Head-to-Head: UNC vs. JMU

What are the key battles to watch in Saturday's season opener against James Madison? Inside Carolina takes a closer look at the five head-to-head matchups that will determine the outcome ...

James Madison will roll into Kenan Stadium Saturday evening ranked No. 8 in the Sports Network's preseason Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) poll, following a 29-9 stretch over the last three seasons that included the 2004 national championship. Ninth-year head coach Mickey Matthews returns 12 starters, including six on each side of the ball, from the 2006 squad that finished 9-3.

Junior quarterback Rodney Landers takes the reins under center in 2007, a dynamic athlete that the coaching staff plans to utilize in their strong running game, along with returning 1,000-yard rusher senior Eugene Holloman. Senior L.C. Baker caught a team-high 46 passes for 631 yards and eight TD's, earning him All-Colonial Athletic Association honors as both a wide receiver and punt returner.

The Dukes' defense is led by senior free safety Tony LeZotte, who was chosen as the CAA Preseason Defensive Player of the Year. With an aggressive pressuring style of play, this unit strives to control the line of scrimmage by stopping the run and forcing ill-advised pass attempts from opposing quarterbacks.

Here are five head-to-head matchups that will determine the outcome of the season opener on Saturday night.

1. UNC's Youth vs. JMU's Experience

Plenty has been made about North Carolina's youth, with only 24 upperclassmen in the program and potentially 14 first-time starters taking the field on Saturday. That puts all the more pressure on the upperclassmen to lead the way.

"We're breaking in a brand new quarterback in T.J. Yates, a red-shirt freshman that didn't play at all last year, obviously, and several other really young players," UNC coach Butch Davis said. "Fortunately, there's some leadership on [our] defense. You've got Kentwan Balmer, you've got Hilee Taylor, some older senior guys [like] Kyndraus Guy, who is certainly going to play, Durell Mapp and Trimane Goddard.

"There's somebody in each one particular area that can keep reminding his position group guys [to] ‘Do your job,' ‘Be disciplined about it' and then certainly ‘Run and fly to the football after you've done your job.'"

James Madison, on the other hand, returns 44 lettermen from 2006, with veteran leaders such as Baker and Holloman at the skill positions, and throughout the defensive unit as well.

The Dukes have been battle-tested through the rigors of the playoff system, and hope that experience will help to maintain their focus in front of 60,000 fans.

The one position where James Madison lacks experience may be the most important of all – quarterback. Whichever defense can confuse the opposing QB the most will put its team in prime position for victory.

2. T.J. Yates vs. JMU's Pass Defense

Yates will be taking his first college snap this weekend, with an opportunity for a solid performance against a relatively weak James Madison pass defense.

The Dukes' allowed 195.6 yards per game through the air in 2006, good for 73rd nationally in the Championship Subdivision, while forcing only six interceptions (98th nationally).

JMU defensive coordinator George Barlow's attacking style should play into Yates' hands, as UNC's game plan will entail short to intermediate passes to playmakers such as WR's Hakeem Nicks, Brandon Tate and Brooks Foster. LeZotte (who has been hampered with a hamstring injury but insists he will play) will be a significant threat for any deep balls that Yates may attempt.

"They've got an All-American safety returning in LeZotte," Davis said. "This is a kid that makes an awful lot of plays. He's been a three-year starter for them, he's played an awful lot and that security of having a safety that's making all of the checks and all of the adjustments for your secondary and your underneath coverage certainly is evident when you watch their defense play."

3. UNC's Rush Defense vs. JMU's Ground Game

The 2006 statistics do not bode well for the Tar Heels in this matchup. James Madison took to the ground last season with intent and purpose, running up 218.3 yards per game, while North Carolina surrendered a whopping 172.8 rushing yards per game.

Holloman rushed for 1,085 yards and eight TD's in just 10 games last fall and has three returning starters on the offensive line in front of him. Those stats will only increase this season, with Matthews implementing a new offense to utilize Landers' foot speed.

"We think [Landers] is a great player," Matthews said. "He's a big strong guy that can run fast and make plays. I might go out on a limb and say that Rodney is the best athlete in the league – he'd be our best running back, he'd be our best defensive back and he'd be our best wide receiver."

Despite the glaring concern in this matchup, the Tar Heels are confident that with a new defensive scheme, as well as defensive line coach John Blake, those 2006 numbers will be reduced significantly in 2007. Seniors DT Kentwan Balmer and DE Hilee Taylor must control the line of scrimmage and force Landers to stay in the pocket.

"They've certainly got a belief system in some of the things that they do," Davis said of JMU. "They will probably emphasize the run, considerably more so than in the past couple of years.

"Your defense certainly builds an identity by its ability to stop the run. These people are going to give us a huge challenge, because of the nature of this offense. They are not a true two-back offense – line up in the I-formation and run four or five traditional offensive plays. Every single guy that they've got at the skill positions potentially has the ability to carry the ball."

4. UNC's Ground Game vs. JMU's Rush Defense

Richie Rich will start for North Carolina at running back this weekend, and that unit's lack of experience has been well-documented this preseason.

James Madison offers a severe test to the Tar Heel ground attack, only allowing 84.8 rushing yards per game last season behind stud DT John Baranowsky.

"They're very aggressive defensively, they put a tremendous amount of pressure on you offensively because of the scheme that they run," Davis said.

The Dukes held four straight opponents to a collective 117 yards on the ground during the latter part of 2006.

"Overall, I feel good about our team on defense," Matthews said. "We consistently are in the top 10 in the nation, ranked defensively, and I think that we'll be there this year."

Davis praised his offensive line during training camp, and those front five will be called upon to open holes for the young, inexperienced running backs that North Carolina will put in the backfield. Rich and Co. must produce to keep the Dukes' defensive pressure off Yates and the passing game.

5. Brandon Tate vs. JMU's Kickoff Coverage

If North Carolina wins the coin toss, it's a sure bet that Davis will opt to receive the opening kickoff.

New NCAA rules will push the kickoff back to the 30-yard line, meaning that Tate will have an opportunity to return every kick this season. That's bad news for James Madison.

"I think I'm a threat to the other team if they kick it to me," Tate said. "I'm going to try to get good field position or try to score."

Tate averaged 23.7 yards per return last fall, including two touchdowns. Matthews' Dukes allowed 21.0 yards per return, good for 87th nationally.

If Tate and his return unit break a big run on the opening kickoff, Kenan Stadium will be rocking early on Saturday night.

"For people that like special teams ... there's the possibility for some huge, big plays in the kicking game," Davis said.

(JMU photos courtesy Cathy Kushner)

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