With several injuries to the Tar Heels’ defensive line, UNC’s linebackers were tasked with playing a larger role in stopping the Dukes’ rushing attack. The unit, which includes starters Cayson Collins, Cole Holcomb and Andre Smith, got exposed early, allowing James Madison to score 21 points and rush for 95 yards in the first quarter.
Those three touchdowns were thanks to running back Cardon Johnson, who scored on a 68-yard swing pass on blown coverage, and running back Khalid Abdullah, who rushed for 62 yards in the first quarter and found success breaking tackles and beating the Tar Heel linebackers in space.
“What was disappointing was their lack of physicality,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora said at his press conference on Monday.
The trio of linebackers, who are all consistent starters for the first time in their careers, had shown strong improvements over the first two games of the season. That’s why this setback was so frustrating, according to Fedora.
“I don’t think they played anywhere close to where they played the last couple of weeks,” he said. “It was disappointing.”
Even with the performance of Collins, who was named ACC Linebacker of the Week for his 10 tackles during the game, Fedora refuses to find a silver lining in the group’s performance on Saturday.
“I wouldn’t say there is one guy,” he said. “As a collective group they just didn’t play up to our standards so it’s hard to point out one guy and said he played well because I don’t believe that.”
Is it just seniors on the team that you would consider leaders?
“Leadership doesn’t just come from seniors, it can come from anybody. Anybody that has influence on your team, and that can be a freshman, sophomore, junior, or senior, it doesn’t matter. If you’ve got influence, you’ve got the possibility to lead. Then you can either lead positively or negatively.”
When it comes to film, how beneficial is it that they are coming off a game against a team (Oklahoma State) who does a lot of similar things to you?
“Yeah it helps. It always helps any time your guys can see it and not be like ‘okay, think about it this way, or if it's like this.’ It’s much easier for them to learn.”
How prepared do you think your guys are for this upcoming four-game stretch?
“You know I haven’t thought about a four-game stretch. I’m just hoping for have enough to come together for this game against Pitt. It’s the only game that really matters to us. The key for us throughout the entire season is to stay as healthy as you can, take care of your bodies, do all the things you have to do because when your body breaks down and you're on the sideline you can’t help your team.”
How important was it to get a few big offensive plays against James Madison?
“Very important. One for just getting your confidence back. It was good for Mitch (Trubisky), it was good for those receivers, and for everybody. Just the timing of it. I’m really looking at the distance that he’s throwing the ball versus press coverage, versus soft coverage, all of those different things. If you looked at it, there wasn’t anybody breaking stride on those passes so he was on the money.”
Even though Mitch had a good game, it seems like he thought he left something out there. Did you see that?
“Oh yeah, there was quite a bit left out there. He could have been a lot better actually. The decision-making process on where the ball goes sometimes, even though it might be a completion, that might not be where the ball should have gone. There were times when we ran the ball when we should have been throwing it, and again those are his decisions.... That means he’s still got to be sharp.”
Was there anything in the second half that was encouraging defensively?
“Yeah there was a lot of things that were encouraging. I want you to know that when we go into a meeting on Sunday we point out the good and the bad. We tell them it’s the only place they’re getting the truth in their life. They’re not getting it at home, they’re not getting it from their girlfriend, they’re not getting it from anybody else. The eye in the sky doesn’t lie. It’s telling you exactly what’s going on. But we point out the positive things that are going on in the game and we point out the negative things that are going on in the game. Individually how good do you really want to be? Do you want to be good, do you want to be great? If you want to be great you want to be coached hard. You want to improve in everything you do.”
Has R.J. Prince exceeded your expectations so far?
“No, he hasn’t exceeded my expectations but he’s playing well and played well enough to win two games. If he continues to do that and continues to grow that line will jell even more and I think we’ll be fine.”