past the quarterback, and you don’t want to come inside and the quarterback rush around you.”

*Taylor says he has “three or four moves” that he uses to get to the quarterback, but acknowledged they don’t always work, so he has to be resourceful. He also looks for tendencies from the tight end, tackle, and even guard. Is it their eyes, a toe pointed differently than when they run other stuff? Anything else?

“There are so many things,” he said. “Sometimes, you look at a tight end and he’ll look back, and once he goes like that, I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, I know he’s coming back at me.’ Or if a guard is a little light on his hands, is he heavy (leaning forward a tad bit), is his foot a little further back than usual?”

Cedric Gray

Cedric Gray was not the other starting inside linebacker paired with Jeremiah Gemmel when last season started. That was actually Eugene Asante. But Gray took the field first versus Virginia in the third game and never looked back. Gray ended up leading the Tar Heels with 100 tackles, which included 2.5 TFLs, with one a sack.

Gray had three PBUs on the season, two interceptions, a forced fumble, and recovered fumble. And now, with Gemmel off to the NFL, Gray is one of the leaders on defense.

*Gray was a bit critical in the spring of the hybrid position under Jay Bateman, and while the jack position under Chizik carries some similarities, it is certainly different. Now that Carolina is near the end of fall camp, how has Gray seen that position take shape the last two weeks?

“I think guys are getting a lot more reps and starting to understand the defense more as a whole, and jack is one of the positions guys like Noah and Chris and Malaki (Hamrick), Gabe Stephens, they’re really starting to get comfortable,” Gray said. “They’re starting to put in a lot more pass rush stunts, have a little bit of different coverage pieces in there.

“Overall, the overall defense, honestly, everybody has gotten more comfortable, including our jack position.”

*Gray is the only inside linebacker with much experience, though Power Echols got quite a bit late last season as a true freshman. Behind them, however, are sophomore Rara Dillworth, who is listed at 200 pounds and played just 33 defensive snaps last fall, and true freshman Sebastian Cheeks, who enrolled in January. True freshman Deuce Caldwell is also there, but he arrived in June and is still learning his way around things.

The junior from Charlotte offered his take on the rest of the room:

“I’ve seen tremendous strides from Rara, especially since he first got here,” Gray said. “I think he’s really starting to understand how to be a college football player, and the difference of how you play football in high school and how you play in college. And I think he’s starting to get comfortable in the defense as well.

“Sebastian, he’s coming along. He’s struggling a little bit with the mental aspect of the game, but he’s coming along, I think he’ll be a great player. He has great intangibles, very physical player. But it’s kind of hard for a freshman to come in and learn a whole new defense at this level, but I think he’ll start to get it. I went through it as a freshman myself, so I kind of understand.”

*Carolina held its first scrimmage of fall camp last Saturday, and while it’s almost a week later, getting Gray’s take on how things went, and what jumped out at him with how the defense played, has value. So he was asked those questions.

“I think we had a pretty good scrimmage, especially we were, if I’m not mistaken, 8-for-11 on third down,” Gray said. “We got a (lot) of defensive stops in that scrimmage, which is really exciting. Third down is the money down, that’s the down when you get off the field, so I think that was very exciting to see.

“Saw a lot of guys making plays; an interception by Gio Biggers during the scrimmage. I seen a lot of good things during the scrimmage.”

*Gray was asked about players that surprised him by standing out in the scrimmage or in camp in general, and he offered up a freshman who arrived in June as his response.

“I wouldn’t say particularly in the scrimmage, but one dude that has really been sticking out to me is our freshman safety Will Hardy,” Gray said. “He’s been making plays all camp. He’s a very smart player, and I think he’s going to get a chance to play this year and give us a chance to win.”

John Copenhaver

John Copenhaver played at least one snap at tight end in 10 of UNC’s 13 games last fall, though he played just 47 offensive snaps on the campaign. He was used in some packages that included three tight ends, often inside the red zone.

But Copenhaver, who is a 6-foot-3, 240-pound sophomore and has played 66 offensive plays and 21 special teams plays in his UNC career, is expected to have more of a role this season. In past because Garrett Walston has moved on, but also because the Roswell, GA, native has developed a great deal.

*UNC Coach Mack Brown said Monday the tight end room is the one part of the offense in which the staff knows what it has, and he likes the room a lot. Kamari Morales scored five touchdowns a year ago, and Bryson Nesbit is tabbed as major prospect to break out this season. Then there is Copenhaver, who has had a really good camp and has been coming on since last season.

“I think training camp has been going pretty well,” Copenhaver said. “(Tight ends) Coach (John) Lilly has really prepared us through spring ball, summer, and in training camp, he’s preparing us for the season. Going back to the tight end room, I think we have a lot of competition in there, so that’s always great.

“Building throughout practice, competing all the time. I also think we all mesh well together. I think it’s a great room, we all laugh and joke around. I think it’s just a great tight end room and we’ve all been enjoying ourselves.”

*His name has come up quite a few times during fall camp, so he was asked about that Wednesday.

“I’ve been really working on my blocking a lot,” Copenhaver said. “I’ve been trying to work with my technique a lot; Coach Lilly does a really good job with that, technique, hand placement, foot placement – working on the really small details.

“And working after practice, catching balls from quarterbacks, one-on-ones, skelly. So, I think blocking has been improving a lot, and then passing as well.”

*UNC will employ more three-TE packages this season, partly because the wide receiver room is thin and very young, but also because Morales is established, Nesbit has huge talent, and Copenhaver has progressed so much.

“I think Coach Longo wants to put in some more tight ends, and I think it’s been showing great,” Copenhaver said. “Whatever works, he’ll keep using it, keep in his back pocket. We were in the three-personnel last year a couple of times, and definitely used 12 personnel last year a lot, too. I think we’re going to keep doing that and keep using the tight ends a little more.”