For a Duke offense that is struggling to move the ball on the ground, the Tar Heels present a huge challenge. North Carolina's defensive unit is full of top flight athletes and those players have produced for much of the year. North Carolina currently ranks 22nd in the nation in total defense, allowing 327.0 yards per game. The Tar Heels are 14th in rush defense, 22nd in scoring defense and 22nd in pass efficiency defense.
When contrasted with a Duke offense that rushed for a mere 22 yards against the Hokies a week ago, it appears as though the Blue Devils will have a stiff test on their hands. Here are five specific players who can cause Duke trouble...
Top 5 to watch North Carolina Defense
1. LB Kevin Reddick (6-3, 244, Sr.): Reddick could have passed up his senior year and been a high round NFL pick. When the postseason ban was handed down, the senior again reconfirmed his commitment to the Tar Heels. By returning to Chapel Hill, Reddick provided Larry Fedora a preseason All-American and crucial building block in the transformed defense.
Currently listed as the starter at middle linebacker, Reddick is second on the team with 41 tackles and is tied for second on the team with 8.0 tackles for losses. He recorded seven tackles, had 2.5 tackles for losses, assisted on a sack, added a quarterback hurry and broke up two passes in a 48-34 win over Virginia Tech.
Reddick is just as good in the passing game as he is defending the run, and his athleticism has been a tremendous asset as Larry Fedora has installed a 4-2-5 scheme. In the 4-2-5, if Duke is able to occupy the front four of the Tar Heels, it'll be a tall order to run past, around, or through a guy like Reddick. Especially given he production levels of the two sides.
2011 v. Duke: 5 tackles and 1 pass breakup.
2. DT Sylvester Williams (6-3, 320, Sr.): Williams is another senior leader who not only declared he would return to Chapel Hill regardless of the post season ban, but also turned down the chance to go as a mid-round draft pick in June. The decision to stick it out for the Tar Heels was expected as Williams had just transferred into the program from the JUCO ranks, by way of Modine Manufacturing Company and Coffeyville Community College in Kansas.
The first season in Chapel Hill was a successful one though he had a well documented battle with conditioning upon making the jump to FBS level competition. Still, he started every game and finished the season with 54 tackles, including seven for losses, and had one interception and three pass breakups. Despite the success, Duke was able to deal with Williams rather easily, limiting him to just one assisted stop.
This year Williams' improved stamina and conditioning has allowed him to become a real threat to opposing passing games. Williams has 18 stops through seven games, but has also recorded eight tackles for loss and five sacks along with three additional quarterback hurries. The Blue Devils have done a good job at protecting Sean Renfree and Anthony Boone for much of the season, but Williams may very well represent their biggest challenge to date.
2011 v. Duke: 0.5 tackles.
3. CB Jabari Price (6-0, 195, Jr.): As a true freshman, Price played in all 13 Tar Heel games and earned the starting role in the final four games of 2010. Things seemed to be going well until a torn tendon in his hand required surgery and limited his appearances as a sophomore. The injury not only motivated him, it also made the Miami native appreciate every snap.
"To be honest with you, I take every game personally this year," Price said. "Last year I got hurt, and I couldn't be there for my team," he told the Daily Tar Heel prior to the game against Miami last week.
Now, fully healthy, Price is UNC's most productive defensive back and will likely draw the assignment of checking Blue Devil star Conner Vernon.
In 2012 Price is the team's leading tackler with 46 stops including 3.5 tackles for loss. He's also recorded a quarterback sack and has broken up eight pass plays, and deflected another nine in just seven games.
2011 v. Duke: One tackle in limited role.
4. Gene Robinson (5-11, 200, Sr.): Much like the Duke system, the Tar Heel's 4-2-5 system features a safety who will cheat up and play as a hybrid outside linebacker/safety. For this season the player filling that role is senior Gene Robinson. The Tennessee native came into Chapel Hill as a cornerback, but converted to safety soon after he arrived.
A season ago Robinson played in all 13 games and started the first four at safety. Now, under the new scheme, he's able to ball-hawk throughout the second line of defense and has a knack for hard hitting stops. None more crucial than last week when he stopped the Miami receiver five yards short on 4th down as the Hurricanes were driving to what would have been a winning score.
On the season Robinson has averaged just under four tackles per game. He's been most effective in helping the two linebackers clog up the second line of defense, but if a team is struggling to run the ball, he's able to drop back into coverage and help secure the middle of the field for crossing patterns and similar looks. He'll have a number of chances to see those type of plays with Duke's short passing game.
2011 v. Duke: Five tackles, 1 forced fumble, and 1 interception.
5. DE Kareem Martin (6-6, 262, Jr.): While it resulted in NCAA sanctions, one thing the Butch Davis era did produce was elite depth in many pockets throughout the North Carolina roster. A season ago the Tar Heels' pass rush was elite and no player better exemplified that than Quinton Coples, who ended up being the 16th pick in the draft in June.
A new coach and a new system has bumped Martin into the roll of the team's top pass rusher. He's responded by getting into the backfield with regularity this season. So far Martin has 10 TFLs, two sacks, and six quarterback hurries. He's already deflected another six pass attempts. The 10 tackles for loss rank second in the ACC.
2011 v Duke: Two tackles, one tackle for loss, and one fumble recovery.