The Scarlet Knights return five starters from a defense that ranked 65th nationally in total defense and 62nd in scoring defense in 2010, but head coach Greg Schiano has adjusted his approach to get more speed on the field. As such, four of the five returning starters are playing new positions, including linebacker Manny Abreu moving to defensive end and safety Khaseem Greene sliding up into Abreu's vacated spot at weakside linebacker.
The Scarlet Knights held N.C. Central to 120 total offensive yards, including just eight yards on the ground, and totaled nine sacks in their season opener last Thursday, but it's important to note that the loss marked the Eagles' first game as a full NCAA Division I program.
The Tar Heels, on the other hand, were equally as flawless in their season opener. Red-shirt sophomore quarterback Bryn Renner set an ACC single-game mark for the highest passing completion percentage in connecting on 22 of his 23 passes for 277 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Tailback tandem Ryan Houston and Gio Bernard combined for 123 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 25 carries.
"The stats were great, but the way I play, I think I need to improve, especially with Rutgers coming in here this week," Renner said. "I just got done watching some film on them and their linebackers are really athletic. They're a great defense. I know Coach Schiano is going to do a great job game planning for us and the scheme that we have."
North Carolina enjoyed a notable size advantage up front against James Madison, but while Rutgers is a BCS conference opponent, Schiano's shift to speed is prevalent along the defensive line as that group only averages 262.5 pounds per player. But their quickness in combination with blitzing personnel from various areas of the back seven will challenge UNC's offensive line.
"We've got to be very, very good up front this week as far as protecting the quarterback and giving ourselves some running lanes," Withers said.
One of the few issues that arose against the Dukes could play a more substantial role against Rutgers if not corrected immediately.
"We had a couple of situations where we didn't call the play right in the huddle and that may be sideline communication to the quarterback," Withers said.
Renner expanded on that issue during his interview with reporters.
"Sometimes protections get a little fuzzy, especially with it being my first time in the huddle with all of these fans here and the crowd noise, so we definitely need to get that corrected with my play calls and speaking louder in the huddle and making sure everyone hears what I need to say," Renner said.
Rutgers's nine sacks against N.C. Central stands out not just for the quantity, but also for the fact that 10 different Scarlet Knights were credited in the total. Given Schiano's willingness to blitz from everywhere on the field, it's expected that he will test Bernard – who will be playing in his second collegiate game – early and often in UNC'S offensive backfield.
Not that Bernard is concerned, however. The red-shirt freshman indicated that he is comfortable in pass blocking due to the heavy emphasis the coaching staff has placed on that aspect of the offense.
"If I can just stay in the film room and really watch their technique and watch their linebackers and what they do, they'll give me keys that other people may not see," Bernard said. "… I know for sure we'll have plenty of blitz pickup periods this week because they are a blitzing team."
Rutgers registered six tackles for loss and two sacks against North Carolina last September, which suggests that UNC offensive coordinator John Shoop's protections worked successfully. Another stat line like that one will put the Tar Heels in good position to continue their strong offensive play from last Saturday.