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Know Your Opponent: Previewing the 2018 Tar Heels Offense

First game of the year—can’t hold anything back now

North Carolina v North Carolina State Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

By and large, procrastination isn’t exactly something I would say pays dividends in most circumstances. Yet, as I find myself embarking on the first preview of the year, it is hard not to be the slightest bit grateful I didn’t write this a week earlier where the entirety of my post may have needed to be rewritten. This slightly misplaced gratitude refers to the big news that came out of Chapel Hill last week regarding numerous players on the Tar Heels who will be suspended for at least a game this upcoming season. However, all is not well that ends well. A mere six days later, we found out that our own California Golden Bears may have been caught up in the exact same scandal that the Tar Heels self reported. Hold onto your seats, everyone.

The 2017 North Carolina Tar Heels’ season was mired in sub-optimal play, plenty of injuries, and genuine bad fortune. At the time of writing this preview last year, there was some optimism regarding LSU transfer Brandon Harris filling in well for the newly departed Mitch Trubisky. That hope faded fast into a throwaway year as the team had a dreadful middle of the season and won just three games.

With that said, the 2017 season delivered more than a few reasons for Tar Heels fans to be much more optimistic coming into their 2018 campaign. Starting off with eleven players suspended certainly doesn’t do much to dispel the bad-luck notion, but our seemingly emboldened defense should not take this team lightly.

Early Certainty at the Quarterback Position

What the suspensions did make abundantly clear for Coach Fedora was who his starting quarterback would be against Cal. Barring injury, the Bears will face sophomore Nathan Elliott.

Elliott did not see the field against the Bears last year as Coach Fedora chose to go with a combination of Chazz Suratt and Brandon Harris. Fedora eventually leaned further into Harris and the Bears defense didn’t miss the opportunity to put the game out of reach. It wasn’t until the end of the Tar Heels season when Elliott would take over the starting job and try to cement his name as the quarterback of the future. His best performance of the year came against the N.C. State Wolfpack, where he threw for 278 yards and three touchdowns with a solid pass efficiency (21–45).

It is clear that Elliott has the arm to make deep throws as you can see in the first big play for UNC thirteen seconds into the clip. Elliott throws that ball 45 yards in the air to one of the breakout athletes for the Tar Heel offense: wide receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams. Ellioitt’s second passing touchdown of the day is a strong representation of the type of threat he is on offense with his speed. Fedora rolls his quarterback to the outside, the linebacker bites on the run, and the QB spots up and delivers a good ball to his running back—who takes it in for a touchdown.

Now for some negatives. In the limited tape that I had to study, it seems that Elliott is making it through a very small number of his progressions. This is logical as most first-time starters are not exactly blessed with Aaron Rodgers’ patience fresh out of the gates. However, you can see just how this gets Elliott into trouble on his interception. He makes his first progression, but the receiver is bottled up and he delays the throw; then he decides to throw the ball anyways and it results in Tip Drill 101 for the defensive back and linebacker for North Carolina State. His third touchdown makes for an additional example of going with his first read which worked out against North Carolina State however he will have one hell of a time making similar throws against the Cal defensive backs.

I would be remiss not too mention that Elliott did receive plenty of competition in the spring from Chazz Suratt and it was not clear who was going to start until the suspensions were announced. Suratt could easily end up being the quarterback for the Tar Heels after Cal, but he will not be an option for Fedora come September 1st.

Players to Watch

Anthony Ratliff-Williams

Ratliff-Williams is a one hell of a dynamic athlete. He can throw the ball, excels in special teams, and is the threat to watch for the Tar Heel offense over the top. He is exactly the type of player whom Cal cannot overlook heading into this match-up. This is a strength-on-strength match-up for both teams that should be fascinating to watch. He racked up over 600 receiving yards on just a measly 35 receptions with six touchdowns, which illustrates just how lethal he can be as a speed receiver. He also passed for two touchdowns and is attempting to put that nation on watch as a punt returner. Let’s not forget that Cal is replacing Dylan Klumph and special teams has a fair amount of questions as we stand nine practices into spring ball.

Jordan Brown

If quarterback is the Tar Heels biggest question, running back may just be their biggest strength coming into 2018. Michael Carter* and Jordon Brown are the biggest names to watch with Carter being the younger of the two (*Authors Note: Carter hurt his wrist in practice and will miss the Cal game). The two running backs combined for over 1,200 yards during the 2017 campaign and Michael Carter produced eight rushing touchdowns (two of which came against Cal). Expect to see a lot of Jordon Brown on Saturday.

Expectations come Saturday

I have a very hard time not liking Cal in this matchup. A big reason why is related to our win on the road last year and the confidence this Bears team will have in year two of the Wilcox/DeRuyter defense. The Tar Heels have plenty of strengths on offense—particularly at receiver and running back—but the Cal defense is set up to be the biggest strength of this team. Camryn Bynum and Elijah Hicks were lockdown corners as freshmen and Ashtyn Davis along with Jaylinn Hawkins have the speed to contain a fast player like Ratliff-Williams. The running back match-up gives me much greater concern, but this team has plenty of experience against teams with a run-first philosophy.

With all that being said, the Bears cannot overlook this team simply because they got the win last year on the road. Fedora’s reset is over and this UNC squad is not far removed from having one of the best offenses in the country. Ultimately, I think Cal’s defense will stifle an offense still trying to find its identity early in the season—but that the Bears will be thanking themselves they didn’t have to face the Tar Heels later in November.


How many points will North Carolina score against Cal?

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