AJ- Coming up Saturday night in Norman, Oklahoma, where they have seven national championship banners hanging is the season opener for the North Carolina Tar Heels. They take on the defending national champions Oklahoma Sooners who return 16 starters from last year. To talk about that game, we have George Schroeder from the Daily Oklahoman. Welcome to the show George.
GS- Hey, glad to be on. How are you doing tonight?
AJ- Great, thanks. Before we can talk about the game itself you were talking with Bob Stoops (just before the interview), and I guess he is back today. How is his personal situation with his daughter (who underwent surgery this week)?
GS- Well, doing okay. He got back yesterday afternoon (Wednesday) actually in time to catch the last half hour of practice, and the word is that everything went real well and they are encouraged that everything will work out fine.
AJ- I guess with the fact that the same staff is intact the last three years that they really didn't miss much of a beat with him gone?
GS- Apparently not. He said they went like clockwork and didn't really need him (laughter) so they had a good practice, a bad practice and a decent practice and that's probably your typical game-week rhythm. But these guys have been together for a while and most of the players have been in the system and this is their third year so things run pretty well.
The only thing that might be a potential hindrance is that Bob (Stoops) works some hands-on with the defensive backs in most practices, but Mike Stoops is a former defensive back as well and that is his primary responsibility so it wasn't a big deal. That's really the only place you might notice anything at all.
AJ- The Sooners lost a runner-up for the Heisman Trophy last year and have a new quarterback and the defense is expected to be better and I read a Mike Stoops quote today that they should be quicker than a year ago. The defense isn't much of a concern but the offense might be with a new QB and questions on the offensive line.
GS- Well, that's definitely the key. They've got a couple of holes on defense and I guess they think they've filled them and I guess that remains to be seen. But offensively, QB is a huge question and I think they think they have a really good one in Nate Hybl who is a transfer from Georgia who was a highly touted QB in the same class as (Ronald) Curry. They think he is going to be really good but since he won the job (in camp) he has really asserted himself even more with less pressure.
The offensive line might be the biggest question mark, but they think they've got it fixed. They moved a red-shirt freshman from tackle inside to left guard and moved the guard to tackle, which was his natural position in junior college, and they think they can make it work that way. But they also have to replace the center with a former walk-on, but they had to replace a former walk-on before and that worked out pretty well. But there have been questions about those guys the last two seasons and they have turned out okay.
AJ- They were okay last year (laughter).
GS- That's the thing. With the spread-out offense, they get the ball out there so quick, you don't have to be a great offensive line and even in the run blocking, it is zone blocking and real quick stuff you don't have to do much for very long.
AJ- And with a back like Quentin Griffin, you don't have to hold your block for very long.
GS- That's exactly right. And if they are having trouble with anything, they can pop it to him and they like to pop it to him on a swing route then he makes one guy miss and kind of dodges around for a while.
AJ- This game Saturday, the Tar Heels have a new coach and have Ronald Curry coming back at QB. He can be a dangerous QB at times especially if the offensive line blocks well, is that a concern for the team?
GS- Definitely, they know about Ronald Curry. He was sort of Michael Vick before there was Michael Vick if I remember correctly. But they know all about him. They know that the run-pass type of QB is the toughest to face and they've talked a lot about how they have to contain him. And you talk about offensive line and that is North Carolina's biggest question mark coming in with all the red-shirt sophomores.
The Sooners know they definitely have to account for Curry at all times and they also have a feel he will see the ball a lot. Of course the QB will take all the snaps, but they think he will control the ball a lot too and they (UNC) have a lot of plays that will be designed for him to do a lot of things. So I am not really sure how they will counter that but they think they can.
AJ- As far as running the ball against Carolina and with the questions (Oklahoma) has at offensive line, Carolina has a pretty formidable front. Not just Julius Peppers who gets all the press, but also Ryan Sims who may be a high NFL Draft pick as well. And the other guys they have on the front line are pretty solid. Do they feel that with the kinds of schemes they (OU) run and the kind of quickness UNC has, they should be effective on the ground?
GS- They want to be, but I am not sure how effective they think they can be. Mark Mangino, the offensive coordinator has made that an emphasis ever since he got the job—that the run matters. And they have developed a pretty good stable of backs. Now whether or not this offensive line can function against Sims and Peppers, I don't know. But I will say this: the (offensive) tackles are pretty good and Frank Romero, who is the left tackle who will protect a right-handed QB this year is a guy who handled Florida State's guys pretty well last year and guys from Nebraska and some other places in the Big XII so I think they feel pretty good about that spot.
AJ- He'll be locking face masks with Peppers on most pass-blocking plays.
GS- And sure, Peppers may well be better than anybody Florida State had last year.
AJ- And he has put on 25 pounds and hasn't lost any speed and is up to 290 pounds.
GS- I heard that and that is kind of a fearsome thing to have to deal with.
AJ- If he is a legit 290 now and hasn't lost a step, that is scary.
GS- Maybe he should just go ahead and stop playing now and start getting ready for the (NFL) combines.
AJ- What do you see as being the keys to this game. Carolina has a pretty solid secondary and has some questions at linebacker. Does Oklahoma consider one of their keys getting to some of those short passes behind that front (line) and into the secondary where the inexperienced linebackers are and kind of beat them that way?
GS- That's kind of Oklahoma's offense and that was one of the things Hybl did (in practice) and along with the others (battling for the QB job) who have better arms than Josh Huepel (last year's Heisman runner-up). And both have the ability to stretch the defense with some throws that weren't made last year, but the offensive base remains a dink-and-dump to kind of move it down the field in short gains but the receivers they have can turn a short dink into a long gain. I am sure they will try to stretch it a bit to maybe show off some of the new pieces of the offense to get a big gain or two but you are looking at swing passes and hook and split screens and tight ends dragging across the middle and little pop-pop-pop type of things. If Carolina's linebackers can't cover they might be in trouble.
AJ – Why did they (Oklahoma) decide to play North Carolina?
GS- Well, when they accepted the game they felt that they would like a team that could give them a decent challenge, not someone like Middle Tennessee State, but a decent team that they could beat and learn a lot from. They could learn about the players trying for jobs and get a lot of work and yet it's a win. Again, I am not sure they ought to take this for granted as a win, but realistically on paper they should win the game, somewhat easily.
AJ- It seems that over the last six weeks or so the columnists and fans are taking UNC more seriously as they learn about the Heels.
GS- I will say this, and it was probably tough for them (the fans and writers) to say why North Carolina can win this game, I could easily see it happening, and I am standing on my point-counterpoint for Oklahoma as the beat writer, which means I shouldn't do that. But I think the prevailing attitude around here is that OU is probably going to win but won't cover the spread (which is 23 points).
AJ- Well, George Schroeder of the Daily Oklahoman, thanks very much for joining us on the SportsWAAV tonight and we are looking forward to Saturday night. Before we let you go, do you have a prediction for the game?
GS- I think that Oklahoma will win but not cover the spread but somewhere around three touchdowns is my guess. So, if you need that for bulletin board material there it is.
AJ- I think coach Bunting has given them all they need.
GS- Okay, well thanks for having me on.
AJ- Thank you. George Schroeder from the Daily Oklahoman here on the SportsWAAV.
Andrew Jones is in his sixth year covering football and basketball for Inside Carolina. He also is a copy editor and staff writer for the Wilmington Star-News and hosts a nightly radio show on WAAV-AM980 in Wilmington. He has also written for ACCNews and once published The College Game and the former Total Sports. He can be reached via e-mail at: AJWAAV@aol.com.