The truth of the matter is this: Carolina doesn't have a 6'6, 260-pound scout team quarterback. It's a problem you run into when preparing to play Virginia Tech and dynamic junior Logan Thomas. There is one 6'6, 260-pound Tar Heel on the roster, but Kareem Martin is a defensive end. So the Tar Heels had to rely on film study and the experience of having played against Thomas a year ago in Blacksburg. As they always do, the scout team presented looks and schemes based on Hokies film, but there's nothing to simulate the physical presence of Thomas.
"I don't know how you can unless we put (tight end Eric) Ebron back there, because he's that big," said Tar Heel quarterback Bryn Renner, a friend of Thomas's. "You add the rocket arm that he has to Beron, and that would probably be what it's like as far as fast, and able to break tackles and stuff."
"You don't (simulate it). You just put a quarterback back there and hope that you're ready for it on Saturday," Martin said. "You just have to know what to expect when you go out there on Saturday. He's a bigger guy that you have to wrap up, because he breaks tackles real easily."
A 2011 second-team All-ACC selection, Thomas hurt the Tar Heels with his arm and legs a year ago on that Thursday night in Blacksburg, bookending a 23-yard touchdown run with a pair of scoring passes in a 24-21 Hokies win. "I think the big thing this year is to try to keep him contained," Martin said. "If we can get him down and keep him contained, then we'll be pretty successful."
Virginia Tech comes in to Chapel Hill at 3-2 on the season. The two teams that have beaten the Hokies, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, have made Thomas uncomfortable passing the ball. In those two losses, Thomas is 31-61 with five interceptions and just two passing touchdowns. To have success Saturday, Carolina will have to have good coverage in the secondary and force bad throws. "I know we're going to have to cover very well, so we can get a couple of coverage sacks," safety Darien Rankin said. The combination of pressure up front and good work in the defensive backfield has resulted in eight sacks and four interceptions in the last two games for the Tar Heels.
Martin thinks that the 4-2-5 defensive scheme installed in 2012 can help Carolina neutralize Thomas. "We're going to be doing a lot more movement, so I think it's going to take their line a little bit of time to adjust to us," he said. It's a chess game that take place prior to the snap. "We're talking, we're reading and their shifting everybody into place, so there are going to be a lot of audibles probably right before the play."
Just as Carolina has watched film on the Hokies, Virginia Tech no doubt has studied the Tar Heels' tendencies. So on Saturday, each team will try to prod the other to show something that they have recognized on film. "We like to show something. We migh tbe bluffing sometimes, or we might not," Rankin said. "We would like to show it the same way every time, so they won't know what we're in."
Linebacker Tommy Heffernan said they key to success on Saturday will be playing 'assignment football.' It sounds simple: just do your job and trust your teammates to do theirs. But it can be tempting to make a jump or try to make play. Sometimes, that works out. Other times, however, a vulnerability gets exposed. Not everyone can rush the quarterback every time. "There are certain assignments where certain people have to be back," Heffernan said. "The play is that way, but you have to make sure you're in the gap, because that cut back is coming. You don't know if he's handing it off, or what, so just knowing what to do is the most important thing."
Carolina has played five games against five different quarterbacks, from the small but super-athletic Teddy Bridgewater of Louisville, to the pocket passer Tanner Price of Wake Forest, to the 6'5 Dominique Blackman of Idaho. But they haven't seen a quarterback with the combination of size, skill and complementary pieces that Virginia Tech has in Thomas. On Saturday, they'll find out if that preparation has paid off.Turner Walston is the managing editor of Tar Heel Monthly.
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