It’s a good year to be a North Carolina football fan. The Tar Heels open the season ranked 10th in the country, they boast the ACC preseason player of the year in quarterback Sam Howell, and they’re a favorite to win the Coastal Division and even compete for a national title – how often does that happen? Not very! We’re about to find out if the Tar Heels can back up all that hype. They open the season Friday night taking on Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. Kick-off is set for 6:00 on WBT. UNC finished 8-4 last season, while the Hokies went just 5-6, including losing four of their last five games.
The Hokies defense will be tested right off the bat with this high flying Tar Heel offense. UNC averaged over 41 points and 537 yards per game last season, and racked up 656 total yards and 56 points against the Hokies. Howell returns but the Heisman candidate lost his top top two receivers and top two running backs to the NFL, so sophomore receiver Josh Downs is expected to be a top playmaker along with grad transfer running back Ty Chandler. And oh yes, did I mention the entire offensive line is back? Not good news for a Hokies defense that allowed nearly 450 yards and 32 points per game last season, that was the most since 1973! But the defensive line got a big boost when they landed Clemson transfer Jordan Williams, and they return top pass rusher Amare’ Barno. The Hokies boast a solid tandem at linebacker in Dax Hollilfield and Alan Tisdale, and the secondary has plenty of depth, featuring cornerbacks Jermaine Waller and Chamarri Conner, who led the team in tackling last season.
There are plenty of question marks surrounding this Hokies offense, starting with what kind of offense will we see? Last season Tech relied on the ground attack, which was one of the best in the country behind stud running back Khalil Herbert. He’s in the NFL now, but waiting in the wings are Jalen Holston and Raheem Blackshear – will they be able to pick up where Herbert left off? Junior Braxton Burmeister will start at quarterback after former starter Hendon Hooker and backup Quincy Patterson both transferred. Burmeister is fast, but isn’t the greatest passer in the world, completing just 56 percent of his passes last season. He’s got some talented and experienced receivers in Tre Turner, Tayvion Robinson and senior tight end James Mitchell. Turner and Robinson combined for 72 catches and over 1100 yards last season, while the 6’4 Mitchell is a matchup nightmare. And keep an eye out for dynamic freshman receiver Da’Wain Lofton, he’s got elite speed and is expected to contribute immediately. They’ll face a UNC secondary that is poised to be one of the best in the ACC behind cornerbacks Tony Grimes and Storm Duck (love that name!) and safeties Don Champman and Cam’Ron Kelly.
On paper it looks like this one should go UNC’s way. But Lane Stadium is a seriously hostile environment, it’s loud, it’s going to filled to capacity, and when they break out “Enter Sandman,” things definitely get intimidating. Although UNC won the last matchup, before that Tech had won four straight, including 2019’s epic six-overtime game in Blacksburg. The Heels are due for their own winning streak in this rivalry, and it should start Friday night. Go Tar Heels!
— Sharon Thorsland