FSU's Dalvin Cook Yet Another Test for UNC's Run Defense

UNC ranks 118th nationally in rushing defense (240.3 ypg).

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Georgia’s Nick Chubb and Pittsburgh’s James Conner often prefer the shortest route from Point A to Point B. The next great running back on North Carolina’s early season gauntlet – Florida State’s Dalvin Cook - is more apt to run past opposing defenses than through them.

Cook is second in the ACC in rushing yards this season, thanks in large part to his career-high 267 rushing yards and two touchdowns against South Florida last weekend.

“I was watching the USF game, and I was like, ‘dang, he is moving, he’s gone,’” UNC middle linebacker Andre Smith said on Tuesday.

Defensive coordinator Gene Chizik had a satchel full of adjectives to describe Cook, although “amazing” may have been his most frequent.

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“He’s got really, really good vision,” Chizik said. “… He makes really good jump cuts and cuts on a dime. And then if he makes those cuts and you miss him, then he can hit his head on the goal post. He’s that fast. He’s done it pretty much to just about everybody.

“He’s powerful when he needs to be powerful, he’s very fast when he gets into the open field and he’s got great vision and makes very elusive, quick cuts.”

That could be problematic for a defense that ranks 118th nationally in rushing defense (240.3) and 105th in yards per carry allowed (5.0). UNC’s Power 5 opponents have averaged 250.7 rushing yards on 5.3 yards per carry along with eight rushing touchdowns through three games.

A week ago, UNC kept its defense centered between the tackles, not wanting to extend too far into the perimeter and thereby losing its ability to fit internal gaps. Pitt took advantage by attacking the edge with its jet sweep as wide receiver Quadree Henderson ran for 107 yards on nine carries.

The game plan will shift this week. Solo tackles in space against Cook are a losing proposition, so UNC will attempt to contain the edges and force Florida State’s ground game to operate in between the tackles, according to Smith.

“It’s just making sure we wrap up once we get there and running our feet on contact and not jumping off a diving board,” senior cornerback Des Lawrence said. “He’s a guy that has great feet, so he’s able to make you miss if you lunge at him or you keep your head ducked when trying to make a tackle.

"We’ve just got to get a lot of guys to the ball and know that the first guy is not responsible for the tackle. It’s everybody else’s job to get there and make sure the tackle is secure. We just have to get a lot of hats to the ball.”

UNC lacked physicality at times and lost too many 1-on-1 battles in giving up 36 points and 281 rushing yards to Pitt, according to Chizik. The Tar Heels eliminated those mistakes in the fourth quarter, forcing a trio of three-and-outs and holding the Panthers to 10 rushing yards on their final six carries.

It’s that type of production that offers hope for better days ahead.

“I expect us to play much better against the run on Saturday,” Chizik said.

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