This week I spoke with UNC alum and former defensive back Michael Felder. He's the national college football lead writer at Bleacher Report, and of In The Bleachers podcast fame. I think I may have found someone who is just cynical about their team as I am. We discussed the new Fedora spread, Carolina blowing out bad teams, Bryn Renner and how the Hokies will attack this defense.
TKP: So it seems as if this game may just be between two middle of the pack ACC teams. Both have come off at least one (in UNC's case, 2) crushing losses. What is your general opinion of the first five games of the Larry Fedora regime thus far? How has the team transitioned to the spread?
Felder: I think things have gone about the way that anyone with an ounce of brain in their head would have expected. Blow out bad teams, tough game against middling teams and lose to good teams. They lost the tough game against a middling team but it could have gone either way. For the people who thought UNC was somehow going to be undefeated going into this game they didn't realize the myriad of issues this team has.
As far as the transition to the spread goes, it's going well. Kids love big stats, big highlights and touchdowns and so that sort of stuff gets them jazzed up like finding a twenty in your coat from last year. Guys who wouldn't have gotten many touches under the old system are now making plays and the offensive line is coming together to make the whole spread thing go.
TKP: One thing that's hard to miss is the production out of Bryn Renner. Is he mastering the offense as much as his stats (14 TDs, over 1400 yards) say? Is there any way to slow him down?
Felder: The kid is a good quarterback. I'm not sure that the stats show mastery of the offense but he does have a solid foundation of understand and is able to do what's asked of him. If I was going to speak to mastery I'd probably like to see someone who isn't Bryn run the ball more so that the read-option fakes actually hold some merit. That said, Renner is a hell of a competitor and with the weapons around him he's really found a way to make things go. He was always more comfortable in the shotgun and with Fedora at the helm, he gets to play that way most of the time.
TKP: Obviously a big blow in the Louisville game was the loss of running back Giovanni Bernard. How will the game plan change with him being back in action this weekend?
Felder: Less running between the tackles. AJ Blue was a kid who impressed me during Bernard's absence because of his ability to run between the tackles and get physical. Now that Bernard is back and Blue will see less carries, look for the Tar Heels to be more dynamic at the point of attack. Bernard's a jack of all trades in terms of being able to hurt you off of stretch zones, zone-read carries, in the screen game, running the whip and the circle and of course exploiting mismatches on wheel routes or split out as a slot player.
He's dangerous all over the field and having Bernard back gives Fedora a lot more options when it comes to ways to attack the defense.
TKP: Personally, when I think UNC offense I think receiver. Hakeem Nicks, Brandon Tate, Greg Little, Dwight Jones. Are there any big time playmakers that will keep me up at night out wide this season?
Felder: Naw, these dudes don't really do that. Sean Tapley has big play potential but the sophomore hasn't truly found his niche just yet. Jheranie Boyd is a guy that could scare defenses but he just has a tough time getting on the field and being a factor.
Honestly, if you want to know who you should lose sleep over, it's Eric Ebron. He's a tight end, flex guy and he's a problem all over the field. Big, physical and can catch the ball in the vertical seam. That's the guy to watch out for because he's a legitimate match up problem.
TKP: Moving on to defense. It seems that they have played extremely well against poor competition, and not very well against decent (Wake) to good (Louisville) teams. Is this the case? If so, how should the Hokies attack them on Saturday?
Felder: I don't think it counts as playing well when you're just better than the opponent. Essentially they look good against teams who have no players and cannot exploit their weaknesses; which are plentiful. If I'm the Virginia Tech offensive brain trust I'm going to force the issue running the football. Yes, I know you guys have been not so good at that as of late, but this is an area of opportunity and forcing it at UNC will create seams and force the team to add that extra defender in the box.
Then, against a UNC secondary that's been hit or miss, at best, try and get Marcus Davis and Corey Fuller open over the top. There's plenty of area of opportunity and outside of Sly Williams and Kevin Reddick the Heels defense has been anything but consistent.
TKP: On a scale of 1-10, how confident are you in this game?
Felder: I'm at level 10 confident that there is going to be a game on Saturday. Oh. Wait. Is this my level of confidence in UNC winning this game? Is that the question? Does. Not. Compute. System 32 Error.
TKP: Okay, last question. Who wins, and what will the score be?
Felder: I'm going to go with Virginia Tech here. I think that the Hokies will find a way to run the ball against this 3-3-5/4-2-5 hybrid defense and I think the defense is going to really tax the UNC youth in the spread. These guys only have five games under their belt in this scheme and I think that with Virginia Tech's defense the Tar Heels will be frustrated that everything is not working perfectly at times, the way it did against Idaho.
That said, I expect a close game and for this UNC team those have been a bugaboo all season; losing close to Wake and Louisville.