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2021 Summer Reading: Early look at Virginia Tech’s Week 1 opponent North Carolina

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Editor’s note: The Roanoke Times is taking an early look at every game on Virginia Tech’s 2021 schedule over the next three weeks. Check back for stories Monday through Thursday each week looking at a different opponent. 

Virginia Tech might catch North Carolina at the right time this fall.

The Tar Heels will go into the opener with likely preseason ACC Player of the Year Sam Howell at quarterback and an experienced offensive line, but Howell will be surrounded with an entirely new group of skill players. 

Tech won’t be too upset about that since the defense had a hard time stopping most of those departing faces. Running back Michael Carter averaged 10.1 yards per carry in the last two matchups between the teams while receiver Dazz Newsome had 16 catches for 181 yards with three touchdowns.

Maybe Howell creates lightning in a bottle and runs away with the Coastal right out of the gate, but there’s a chance it could take UNC some time to get the offense rolling.

Last year vs. Virginia Tech: North Carolina W 56-45

What happened? Virginia Tech’s defense didn’t have any answers against UNC last season.

The Tar Heels opened up the game with 21 straight points, and that was a sign of things to come with their offense putting up 656 total yards (the second most Tech had given up all-time).

Carter and fellow running back Javonte Williams combined for 383 of those yards while Howell was 18 of 23 for 257 yards (most of those incompletions were drops) with three touchdowns. 

The only silver lining for the Hokies was the offense coming alive in the second half behind a strong 2021 debut performance by Hendon Hooker. Hooker made it a one-possession game late in the third quarter with a 33-yard touchdown pass to Tayvion Robinson before UNC pulled away for good.

Position(s) of strength: Quarterback, obviously.

Howell is a preseason Heisman candidate for a reason. The two-year starter has thrown for 7,227 yards (64.4%) with 68 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. He has nine 300-yard games under his belt and helped the team to a 15-10 record with all but two of those losses coming in one-possession games. North Carolina set school records last year averaging 41.7 points per game (No. 9 nationally) and 537.2 yards (No. 5).

The third-year sophomore will smooth over plenty of issues for North Carolina if he makes a similar leap to the one he did last offseason. North Carolina lost its four top skill players with Carter, Williams, Newsome and Dyami Brown all heading to the NFL, and that’s a whole lot of production.

Carter and Williams didn’t just beat up on Tech last year on their way to 1,000 yard seasons. It was the third straight year Carter led the team in rushing. 

Brown had more catches (55) and yards (1099) in a shortened 2020 season than he did the previous year when he was UNC’s top receiver with 51 catches for 1,034 yards. Brown and Newsome combined for 36 touchdowns the last two years.

Immediately replacing that kind of consistency won’t be easy.

Brown’s younger brother Khafre is the team’s top returning wideout, and he’s just as explosive with a sub 4.4 40-yard dash time. Second-year freshman Josh Downs got rave reviews this spring and Beau Corrales is a senior coming back for a fifth season with 80 career catches.

North Carolina looked to the transfer portal for answers at running back by landing Tennessee’s Ty Chandler. The 6-foot-0, 210-pound had 25 career starts in Knoxville (45 games) and rushed for 2,015 yards. He was the team’s leading rusher in 2018 and 2019 and was also a key contributor on special teams with 3,245 career all-purpose yards.

One other key change in UNC’s backfield from last season is on the sidelines.

Alabama hired away the team’s running backs coach Robert Gillespie, and the Tar Heels hired Larry Porter to replace him. This will be Porter’s second stint in North Carolina (2014-16), and he’s coming off a three-year run at Auburn where he coached the team’s tight ends.

Gillespie inherited a rushing offense that ranked 90th in the country back in 2017 and helped them climb 46 spots in his first season. North Carolina finished last year with the No. 11 ranked rushing offense in the country (235.8 yards per carry).

His absence could loom large.

Lingering questions: North Carolina’s defense wasn’t very good last season and came up short in key situations.

The Tar Heels couldn’t recover after giving up 31 points in the first half in a loss to Florida State.

They allowed Virginia to put together a nine-plus minute drive as the team was trying to erase a 21-point deficit a couple weeks later. North Carolina made it a one-possession game in the final minutes, but the defense couldn’t force a three-and-out to get them the ball back.

North Carolina also fell behind by 21 points to Wake Forest, but Howell and the offense pulled out a comeback in that one.

The defense can’t be put the team in those kind of situations this fall if they hope to win the Coastal Division title.

One possible area where UNC could make a big leap is in the secondary. The team gave up 246.7 passing yards per game and only came up with eight interceptions (three were in one game).

The talent will be there with cornerbacks Tony Grimes, Kyler McMichael, and Storm Duck alongside a group of safeties featuring Don Chapman, Trey Morrison and Cam’Ron Kelly.

Duck was one of the most promising corners in the ACC going into last fall after putting up five pass-breakups and two interceptions as a true freshman in 2019. He suffered a season-ending injury in Week 2, which allowed Grimes — a Virginia prospect who reclassified to the 2020 signing class — to get playing time in his first season.

North Carolina’s secondary could be one of the deepest in the ACC if it stays healthy.

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