Tar Heels hope to stay healthy on defense
North Carolina gave up a Kenan Stadium-record 68 points to Georgia Tech a year ago, then allowed just 13 points five days later at Virginia.
A big difference was injuries, associate head coach Vic Koenning said Monday. Against the Yellow Jackets, the Tar Heels were playing nine freshmen in the second half and four players who had been on the scout team.
“We just ran out of bodies,” Koenning said. “We gotta stay healthy. We can’t get down to third- or fourth-string guys, because what was done to this program (with scholarship reductions due to NCAA violations), those guys aren’t there. There’s such a big drop off.”
UNC finished training camp Monday relatively healthy, with the notable exception of the safeties, where three of the top four players at the position missed parts of preseason practices.
Projected starting strong safety Sam Smiley is out for the season with a toe injury, and his replacement, Dominique Green, missed most of camp with an ankle injury. Darien Rankin, who is supposed to back up preseason All-ACC free safety Tre Boston, also has been hobbled.
As a result, the team moved wide receiver Damien Washington to safety, though he is not expected to play anytime soon.
“I’m going to go in there and watch film to see who was out there today,” said Koenning, who is also in charge of the safeties. “It’s been an absolute zoo.”
Still, Koenning said he was pleased with the defense’s play during training camp. He said he saw a lot more effort during Saturday’s scrimmage than at this point last season and fewer missed assignments.
Though the defense didn’t get any takeaways during the 140-plus play closed scrimmage, Koenning said that unit had plenty of sacks, tackles for loss and pass deflections.
Besides strong safety, there also is uncertainty at ram, where Terry Shankle and Brandon Ellerbe are competing for the starting nod.
That said, Koenning wasn’t ready to announce who his defensive starters were at the other positions just yet.
“If you tell your kids you ain’t going to spank them if they do something wrong, then they’re going to do something wrong,” Koenning said. “You have to hold something over their head a little bit.”
On offense, UNC coach Larry Fedora said starters have been established everywhere but at right tackle, where Jon Heck and Kairo Holts still are battling to start alongside left tackle James Hurst, left guard Caleb Peterson, center Russell Bodine and right guard Landon Turner.
“We still haven’t made a final decision,” Fedora said. “We’re looking for somebody to separate from the others and decide they really want it.”
Fedora also said that if the season started today, Romar Morris would get the start at running back over A.J. Blue, who still is battling a hamstring injury.
Blue is one of many Tar Heels who are hoping to get healthy in time for Aug. 29, when the team opens at South Carolina (6 p.m., ESPN).
“Every time you get somebody nicked up, it’s frustrating, but every coach in the country is probably saying the same thing,” Fedora said. “There’s no way to avoid it unless you don’t do anything.”