North Carolina head coach Everett Withers spoke with reporters Wednesday morning, just over 72 hours before his Tar Heels (2-0) take the field against Virginia (2-0) in the Atlantic Coast Conference season opener for both the Tar Heels and Cavaliers.
UNC hasn't won an ACC season opener since 2000, so they're looking to end a nasty streak on Saturday when they take the field at Kenan Stadium against one of its longest-standing rivals.
There's no opponent on UNCs schedule that they've played more times consecutively than Virginia, who North Carolina has faced every single year on the gridiron since the end of World War I (1919). UNC holds a 57-54-4 all-time mark in the past 115 meetings.
COACH WITHERS: Anytime you play in a game like this, obviously the first ACC game, it's the oldest rivalry in the South, there's a lot of people very interested in it. We're fortunate enough to come into this game and have two wins under our belt, as is Virginia also. I think it's going to be a very hard-fought game. It always seems to be, at least since I've been here. What we've got to do is make sure we take care of us and do the little things to get better and to continue to move on.
Right now we're relatively healthy. Obviously this time of year you start getting nicks and bruises, but for the most part we're pretty healthy. We had really good practices Sunday and Tuesday and we're ready to move on and put the finishing touches to our game plan and get better.
QUESTIONS FOR COACH WITHERS
Obviously not all wide receivers are necessarily cut out to be good return men. What is it about T.J. Thorpe that has made him so good in that role on special teams for you so far?
COACH WITHERS: Well, I think what we noticed anyway was obviously through high school I think he did a really good job of the returns, whether it be punt or kickoff. He has a knack of locating the ball, catching the ball. Obviously, in the return game you want a guy that can catch the ball, has some vision, is not afraid to hit, especially on kickoff. If a guy will take it, go north and south, follow his blocking, protect the football, we feel good about him. We want to grow some guys in those roles.
Since I've been here we've been trying to find those kind of guys. We want to make sure what we're trying to do is really push the process and take some of our young guys and put them in those roles so they're better in that year two, year three down the road. We have a lot of confidence in T.J. He's done a good job so far.
As somebody who has coached on the defensive side of the ball for a long time, wondering what your impressions were of Cam Johnson, the Virginia defensive end?
COACH WITHERS: I think they've got a really good defensive line. They're a 4-3 team. What they're doing up front is they're really getting off the ball and trying to penetrate up front. He does a nice job of creating negative plays because he plays so fast up front. The defensive tackle, Conrath is a really good player.
They've got good players up front with experience. They're playing fast. That's what Coach London wants, is a 4-3 team that can penetrate up front and create pressure and disrupt plays with the front four, let the linebackers run. That's their objective. I think they're doing a good job, all four guys up front.
I wonder if you watched tape of his play late in the Indiana game where he takes the ball away from the quarterback?
COACH WITHERS: Well, he's done a good job of doing not only that but just making plays in the backfield. I've watched him. When you're watching guys for the first time on Sunday night, you go, Okay, wow, that guy stands out. Obviously, that play stood out. He made plays I thought throughout the game. As a coach what you do, you don't get locked into one play a lot of time, you get locked into the consistency of a guy. They've had a lot of consistency up front in their defensive front.
Just wanted to know how apprehensive you were going into the season with a first-year starting quarterback........
COACH WITHERS: Not at all because of what I'd seen from the day he'd been here. I think if you understand that he was in that room with T.J. Yates and John Shoop, learning that offense. Then I would see it as a defensive coordinator at the time, I would watch him come down on scout team, watch him go through reads. We'd show him the card. That's our play. We call it this. He'd work on his reads down there.
I gained a lot of confidence in Bryn a lot before this year. So when spring came and he was the guy, I saw the progression he took this spring, the growth he took this spring, then obviously through camp, I feel really good about Bryn.
Coach, what did you see out of Tim Scott in pre-season practice to let you know he was ready to contribute as a true freshman?
COACH WITHERS: When you look at some kids, you get an idea, even in recruiting, that there may be two or three of them that might be able to help you right away. You get that because of their maturity level, when you're visiting with them, when you're watching them play, how much their high school coach depends on them, how they react to the leadership role. Some kids are just more mature.
When Tim came here, it was obvious that he had a maturity level that was maybe a little bit different than some of the other guys. Obviously he's a good athlete and he understands football. That probably led us to the initial thought of, 'Hey,
maybe this guy could help us.'
We watched him during training camp. We felt we needed to find a place for him this year because we felt like he could help us win games. Tim has played well. He hasn't played great. Obviously he's a freshman. He's going to make mistakes. We feel he's going to continue to get better. We feel like mid-season, around that time,
he's a guy we'll be counting on to do a lot of things.
Coach, you had 10,000 empty seats last week against Rutgers on a beautiful day. How big a concern is that? If it's a trend that continues, what do you tell recruits on visits when the stadium isn't full down the road?
COACH WITHERS: Well, I'll really be honest with you. I don't really look at the seats on game day. I look at the opponent, look at our offense and defense. I think the biggest thing is obviously we want the fans at the games. You gave me a number 10,000. I don't know what the number was. But I know our kids are playing hard. If they'll come watch us play, they'll be excited to watch us play. We want them to come out and watch the games and be excited. All we can do is put a good product on the field, exciting product on the field, and hopefully we'll get fans in those seats.
At some point does that become an issue with recruits or not?
COACH WITHERS: I don't think it becomes an issue with recruits because you got to
understand, this place sells itself. If you want to come to school, get a great education, play in this beautiful stadium, play in a great conference like the ACC, play great opponents each week, I don't think it becomes a problem.
Coach, were you surprised how close the game against Rutgers ended up being?
COACH WITHERS: I'm not surprised because of five turnovers. If you turn the ball over five times, it should be the other way. I think it's below 10%, something like 9% when you win a game when you lose the turnover battle by five. I think if we don't turn the ball over, I don't know if the game is that close. Just being honest, if we
don't self-inflict the wounds on ourselves.
We stopped ourselves I think more than Rutgers stopped us. That's one of the points that we've gone through this week is it's about us taking care of our business.
What adjustments, if any, are you planning on making for this weekend's game
COACH WITHERS: Really not a lot. We just put a game plan in for Virginia, to stop them offensively, defensively, the kicking game. Not a whole lot of adjustments. Just do what we do.