North Carolina is a program that is routinely loaded with next-level talent and this year’s Tar Heels squad is no different. The Tar Heels rank No. 30 in the nation for recruiting over the last five years, significantly higher than the No. 72 ranking of our Illinois Fighting Illini. Make no mistake, this is a very talented opponent. Though dynamic quarterback Marquise Williams graduated, there are still several extremely dangerous players left to keep an eye on during Saturday night’s game.
Here are the biggest threats to be aware of:
Elijah Hood (RB)
Quite simply, Illinois’ ability or lack thereof to stop Elijah Hood could very well be the determining factor in Saturday’s game. The former five-star recruit is coming off an impressive sophomore season in which he rushed for 1,463 yards and 17 touchdowns (6.7 YPC). Take a look at this excerpt from SB Nation’s preview of the 2016 Tar Heels.
Of the 53 players who rushed at least 200 times in 2015, only two combined an opportunity rate of at least 46 percent with an explosiveness average of at least 6 highlight yards per opportunity: Hood and Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott. That's awfully good company to keep.
Hood had a pretty nice game against No. 18 Georgia in the opener (100 total yards), though for some reason he was limited to just 10 attempts on the ground. You’d figure a future NFL tailback should’ve been a bigger part of the game plan, but the Tar Heels instead opted to throw the ball 40 times in a losing effort.
The Fighting Illini enter Week 2 with the nation’s No. 1 rush defense after limiting (?) Murray State to -10 yards. Hood will provide the defensive line with their first test of the year, and that’ll ideally give us an idea of what to expect from the unit come Big Ten play.
Ryan Switzer (WR)
Illinois may have had one of the top defenses in the country a year ago, but that didn’t stop Ryan Switzer from having a big day. Although a significant chuck of his contribution came via special teams (5 returns for 168 yards), the elusive 5-foot-10 wideout still managed to beat the Illini secondary multiple times, hauling in 3 receptions for 50 yards and a touchdown.
This season, Switzer returns as North Carolina’s No. 1 option in the passing game; he’s so far been targeted on a team-high 27% of attempts. Look for Mitch Trubisky and the Tar Heels to utilize slants and screen passes in order to get Switzer some early touches in space. The Orange and Blue return only one starter from their 2015 defensive backfield, and when combined with a new scheme, there could be some big play opportunities for Larry Fedora’s offense.
Nazair Jones (DT)
North Carolina really struggled against Georgia’s running game, to put it mildly. Star junior Nick Chubb exploded for 222 yards and 2 touchdowns on 32 carries, and four other players combined for an additional 100 yards. As a result, the Tar Heels currently rank No. 105 in terms of opposing success rate (50.0%).
Still, defensive tackle Naz Jones will be a player to watch up front. As a sophomore in 2015, Jones recorded 29.5 tackles and 1 interception as a sophomore, and he’s since been hailed as one of the team’s defensive leaders. Look for him to lead the charge against a relatively weak and untested Illinois offensive line.
Des Lawrence (DB)
Led by senior Des Lawrence, the Tar Heels return three starting defensive backs from their 2015 squad. But strangely enough, that experience hasn’t exactly translated into success just yet because Georgia converted on 42.9% of passing downs (national average is 30.5%). Lawrence was one of a few bright spots, though, as he tallied 4 tackles and 1.0 sack during the game.
Wes Lunt will need to pick his spots wisely against this North Carolina unit. Lawrence and fellow cornerback M.J. Stewart combined for 6 interceptions and 28 pass breakups last season, so there won’t be a shortage of playmaking ability on the field.