APTOPIX Virginia Tech North Carolina Football

North Carolina’s Antonio Williams (24) jumps over a Virginia Tech defender during last October’s meeting.

A very different North Carolina team will walk into Lane Stadium on Oct. 19 than the one that had its heartbroken by Virginia Tech in 2018.

The Tar Heels continued on a downward spiral ending the season at 2-9. The second straight disappointing finish led to a major shakeup with the school dismissing Larry Fedora, who went 5-18 after earning a contract extension before the 2017 season.

Last year vs. Virginia Tech: Virginia Tech W 22-19

What happen? Virginia Tech erased a 16-7 second-half deficit at Kenan Stadium. Quarterback Ryan Willis put the Hokies over the top with a 18-play, 98-yard game-winning drive in the final minutes.

Willis completed passes of 29 yards to Damon Hazelton and 19 yards to Steven Peoples. The quarterback ran for a first down on a fourth-and-nine to extend the drive and the offense also converted four third down attempts. Willis threw a 1-yard touchdown pass to Dalton Keene with 19 seconds left to seal the victory. It was quite a turnaround for Willis who went into halftime with 34 passing yards.

Position(s) of strength: North Carolina is set at running back with both Michael Carter and Antonio Williams coming back. Carter torched Virginia Tech last season with 165 rushing yards.

The duo combined for 1,101 yards in 2018 (6.3 yards per carry) and seven touchdowns. Both running backs can also catch the ball out of the backfield as well, an important skill in North Carolina’s new air raid offense.

North Carolina also doesn’t have much to worry about at wide receiver. While last year’s leading receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams left early for the NFL draft, Virginia native Dazz Newsome will anchor a talented young core of receivers. Newsome had 44 catches for 506 yards with two touchdowns in 2018. Newsome is also one of the top returning punt returners in the ACC.

Ch...ch...changes: The Tar Heels turned to an unlikely face from the past to turn things around in Mack Brown. Brown, who stepped down at Texas five years ago, worked quickly to revamp the coaching staff and roster.

One of the biggest changes is on offense with Brown bringing in Phil Longo as the team’s new offensive coordinator (and quarterbacks coach). Longo spent the spring installing an up tempo air raid offense in hopes of jump starting an offense that was 78th in scoring (27.9 points per game) and 107th in total plays (817).

Lingering questions: North Carolina had five quarterbacks take snaps last season. The Tar Heels are looking for some more stability at the position in 2019.

Cade Fortin, Jace Ruder and early enrollee Sam Howell are competing for the job. Fortin played in three games last season—including the one against Virginia Tech—throwing for 388 yards (50 percent) with one touchdown and one interception. Howell flipped his commitment from Florida State to North Carolina after Brown landed the job. The four-star quarterback was the No. 93 ranked player in the 2019 class.

There’s a chance North Carolina will have cycled through a quarterback or two by the time Virginia Tech rolls around in October.

One major concern for Brown beyond the quarterback position is establishing depth across the roster. The Tar Heels have plenty of standout athletes, but injuries took a major toll on the team last year and Brown wants to avoid that happening again.

”Depth helps team morale,” Brown said, this spring. “We’ve had a lot of injuries the last couple of years. Depth helps eliminate more injuries than not because you’re not tired on the field. And with these tempo offenses, especially on defense, people get tired, and we lost a lot of games late.

”So, we need depth, we need morale, we need confidence. And all of those things are what we’re looking for in the spring.”

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Mike Niziolek is the Virginia Tech football beat writer for The Roanoke Times. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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