CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina’s first two opponents of 2015 featured run-oriented offenses without much of a sophisticated passing game dynamic. That will change against Illinois on Saturday as UNC’s secondary will be tested consistently by interim head coach Bill Cubit’s passing offense.
“This is the first team that’s really going to give us a lot of 10 personnel and open it up and throw it around without the element of the quarterback run game like we had last week,” UNC secondary coach Charlton Warren told reporters following Wednesday’s practice.
Illinois’ 10 personnel grouping consists of a running back and four wide receivers. UNC has also prepped for Illinois’ 12 personnel and 13 personnel groupings, which utilize two and three tight ends, respectively. (Quick tip: the first number of a personnel grouping indicates the number of running backs in play and the second number represents the tight ends involved).
For example, UNC’s base offensive grouping is 11 personnel, which consists of a running back, a tight end and three wide receivers.
“They throw the ball extremely well out of their 10 personnel, so we've got to do a great job,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora said. “Their passing game is far more extensive in that personnel group, and then when they get into their two-, three-, four-tight end sets, they're going to run the ball. They treat match-up problems for you that way and then they throw the ball down the field and play action out of that. It will definitely create issues for us.”
Junior quarterback Wes Lunt has completed 67.7 percent of his passes (44-of-65) for 478 yards with five touchdowns and one interception in Illinois’ two wins thus far.
"It's a joy to watch," Cubit said on Tuesday. "He's like the coach out there. The way he's checking into plays and where to go with the ball, it's the way the offense should be run."
Five different Illini wide receivers have caught touchdown passes this season and six have caught five or more passes, led Geronimo Allison’s 10 catches for 181 yards and a touchdown.
“If you give him time, and he gets on rhythm, he can shred your defense,” UNC defensive coordinator Gene Chizik said of Lunt on Wednesday.
While UNC’s coaching staff has harped this week on the need for an improved pass rush, the secondary has some emerging talents capable of making their own plays.
Chizik highlighted starting cornerback M.J. Stewart’s play of late, telling reporters the true sophomore has made “tremendous strides” since the spring and has improved at making and finishing plays.
“When you’re in the secondary, you get very few shots to get interceptions and make big game-changing plays,” Chizik said. “He’s putting himself in a position to do that, and he’s making those plays. And then he’s a very good open field tackler. He’s very physical at the point of attack with receivers. He’s a tough football player who the game means a lot to.”
Sophomore safety Donnie Miles has also stood out in the defensive backfield, sharing the team in tackles (18) with senior middle linebacker Jeff Schoettmer.
“He’s really tracking the ball well,” Chizik said. “He’s really sending the ball back and making some big open field tackles… He’s just being where he’s supposed to be most of the time, and then he’s being productive when he gets there.”
It should help UNC this weekend that both Warren and linebackers coach John Papuchis have some familiarity with Cubit’s offense from their time at Nebraska. The Cornhuskers held the Illini to 339 total yards of offense in last season’s 45-14 rout in Lincoln. Illinois threw for 261 yards with three interceptions against just one touchdown. However, Lunt did not play due to injury.
As for any special messages to his secondary based on his experience against Illinois, Warren has elected to keep his approach simple.
“He just told us we’re going to have to play ball,” junior cornerback Des Lawrence said. “All of the coaches give us something each week, but this week they just told us, ‘you’ve got to play ball.’ They’re coming in here to beat us.”