CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- When No. 22 North Carolina and No. 18 Georgia meet in Atlanta on Sept. 3, all eyes will be on the matchup between the Tar Heels’ run defense and the Bulldogs’ offensive backfield.
Last season, UNC’s impressive scoring defense totals overshadowed its glaring run defense statistics. In the first season under defensive coordinator Gene Chizik, the Tar Heels ranked 121st nationally in run defense, allowing 247.8 rushing yards per game in 2015. Even when removing Baylor’s bowl record of 645 rushing yards from the slate, UNC still gave up an average of 217.2 yards per game.
While Chizik’s front seven was faltering last fall, Georgia’s tailbacks were running rampant in Athens. In the six games Georgia running back Nick Chubb played before suffering a gruesome knee injury, he ran for 747 total yards and scored eight touchdowns. Chubb’s starting position was filled by Sony Michel, who rushed for 1,136 yards and 11 touchdowns.
The Georgia offense could potentially be even more run-oriented in 2016 under new head coach Kirby Smart. During his eight years as defensive coordinator under Nick Saban at Alabama, Smart saw the Crimson Tide churn out an average of 2,814 yards per season. While Smart only coached the defense, he may be keen on maintaining a run-heavy offense opposite of his defense at Georgia.
The Tar Heels are expecting an onslaught from the Bulldogs backfield, not only because of their own unimpressive pedigree, but also as a result of the uncertainty of Georgia’s quarterback situation. Smart has yet to name a starter at quarterback between senior Greyson Lambert and freshman Jacob Eason.
“It’s something that we’re definitely game planning for,” UNC junior linebacker Cayson Collins said this week. “They have an amazing backfield with Sony Michel and Nick Chubb, so we feel like their inexperience at quarterback will make them rely more on the run. That’s something that we anticipate.”
While Smart will ultimately make the decision at quarterback, it is new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney who will be calling the shots for the Bulldogs’ offense. Chaney is an offensive coordinator who is known to work with what he’s given. In the late 1990s, Chaney coached Drew Brees at Purdue and helped successfully implement what is now commonly known as the spread offense.
Recently, Chaney has found success with run-heavy offenses. As the offensive coordinator at Arkansas in 2014, Chaney commanded an offense that rushed for 218 yards a game. He spent last season at Pittsburgh, and even without star running back James Conner, he helped the Panthers amass 186 rushing yards a game.
“He’s always been able to run the ball when he had to run the ball and throw the ball when that was a strength of his,” Smart said shortly after hiring Chaney. “He has a multiple offense, uses a lot of formations. He uses the tight ends well. He’s really a guy that uses whatever personnel he has and that intrigued me.”
Chaney’s presence on the sideline may yield a stronger rushing attack, however one benefit for Chizik and his staff is their familiarity with his schemes from last season. The Tar Heels beat the Panthers, 26-19, while only allowing Pittsburgh to rush for 153 yards.
“We do have a little bit of carryover from there with what we’re studying,” Chizik said. “He’s got a new offensive line coach with him, but they’ve been together before in the SEC. So there’s a little bit of catch-me-if-you-can, a little bit of guesswork there... For us, we do have a little bit of an idea.”
The status of the two-headed monster of Chubb and Michel is uncertain going into the Sept. 3 meeting. Chubb tore several ligaments in his left knee in a game last October, and then Michel broke his left forearm in an ATV accident in early July. Chubb is reportedly close to being 100 percent, but Smart stated this week that Michel is still waiting to be cleared.
Whichever player lines up in Georgia’s backfield is irrelevant to the Tar Heel defense.
“You’ve always got to have the same mentality no matter what, you can’t let it change you,” sophomore linebacker Cole Holcomb said. “No matter what you’ve just got to hit somebody in the mouth.”
If Chubb truly is 100 percent and ready to go, Holcomb says he won’t be intimidated by the hype around the rusher.
“He’s a great running back, a great player, but he takes the same blows we do,” Holcomb said. “Elijah (Hood) is a great running back and we go against Eli everyday. You’ve just got to be tough and you can’t be afraid to hit him.”
After a historic 2015 season, this matchup with Georgia is the ultimate proving ground for UNC. The Tar Heels’ run defense was exposed various times last season, especially against Baylor, and showed that there was still plenty of work to be done. Containing the Bulldogs’ rushing attack will go a long way in gaining national respect for their offseason efforts.