UNC-VT preview: How will UNC respond to week of internal criticism?
It started right after last Saturday’s 55-31 loss to East Carolina, when North Carolina senior running back A.J. Blue made an impassioned locker room speech that accused some of his teammates of lacking focus.
It continued Sunday, when the defense called a players-only meeting to discuss the lack of energy and the 37 missed assignments against the Pirates.
And it persisted on Wednesday, when associate coach for defense Vic Koenning could be heard yelling at his unit after the conclusion of practice, imploring them to step up and become leaders.
Coming off its worst performance since Larry Fedora took over before last season, UNC (1-3, 0-1 ACC) has been attempting to change the attitude of the team this week heading into Saturday’s game at Virginia Tech (12:30 p.m., WRAL).
“Every play in practice, I’m fighting somebody to get to the ball harder or to focus more,” Koenning said. “It’s like I’m in a fistfight with whoever the heavyweight champion is every day, just trying to get these guys to do the right things and do it as fast and hard as they can.”
Blue, a 24-year-old who is widely regarded as the team’s biggest leader, said that he noticed a sense of complacency and a lack of preparation from certain players before the ECU game.
That was evident when UNC had only nine players on the field for one play against the Pirates because of two miscommunications with substitutions.
Motivation shouldn’t be an issue Saturday — the Tar Heels know they can’t afford an 0-2 start in the ACC if they hope to make their first ACC championship game.
But it will also take more than an attitude adjustment to beat the Hokies (4-1, 1-0), who have beaten two teams (ECU and Georgia Tech) that have defeated UNC this season.
Still, Koenning said a turnaround starts with playing hard, a trait he felt was lacking in the game against the Pirates in what he called an “ugly, embarrassing performance,” and which seemed to be a theme in Sunday’s meeting.
“Some of those guys that were supposed to be good players have been some of the guys that I have to drive around here like a mule,” Koenning said. “I think some of those guys were starting to call them out and say, ‘Hey man, we need you to step up and start being somebody. You’re supposed to be somebody so start being somebody.’”
Koenning said that the departure of linebacker Kevin Reddick and defensive tackle Sylvester Williams to the NFL left an internal leadership void that hasn’t been filled, so his messages aren’t getting through.
“It’s like when you try to move a couch,” Koenning said. “You can get on one end and push and the front legs stick. You get the other end and pull and the back legs stick. You’ve got to have someone pushing and someone pulling. That’s really where it is.”
UNC shouldn’t be the only motivated team at Lane Stadium Saturday. Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said the Hokies still remember last year’s meeting, when the Tar Heels used a 339-40 edge in rushing yards to claim a 48-34 win in Chapel Hill.
“We’re getting ready to play a team that certainly got our attention last year,” Beamer said. “That was a good pounding.”
After struggling last season, Virginia Tech’s defense is back to its customary form this year, led by one of the country’s best secondaries. The Hokies lead the nation in interceptions with 11 and are in the top 10 in yards allowed, sacks, tackles for loss, yards per rush and yards per attempt.
Meanwhile, UNC’s offense has taken a step back from last season, dropping in points per game from eighth in the country to 86th as the unit struggles to replace four NFL draft picks from a year ago.
“You find out a lot about your football team during times of adversity,” Fedora said. “That’s where we’re sitting right now. We’re going to keep fighting, keep working, and we’ll persevere.”