LSU-North Carolina: What to Watch For (or so I thought this morning anyway)


Ed. Note: Yeesh. Well, ain't this a previewFAIL. But I suppose the LSU parts are still mostly relevant, so I might as well give it to you with a few annotations.

Uncertainty is the only certainty there is about this game. But whereas all of that was aimed squarely at LSU about two months ago, now we're all wondering if North Carolina is even going to field a team.

We all know the stories at this point. Agents, tutors and investigators

 

And here's what we know, as of today and this writing. Only player is 100-percent out -- Marvin Austin, UNC's stud defensive tackle. Anywhere from 1 to 15 more players have been linked to the various investigations, including Austin's linemate Robert Quinn (the ACC's top sack artist), linebackers Quan Sturdivant and Bruce Carter, cornerbacks Kendric Burney and Charles Brown and wide receiver Greg Little. Running backs Shaun Draughn and Ryan Houston have also been listed as potential suspendees. Using my best educated guesses, here are the scenarios I can envision (Note to Self: get new magic 8-ball):

  • Most likely (and one would certainly hope the process is expedited) the NCAA makes a firm decision on just who will sit. Little has been the name most often linked with Austin and the Agentgate controversy, with the two cornerbacks prominently named in the tutor issue. Any word on this will probably come Friday afternoon or Saturday in the hours before the game. While UNC has said that the players in question will not travel with the team on Friday, they stressed that any ones free to play would be flown in Saturday as quickly as possible. 
  • Post-suspensions note: So Quann Sturdivant, Bruce Carter and Denuta Williams could still play tomorrow if they get clearance late.
  • If there's no firm word one way or the other, UNC will likely have to sit the players in question, rather than risk NCAA penalties if they play and are ruled ineligible a week later. In this scenario the number of players out likely goes higher, though reports out of Chapel Hill as of Thursday morning noted that an unknown amount of players have been cleared.
  • But the scenario that Tarheel fans seem the most worried about is the involvement of their administration. It shouldn't be a shock that academic-types don't particularly care for athletic scandals, especially if they involve academic dishonesty. And there's some concern the administration will measure out punitive suspensions in order to look "tough" on athletic department corruption. In this scenario, again the number of players out goes up.

Call me a cynic, but if I had to guess on exactly how many players wind up sitting it won't go over two. Austin and Little, the two names that have gotten the most ink through all these rumors and innuendos. That's strictly gut feeling on my part, though. And while these are major blows, that would still leave a lot of talent on the Tarheel roster. Quinn and Carter are considered first round talents, and Sturdivant, Brown, Burney and safety Denuta Williams won't go far behind them. Plus there's still a couple of former 4-star recruits in linebacker Kevin Reddick and defensive lineman Tydreke Powell.LSU has to be prepared for UNC's best because even if a few players sit out, this is definitely not the typical pre-season appetizer.

What to watch for on Saturday

KISS

Such a cliché, but for a reason.

Keep
It
Simple
Stupid

And from a schematic standpoint, that's UNC and Butch Davis at heart. A long-time assistant under Jimmy Johnson at Miami and with the Dallas Cowboys, he's a defensive head coach with a style similar to LSU's own John Chavis. Keep the players fundamentally sound and playing fast and loose. You're not going to see a lot of disguising or a lot of complexity. Simple reads that let the athletes make the plays. Humanoids call this "bend but don't break," but nobody seemed to think the Tampa Bay Bucs of the 90s or Pittsburgh Steelers of the 70s bent all that much and they played this very style.

The Tarheel defense will use a lot of cover two with man coverage underneath, especially on first down. They ask the linemen to hold blockers and stuff the inside run while the linebackers cover to the sidelines and down the seams. They will mix things up in blitz situations, and aren't afraid to use some cover-3 or -4 when it's long-yardage.

On offense, UNC coordinator John Shoop runs a ball-control attack based on power running and possession passing. They'll work in a good bit of motion with tight ends and receivers - in order to get open under coverage and to set up run fakes/end arounds (I say this because nobody that ever announces a game can seem to differentiate: AN END-AROUND IS NOT A REVERSE). Little and his pass-catching mates had 49 rushing attempts in 2009.

Who's on First

Richard Murphy, Stevan Ridley, Michael Ford, Russell Shepard and Spencer Ware. Who's the starter? Who's the top back? It's the one question mark left on the offensive depth chart. Murphy and Ridley are currently listed as the "either or" starters, but that by no means ensures the bulk of playing time. Shepard is a receiver officially, but so was Percy Harvin and that didn't stop him from rushing the ball 153 times through 2007-08. He'll get his touches, as will Michael Ford. As I've said, Frank Wilson's style has leaned more towards a true No. 1 back versus the committee approach, so it will be interesting to see if the rotation style of Larry Porter ceases if one back is in a groove.

And don't be too surprised if Ware gets a direct snap or two (as another aside to announcers, not all direct snap running plays are from the Wildcat formation).

Woooo!

What, you thought I'd let North Carolina week pass without another Nature Boy video?

I never really got caught up in the WOOO CHAD JONES hysteria the last few years, but I have to admit two players have me geeked for this season, and that's Patrick Peterson and Russell Shepard.

Peterson's just a physical freak, and I don't think I've ever seen a corner with his physical gifts at LSU. LaRon Landry, though a safety, was close in the size/speed-ratio-department, but he didn't have Peterson's agility or ball skills. If watching the frontman of the Oreo Explosion play corner wasn't fun enough, I'm giddy at the thought of what he can give the Tigers the best of both worlds as a punt returnter - the big-play ability of Trindon Holiday combined with some decent hands, a la Chad Jones (WOOO). Saturday marks his chance to make a statement on national TV, not only on returns but also against a quarterback who was pretty damned interception-prone last year.

Speaking of Holiday, look for Shepard's role to be a combination of Trindon Holiday's from recent year's and Harvin's at Florida. People were never truly satisfied with the number of touches, but 5-5 and about 165, Holiday just didn't have enough size to be more than what he was. If he wasn't getting the ball (or having the ball faked to him), there wasn't much else he could do. He wasn't going to get open against SEC secondaries due to his height and certainly couldn't be trusted to catch the ball. Plus nobody would ever take him seriously as a blocker. Shepard gives you the same threat as Holiday with enough size to participate in any play, whether he's directly involved or not.

Do NOT Expect

Airsplosion

For all of my optimism towards Jordan Jefferson, neither one of these passing attacks are much to look at on paper - and that only gets worse if UNC is missing Little. In 2009 North Carolina's offense in general was actually worse than LSU's. They trailed the Tigers in both yards per play and points per game with nearly double the turnovers.

Tarheel triggerman T.J. Yates has been capable at times, but those times usually involved throwing to eventual NFL draft picks Hakeem Nicks and Brandon Tate. His 15 interceptions last year mostly came under pressure behind a hodge-podge offensive line (six were throw on third downs and seven were thrown in his own territory - might be a good idea to pin them back as often as possible). And his 115.39 passer rating dipped to 92.62 without Little in the lineup.

On LSU's side, Jefferson won't turn in some sort of Brees-esque performance, up even if he still plays well. Les Miles has stressed leaning on the run as much as possible, and that ratio will only expand if UNC is thin on defensive linemen due to suspensions. Even if both Carolina corners are out, S Denuta Williams led the team with six interceptions last year. And he'll be covering the deep halves a lot behind those replacements. So I wouldn't expect the deep passing game to get a lot of work this week.

Post-suspension note: Now I wouldn't be surprised if the offense looks even more vanilla, depending on what they can get away with. Pay attention to things like execution (which was lacking even against the UL-Ls, Tulanes and Louisiana Techs of 2009), tempo and intensity. But still expect a few typical opening game hiccups.

The UNC Scout Team

(Okay, so Just expect the third string)

Consider me still skeptical about UNC being stripped of double-digit players until it actually happens. And it's important to stress that this is a very talented team, even if it's down four or five guys (twelve, well, that would be a different matter). Robert Quinn is almost certainly a first round pick (bullet dodged), as is Bruce Carter. And every time I've watched UNC actually play, Quann Sturdivant has always been the guy who stood out most to me. Even on offense there are some young talents like Jheranie Boyd and Erik Highsmith (Boyd was a 4-star and averaged nearly 20 yards per catch last season). So even at its most depleted, UNC is likely still better than some other teams' openers.

Notes on the suspensions:

Well, maybe I just got my first really bad prediction out of the way early. Twelve players - wow. And with Carter, Sturdivant and Williams still not totally cleared as well. So here are a few quick notes to quantify exactly what UNC has lost:

  • The offense players out represent 1,446 out of 1,727 rushing yards and 54-percent of the Tarheel's total offensive yardage from last year. Plus 14 out of the team's 35 total touchdowns. UNC will be down to a third-string tailback.
  • The defensive players out represent one third of the team's total tackles, 41.5 of the team's 105 tackles for a loss, 17 sacks plus 18 out of 47 total pass breakups, including nine of 19 interceptions. The unit will be missing three starting defensive linemen (counting Michael McAdoo, who was Quinn's backup) and at least four starting defensive backs (also counting Jonathan Smith, who was Da'Norris Searcy's backup at safety. They'll also miss Searcy on special teams -- he averaged 15 yards per return in 2009.
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