Photo by Turner Walston
Linebacker Jonathan Smith was taught one principle while growing up that has guided how he plays defense: "See ball, hit ball." It's the instinct that helps him hone in for a tackle to stop the ball-carrier. But this weekend against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and their flexbone triple-option offense, that philosophy may not always work.
"If I see that the man doesn't have a ball, I think he doesn't have the ball, my instincts tell me 'go find the ball,'" Smith said. "But this week, you've got to just do your job, hit the man that you're supposed to, and that's it."
The flexbone, an offensive set with a quarterback, fullback, and a slot back on either side of backfield, is built to run the triple-option to precision. The quarterback reads the defense and makes one of three decisions on a given play: give the ball to the fullback for a dive up the middle, run it himself off tackle, or pitch it to the slot back on the outside.
"It just puts everything that we've learned about other offenses out the window," senior corner M.J. Stewart said. "It's a totally different monster, totally different animal."
It requires constant diligence and discipline from a team to defend, with everyone sticking to their responsibility and assignment.
"There's such a big emphasis of 11 guys on every play doing their job," defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. "That's always the case, but at times against other offenses you can get away with somebody who may not do what they're supposed to do exactly.
"In this game, everyone's got to be on point all the time."
The Yellow Jackets lead all of FBS football with 393.7 yards per game on the ground, which can cause players in the secondary to have their eyes drift to the backfield hoping to make a big play.
Georgia Tech doesn't air it out much, but they tend to be efficient when they do. Junior TaQuon Marshall has only thrown 14 completions on 23 attempts for 280 yards this season, but has three touchdowns and 206.2 passer rating to show for it.
"As a corner, every play you've got to expect pass," Stewart said. "You have to be disciplined and react to the run."
Stewart knows first hand what can happen if that discipline slips, giving up a touchdown early in the 2016 contest with Georgia Tech that Stewart still remembers.
"Post wheel in the boundary," Stewart said, referring to the play where the A back runs a wheel route down the sideline out of the backfield. "Every year my eyes have been bad on that play. And they beat me for a touchdown one year."
Coach Larry Fedora said while the scout team running the offense in practice means all of the guys on defense have seen the plays before, it doesn't really compare to what Georgia Tech will put out on the field on Saturday.
"They may know the schemes, but they won't be prepared for the speed of it," Fedora said. "Because they're going to run it a very high tempo. It usually takes a couple of series for the guys to figure that out and really understand the speed of it."
UNC is looking for their fourth straight win against the Yellow Jackets, including shootout victories in back-to-back years in 2014 and 2015. The veterans on the Tar Heel defense know how to beat the scheme, and even if some can't play, like linebacker Andre Smith, the younger players are more than willing to listen.
"'See your key,'" Andre Smith said, as relayed by Jonathan Smith. "'Once you see your keys, the game will pretty much just slow down for you.'"