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August 4, 2012

Five To Ponder: North Carolina

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HokieHaven.com will be catching up with the beat writers from each of Virginia Tech's opposing teams' Rivals.com network sites. For teams without a Rivals site, we'll be speaking with the team's daily newspaper. Fifth in our series, we look at the Hokies' first ACC road game, Oct. 6 at North Carolina, with TarHeelIllustrated.com publisher Adam Powell.

1. Which loss, player or coach, from last season will be the toughest for North Carolina to replace?

Powell: Well, it's gonna be interesting to see how they replace Quinton Coples. He was obviously the most highly regarded pro prospect on the team last year. There's gonna be a bit of transition there to see who the guy is who will step in and replace him at that defensive end spot.

There's a few possibilities and I feel like they have a pretty solid guy in Kareem Martin coming back at one spot. At the other spot, there's Tim Jackson, who's a junior and had a little bit of playing time. He might have a little bit of inside track.

There's gonna be some incoming freshmen who come in and might look to compete for some time. That's one spot they will really be trying to replace a big time player.

2. Which newcomers should make the biggest impact?

Powell: Among the true freshmen, one guy who might be able to play right away is Clinton Heaven. He's a safety.

One guy that is definitely gonna play a lot this fall and might even start is Sam Smiley, who might be a breakout player on defense. He redshirted last season but he came out of training camp as a starter at one of the corner spots.

A couple more, like Eric Ebron, he's a sophomore tight end. He played a little last season. He didn't play a whole lot but he averaged like 20 yards a catch, which is pretty good for a tight end. He can line up outside as a receiver and also as a traditional tight end.

3. What, if anything, will change in playcalling, schemes, etc. this season?

Powell: Pretty much everything, to be honest. Offensively, they're going from the pro style which they ran under Butch Davis, a very traditional offense that you see by most people on Sundays. They've gotten away from that completely and are going to the spread, which I've seen, you can't really define it in terms of positions as much as you can with the pro style.

With the spread, one play they'll have three wide receivers and a tight end then have five wide receivers. It's so interchangeable. Everything they knew before, if you ask Bryn Renner, at quarterback, they pretty much had to throw the whole book out and start fresh.

This spring was really interesting, watching them adjust to the speed and all that. It was an interesting time and there were a few days where they were confused and befuddled out there and you could tell the coaches were frustrated, the players were frustrated and they're just gonna be adjusting.

On defense, they were running a 4-3 before, two safeties and two corners, but now they're going to the 4-2-5. The key elements to that are that there's two positions in that only two regular linebackers, one of them is like a strong side linebacker and one is a middle linebacker.

This other one is what they call a 'bandit,' which is a hybrid, defensive end/linebacker. It's a guy who can stand up on the line and be a stand up rush end, almost like a fifth down lineman, or he can go back in pass coverage.

Then they have another position called the 'ran' and that's where the fifth DB comes in. It's kinda like a nickelback and he can do a little bit of linebacker stuff, support the run, but also play like a safety. The guy they have there now is Gene Robinson, a senior and he fits that mold. He's played safety most of his career at UNC, so those positions make the scheme unique.

In terms of play calling, it sounds like they'll be more aggressive in this scheme. This is more of an attack from all angles, create confusion up front and more of a college-oriented defense. It's been a big change.

4. Were there any surprises this spring and do you anticipate any more?

Powell: The big surprise to me was the emergence of Romar Morris. He's a redshirt freshman running back and he had three touchdowns in the spring game and he's a guy, I watched him play in high school and score five touchdowns in a game. He is gonna really potentially flourish in the spread offense.

He might be another guy you could put in the breakout category. He didn't play last season because Giovani Bernard had a pretty good year, rushed for 1,000 yards and managed to stay healthy.

Romar will definitely play this year and probably be the primary No. 2 guy behind Bernard. But with them trying to run 70 plays a game, he's gonna get touches. He might get 8-10 carries a game and that could add up. I could really see him stepping up big time.

On defense, Smiley had a good spring. The other one I would say is Kevin Reddick. He's gonna be a four-year starter and is the anchor of the defense. He's one of the only guys from that 2010 defense that managed to go through the NCAA stuff and not lose eligibility or games. He and Coples were some of the only guys not involved and he's been a leader for the team and stepped up a lot in the spring.

5. What are realistic expectations for North Carolina this season?

Powell: They play nine games in the state of North Carolina. They play seven home games, then they go to Wake and they go to Duke. If they can manage to win the games they're supposed to win, they can have every bit as good of a record this season as last year.

They got off to a good start last year, 5-1 and kinda fizzled down the stretch. After it was clear the coaches weren't coming back, they fell apart and they got annihilated in the bowl game.

They have a chance to have a better record than last year. I don't know if they'll be contending in the coastal division. They might be a year or so away. But they have four returning starters on the O-line, some guys starting three or four years. Jonathan Cooper has started since his freshman year. They have a lot of experience offensively and if that unit can stay healthy and develop, it'll be interesting to see how good they can be.

I think they can win at least seven or eight games and sneak up on some people. They play Georgia Tech in Chapel Hill coming off a bye. In that rivalry, that's a bit of an advantage. They play Virginia Tech in Chapel Hill and those games have been close the last couple of years.

The schedule is as favorable a schedule as they've had in a long time. They have one tough road game, at Louisville. Virginia is gonna be a tough one too. In terms of non-conference, Louisville stands out. Then they go to Miami. Carolina has only beaten Virginia once in like 30 years, so you can't take that lightly. The schedule is what makes me think they'll win at least eight games.

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