by Lee Pace, GoHeels.com
CHAPEL HILL - The text messages flow on a regular basis from one tight end to another, from a Greenville guy to a Greensboro guy, from a serious and studious Tar Heel of the 1990s to a kinetic man-child with a smile so bright and powerful it could light Manhattan.
BE GREAT are the words that Alge Crumpler thumbs out from his Atlanta home to the cell phone of Eric Ebron, the Tar Heels' junior tight end who was at the epicenter of Carolina's offensive game plan Saturday against Georgia Tech at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
"I want him to know that today's a new day and I hope he'll do something today to be great," says Crumpler, now retired from the NFL and co-hosting a daily radio sports talk show on 790 The Zone in Atlanta. "My message to him is, 'Don't let anyone outwork you. Be great.'"
Crumpler, a native of Greenville who played tight end at Carolina from 1996-2000, has met Ebron while visiting Chapel Hill during spring practice, the younger man impressed with Crumpler's resume of 373 catches and 39 touchdowns over a decade in the NFL and the older one knocked asunder with the young colt's potential.
"He's bigger than me, stronger than me, faster than me," the 6-foot-3 Crumpler says with a smile. "I really enjoy watching him play. He hasn't reached his upside yet, which is why so many NFL scouts are so high on him."
On Saturday amidst a squall that had Noah launching another ark, Ebron caught five passes downfield, took a shovel pitch on an end-around for 13 yards and soared for a one-handed touchdown gem that was serenaded long into the night on television and internet highlight reels with the words "sick" and "amazing."
"Eric's got great hands and his focus was really impressive," said Crumpler, who watched much of the game from the Tar Heel bench. "To pull that ball in under the circumstances was something to remember. And he had what would have been a second Top-10 catch later in the game if he'd not been bumped."
Ebron and the Tar Heel offense popped Georgia Tech in the jaw from the opening whistle, scoring on three of their first four possessions. And the defense, derided for 10 months since coughing up 588 yards and 68 points to the Yellow Jackets last November, was a year older and wiser, better manned in several positions and equipped with a simple game plan that defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said could fit on one index card.
"We just have to be electric as all get-out," Koenning said. "We have to get off to a good start and get some confidence. We have to play lightning fast, as hard as we can play. If you get cut, you roll, get up, scramble to the ball, scratch and claw, go on to the next play and play it 900 miles an hour."
The result was a 20-7 Tar Heel lead midway through the second quarter. Tar Heel coach Larry Fedora and his team could hardly have scripted the early goings any better, save for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Norkeithus Otis and a botched pass by Tommy Hibbard on a two-point conversion.
"We took it to them from the opening kick-off," QB Bryn Renner said. "Eric carried us in the first half and was catching balls left and right. Our defense played their tails off, they gave us every chance to win."
"We had a whole different game plan [from 2012], it was much more basic," cornerback Tim Scott added. "There weren't too many complex calls, just run full speed to the ball. We played with great energy and were running to the ball really well in the first half."
Then Tech and its precision spread option offense began to do what it does best: churn out yards with maddening regularity. Foul weather helps in that regard, too, as it's easier to hand the ball or make a short pitch than it is to throw it 20 yards downfield in a steady downpour. The Yellow Jackets were ripping off 12 and 17 and 23 yards at a clip in Kenan Stadium a year ago. In the second half Saturday, they were popping off four and six and eight when they needed them--not a lot, just enough. The first downs and points added up. Tech scrapped its way back to even, kept the Tar Heel offense on the bench and rode the crescendo of a boisterous home-field crowd to an avalanche of fourth-quarter momentum.
The result was a 28-20 Tech victory, its eighth straight in Atlanta since 1999 and its 14th over a 16-year period.
"We had plenty of opportunities to win the football game and we didn't get it done," Fedora said. "They made more plays than we did, they got a few more calls than we did. We didn't capitalize when we needed to. We had some momentum going early in the game and throughout first half but couldn't put them away."
Tech dominated time of possession, 41 minutes to 19 minutes, continuing the theme that has prevailed since Johnson's tenure at Tech began in 2008. Carolina won 28-7 in Kenan Stadium in 2008 with the Yellow Jackets holding a scant 32-28 time of possession advantage, but check out the figures since then:
2009: 42-18 Tech time of possession advantage in a 17-point win;
2010: 35-25, Tech wins by six;
2011: 36-24, Tech wins by seven;
2012: 37-23, Tech wins by 18.
"They did a nice job moving the chains," Fedora said. "That's what they're best at--three yards, four yards, moving the chains. You have to give them credit. I thought our defense played extremely hard throughout the game, but late in the game we started missing some tackles. That hurt us."
Much has been spoken and written around the ACC in general and around Tar Heel football in particular since Johnson's arrival in Atlanta about the nuances of playing the Tech option, of warding off cut-blocks, of the supposed advantage of having an open week before facing the Yellow Jackets. But Johnson and Koenning made remarks last week that slice through the eye-candy of schemes and Xs-and-Os and get to the heart of having a winning program--that you have a system and a set of core beliefs and you recruit your tail off through a full roster of signing cycles to put your ideology in place.
Johnson has clearly done that, taking Tech to two ACC Championship Game berths, one Orange Bowl and winning two ACC Coach of the Year awards. The Tar Heels, with four head coaches in 16 years and a record of 86-97 over that period that is the personification of average, have not.
"Cutting is designed to make you not want to play," Koenning said. "Florida State in the ACC Championship last year, their guys got cut a little but they played square, played at pad level and played fast. Good players tend to not get cut as much. It's as simple as that."
And Johnson dismissed the idea of getting extra preparation time, nothing that Carolina has had the week off before the Tech game four of the six years he's been head coach.
"I've found that the teams that are the better teams play you tough no matter when it is," he said. "When they're really good, that bye week tends to help. When they're not as good, the bye week doesn't tend to help."
That Carolina has been trying for a decade and a half to return to its days of being consistently good is not lost on anyone. Last year the problem was on the defense, which had only four seniors left from the class of 12 players recruited as defensive players in 2009. This year the offense is traversing a valley, having lost two great players (Gio Bernard and Jonathan Cooper) and two good ones (Travis Bond and Brennan Williams). Carolina's running game has suffered, with the Tar Heels averaging only 111 yards on the ground through three games, and Tech senior defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu gave the Tar Heel blocking front fits on Saturday, drawing two holding calls, one of which negated an 82-yard touchdown pass from Renner to Ryan Switzer.
"We'd be a lot better with 26 running the ball and 64 pulling for him," offensive coordinator Blake Anderson said, referring to Bernard and Cooper, now with Cincinnati and Arizona, respectively, in the NFL. "I'm a lot better coach when I have those guys. I think we lost a really, really good running back and it became even more evident watching the Bengals on TV the other night how good he really is. We lost a great offensive guard and two really good ones. When you have to break in four new guys in the mix, there are going to be some serious growing pains."
Meanwhile, the Tar Heels will continue to play their system. They will be aggressive (as in taking a shot at a surprise two-point conversion). They will not tolerate selfishness (witness Otis being chastised from multiple sources on the sideline after his penalty and TE/LB Jack Tabb being suspended for two games for violating team rules). They will not complain about the weather--"We take pride in doing what we do, despite the conditions," Fedora said. They will set high goals; if Fedora tells Ebron he's good enough to snare 12 touchdown passes this season, Ebron responds that the number should be 15. That's what being great is all about.
And they will move on to the next one.
"Make sure you understand: Today was disappointing, not discouraging," Fedora said.
Chapel Hill writer Lee Pace (email@example.com) is now in his 24th year writing "Extra Points" and 10th reporting from the sidelines for the Tar Heel Sports Network. His unique look at Tar Heel football will appear weekly throughout the fall.