The big plays and gaudy numbers North Carolina’s offense has put up in five games excites fans and scares defensive coordinators. It’s also been the bells and whistles that have hidden the most inconsistent part, which coach Mack Brown is intent on improving.
The run game.
The flashes have been there like running back Caleb Hood bursting up the middle for a 71-yard score against Appalachian State. Or freshman Omarion Hampton, who’s had two 100-yard games, putting the Tar Heels up for good at Georgia State with a 58-yard score.
“When we run the football, whether we run it 50 times or 10 it just it needs to be efficient,” UNC offensive coordinator Phil Longo said. “And that’s probably my biggest disappointment right now is that we’re not more efficient.”
It hasn’t hurt the Heels in terms of losing a game at the point, but the threat remains if they don’t improve. Brown said they are not at a point where they could run the ball to protect a lead and run down the clock late in the game.
“We’re not running the ball well enough on first downs, and we’re not running the ball well enough when everybody knows we’re going to run it,” Brown said. “We would have trouble right now with the four-minute offense. We’d have to throw it some because we’re just not doing a good job.”
Carolina (4-1, 1-0 ACC) ranks fifth in rushing offense in the ACC averaging 187 yards per game. The Heels are about to face the No. 2 run defense in the league on Saturday. Miami (2-2, 0-0) is allowing 87 rushing yards per game.
First down rushes in particular have been problematic, but even that has been disguised because of UNC’s ability to break big runs. Take last week’s win over Virginia Tech. Carolina ran 19 times on first down for 96 yards, an average of 5.1 yards per play.
That’s pretty good right?
Well. On 14 of those attempts, the Heels gained two yards or less including four runs where they were dropped for a loss. Five of their first down runs accounted for 79 yards.
“We spurted a couple of long runs with both Caleb and Omari on on Saturday, but it’s not consistent,” Brown said. “We’re still having the one-yard run and the minus-two yard and you just can’t have that. We’ve been fighting it and we’ve got to continue to look at it and it’s just an area where we’ve got to get better.”
Just like the defensive issues the Heels have this season, there isn’t a quick fix by adjusting one aspect of the run game. Longo said in their loss to Notre Dame, it was more on the running backs missing opportunities. Against the Hokies, it was the offensive line not being able to create openings.
Now part of that, Longo said, was the fact that Virginia Tech’s game plan appeared to be stopping the run because they had seven or eight players committed to it.
It hasn’t become a big factor because quarterback Drake Maye and Carolina’s passing game has been so prolific. And Maye, who is second on the team in rushes and yards, has been effective whether scrambling or taking off in designed run plays.
“Drake and the receivers, they definitely have covered up a lot of run game stuff,” Hood said. “At the same time, once we figure it out, I feel like we will be a lot better just helping the passing game as well with play action and stuff like that.”
Brown cautioned he didn’t want to get too used to calling run plays for Maye.
Carolina is still working to get an even blend where the run game can play off the passing game. Too often against the Hokies, it couldn’t get the tough yards like before its first touchdown. UNC had first and goal from the VT6 and managed only three yards on three straight runs. Brown had to go for it on fourth down in order to score.
The Hurricanes are deep on the defensive line. UNC left guard Ed Montilus said the offensive line improving run blocking starts by addressing the small details.
“Just fixing the things that don’t require talent,” Montilus said. “Say you need to get your hat on the play side instead of like being backside of the block and stuff like that.”
Brown reiterated again this week that he’d like to see one of his running backs emerge as the full-time starter. So far UNC started D.J. Jones in the first game, Hampton in games 2, 3 and 4, and Hood last week against the Hokies. Brown hinted that Hood may again get the starting nod against the Canes.
The running back group lost its most experienced player when British Brooks tore an anterior cruciate ligament in preseason camp. Jones has taken up that leadership mantle, especially with his pass protection abilities. But the Heels are still looking for one of its backs to run like a veteran.
Hood said he felt like the running backs were “trying to do too much.”
“We’ve all been just seeing too much and trying not to mess up because we’re all young,” Hood said. “... If we just kind of stay within the confines, do what the play gives us then whenever we get in open space, just use our athletic ability, I feel like it’d be a lot better.”