CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – After an inconsistent start to the season, North Carolina’s offensive line has turned its attention to Illinois and its experienced defensive line.
“We thought the strength of their team last year was their defensive front, and they’re all back,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora said this week.
Lovie Smith’s first team in Champaign has plenty of holes across the roster, but the strength of the defense is upfront. Senior defensive end Dawuane Smoot ranked seventh in the Big Ten last year in sacks (8) and fifth in tackles for loss (15), while senior defensive tackles Rob Bain and Jarrod “Chunky” Clements have combined for 31 career starts.
The Illini were solid against the run in 2015, ranking 62nd nationally in rushing yards per game (166.4 ypg) and holding seven of their opponents below 3.8 yards per carry. Former UNC quarterback Marquise Williams and current running back Elijah Hood exploited Illinois’s defense, however, in churning out 254 rushing yards on a 6.9 yards-per-carry.
Even so, their personnel made an impression on the UNC coaching staff.
“They’re very good upfront,” offensive coordinator/OL coach Chris Kapilovic said after Wednesday’s practice. “I’m thinking back and they’re as good as most anybody we’ve played. There’s been a few teams we’ve played that have been off the charts, but they play really hard, for one. All four of them play really hard.”
Smith’s NFL past is thick in Tampa-2 schematics – he was on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers staff that Gene Chizik frequently visited during his time at Central Florida in the late-90s – although his defense was vanilla in its season-opening 52-3 win over FCS opponent Murray State.
Illinois held Murray State to (-10) rushing yards and tallied six sacks and 11 tackles for loss.
“Personnel-wise, we know a little bit about some of these guys, but we really don’t know, scheme-wise, what they’re going to do,” Fedora said. “We’ve studied a lot of the NFL film. How much of that Lovie will have in his game plan, I don’t know.”
With the guessing game in play for a second week in a row, Kapilovic is more concerned with improving his offensive line’s play after breakdowns against the Bulldogs.
“Caleb [Peterson] and Lucas [Crowley] played really well,” Kapilovic said. “Tommy [Hatton], for his first start, I thought did a good job. The tackles were up and down, so that was the one place that I thought – there were times when they did some really good things and then there were other times they didn’t play at their best. At times the pocket got a little bit squeezed, and that’s something where they’ve got to create the width.”
Better consistency will be a necessity against the Illini front, which Kapilovic praised collectively for a tenacious approach with little variance in effort level.