Inside the Irish

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And In That Corner … The injured Tar Heels of North Carolina

Notre Dame’s trip to North Carolina may never have been the most-daunting road trip on the 2017 schedule (that’s likely to be Nov. 11 at Miami), but few expected the Tar Heels to be slogging along at 1-4 come the first week of October. That is the case, nonetheless. To figure out how and why North Carolina has struggled so much thus far, let’s pepper Andrew Carter of The Charlotte Observer with some questions …

DF: First off, thanks for taking the time to help Irish fans know what to expect this weekend. How long have you been covering the Tar Heels?
AC: Since November of 2011. This is my sixth full football season.

From this distance, two storylines seem to sum up North Carolina’s year. One of those actually points to last year — all that was lost from the offensive side of the ball. Obviously, quarterback Mitch Trubisky went No. 2 in the NFL Draft, but much more talent went out the door, as well. By my count, four of last year’s top-five receivers departed and all four of the Tar Heels’ top-four rushers left (if including Trubisky). Just to toss out a few more names Notre Dame fans will remember, Ryan Switzer led those receivers and Elijah Hood played a key role in that rushing game.

Is that exodus to fault for North Carolina struggling to score the last two weeks, with 17 points against Duke and seven at Georgia Tech? What underlying issues are handicapping the Tar Heel attack?
There are two primary reasons why the Tar Heel offense is struggling. The first is all the departures you mentioned. North Carolina lost its starting quarterback, its top three receivers, its top three rushers and two of its best offensive linemen from last season. Several of those players were among the best in school history at their positions: Trubisky at quarterback, Switzer at receiver, Hood at running back, and the list goes on. Secondly, the Tar Heels have been decimated by injuries.

Even if North Carolina remained healthy, its offense would have faced a difficult rebuilding year. But, the Tar Heels have not been healthy. They have been anything but healthy. The offensive line has been a bit of a patchwork mess during the first month of the season. The best lineman there, senior left tackle Bentley Spain, missed all of one game with a hand injury and most of another, and he’s probably still not at full strength. Several others have been banged up, as well.

Then-junior receiver Austin Proehl caught 43 passes for 597 yards and three touchdowns last season, but a left arm/shoulder injury ended his 2017 after only four games with 16 catches, 270 yards and one touchdown. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Injuries at receiver have become comically absurd (as much as injuries can be). North Carolina lost its top three receivers off last year’s team … and then it lost three of its best receivers during the first four games this season. Among them are senior Austin Proehl, the only returning receiver who played a large role last year, and junior Thomas Jackson, the only other returning receiver with double-digit catches last season. And then sophomore Rontavius Groves, arguably the Tar Heels’ most-talented young receiver, suffered a season-ending knee injury in his first collegiate game, after recovering from … a different knee injury.

It’s not difficult to surmise the hows and whys of North Carolina’s failures on offense. It lost a ton of production from last season, and since then it has endured hard-to-believe misfortune with injuries. With the injuries up front and at receiver, it has been difficult for the Tar Heels to establish any kind of rhythm.

Despite those issues, sophomore quarterback Chazz Surratt has put together some decent numbers, throwing for 988 yards and five touchdowns with a completion rate of 63.3 percent, seemingly ending LSU transfer Brandon Harris’ career. Is that latter assumption a safe one?
I think that’s probably fair. I’d be surprised if Brandon Harris spent any significant time at quarterback the rest of the season, barring a Surratt injury (which, the way things are going on that front …).

North Carolina sophomore quarterback Chazz Surratt has rushed for four touchdowns to complement his five scores through the air. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

North Carolina coach Larry Fedora won’t come out and say this — not yet, anyway — but at some point it becomes common sense to start planning for the future and do what’s best for down the road as opposed to what might lead to relatively minimal improvement this season. The Tar Heels have probably already arrived at that point. I do think Harris could help North Carolina in the short term, but how much would that really be worth? An extra win, maybe?

The Tar Heels are not going to win their division this season. An upper-tier bowl game is already out of the question. Harris will be gone after this season, while Surratt will have three more years of eligibility remaining. It would not make much sense to play Harris, while Surratt could use this time as an opportunity to develop and gain some valuable experience.

With that in mind, what kind of future does Surratt project to have in Fedora’s system?
A pretty good one, assuming he improves his arm strength. Surratt is plenty mobile and he seems pretty durable, but the offense is a bit limited with him right now because he doesn’t have the ability to stretch a defense vertically with his arm, not that he necessarily has healthy receivers to target downfield, anyway.

North Carolina has kept its playbook pretty basic with Surratt, which is understandable given he’s seeing his first playing time. Another offseason or two in the weight room adding strength could do wonders for Surratt, because all the other skills and intangibles are there.

The other storyline would be the Tar Heels’ struggling defense. Perhaps I am being overly harsh, but then again, North Carolina has given up 35.5 points per game against four FBS-level opponents. Is it really that, uhhh, bad?
The defense has actually improved the past two weeks, though the numbers don’t bear it out. Against Duke, the defense kept the Tar Heels in it and gave North Carolina a chance until Surratt threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. Another interception in the third quarter turned the game Saturday during the Tar Heels’ loss at Georgia Tech.

Player attrition and injuries have affected the defense, as well. It lost its best lineman from last season, Naz Jones, now with the Seattle Seahawks. One of the team’s best cornerbacks, Des Lawrence, was a senior.

This season, already, North Carolina has lost starting middle linebacker junior Andre Smith for the season, and one of its most talented defensive lineman, junior Jalen Dalton, hasn’t played in three weeks.

So no, the defense hasn’t been especially good, but it’s kind of a less dramatic version of the offense in terms of the injury situation. Exacerbating the defensive issues, when the Tar Heels’ offense is bad, it puts a huge strain on the defense — even more so than what a “normal” team could expect, given how abnormally quickly North Carolina attempts to operate its offense.

The Tar Heels use an up-tempo spread. When it’s going three-and-out several times per game, the defense has no time to rest. Eventually that adds up, and in the fourth quarters of all four North Carolina losses, the defense was exhausted. That’s the defense’s fault, in part, for not getting off the field on third down earlier in the game (and that’s been a huge problem), but the offensive woes certainly play a role, too.

Again, removing the statistics from the Tar Heels’ 53-23 victory over FCS-level Old Dominion, opponents have had equal success rushing and passing against North Carolina, averaging 251.75 rushing yards per game and 252.75 passing yards per game. Presuming the Irish rely on the run as common sense and recent history would indicate, do the Tar Heels have the personnel to sell out to stop Josh Adams & Co.?
Probably not, honestly. I’d expect this game to follow a similar script as North Carolina’s losses against Louisville and Duke. I think the Tar Heels can keep it close for a while, maybe for a half, even three quarters. Then their inability to sustain offensive success — combined with the lack of depth and inability to generate stops on third down on defense — will take its toll. If the fourth quarter does not completely belong to Notre Dame, it would be a surprise, based on everything UNC has shown to this point.

It will likely take more heroic efforts like this for the Tar Heels to challenge Notre Dame this weekend. Plus, this is just a cool photo. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Presuming the spread closes around 16 or 17 in Notre Dame’s favor (or even 13 or 14 if Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush is ruled out), can North Carolina realistically keep it that close? I imply a blowout largely because of the Notre Dame rush offense vs. the Tar Heels rush defense. Perhaps I am very much off-base.
I don’t think you’re off-base.

I appreciate the agreement. While we’re at it, how about a score prediction?
I think something in the 40ish to 20ish range sounds about right.