Behind Enemy Lines: 5 Questions with a North Carolina beat writer

North Carolina quarterback Marquise Williams, right, breaks free from Georgia Tech linebacker Terrell Lewis as he runs the ball in the third quarter an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015, in Atlanta. North Carolina won 38-31. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – How healthy are the Tar Heels? Which North Carolina defenders can wreck Clemson’s gameplan? And how can UNC make Clemson continue filling in the “Yes, I would like to donate to charity” box like on the Whole Foods checkout screens?

For all that and more insight in this week’s Behind Enemy Lines, we could think of no better source than Andrew Carter of the Charlotte Observer/News & Observer, who covers all things Carolina. Spare a thought for Andrew through this challenging time of covering both a top-ten football team and top-ten basketball team, and make him feel better by following him on Twitter.

Aaron Brenner, The Post and Courier: There has been some discussion in Clemson over the nine straight Saturdays with a game, and how multiple defensive players are dealing with nagging injuries. How healthy is North Carolina at this point, and are the Tar Heels running on steam at all without enjoying a bye since early October?

Andrew Carter, The News & Observer: UNC is about as healthy as it can be given it has endured a similar stretch – seven consecutive weeks with games. There were some injury issues earlier this season on the defensive line, but the Tar Heels have mostly healed up there and have their expected personnel. Sam Smiley, a safety, suffered a leg injury last week in the victory at N.C. State, and his status is unclear for Saturday.

Overall, though, these guys are pretty healthy. If anything, it seems like UNC is picking up momentum rather than losing it. UNC played extremely well in victories against Duke and Miami, then won at Virginia Tech in Frank Beamer’s final home game, and then went ahead 35-7 in the first quarter at N.C. State last week. It seems UNC is still trending upward, and its health plays a big role in that.

Brenner: The numbers would indicate UNCs offense is equal opportunity, spreading the ball to numerous backs and receivers. When the chips are down, who specifically will quarterback Marquise Williams look to on third down or in the red zone?

Carter: In the red zone I think UNC learned a lot from one of its crucial mistakes in the season-opening loss against South Carolina. Which is to say that the coaching staff no longer forgets about Elijah Hood, the sophomore running back who is having a fantastic season. He’s the primary option in a lot of situations that’s the case, especially, the closer UNC moves to the goal line.

In the passing game Williams has a lot of options. Quinshad Davis is probably the most reliable out of any of them. He’s a senior who holds the school record for receptions. He’s not the flashiest receiver UNC has, or the best deep threat, or the fastest. But he’s probably the most sure-handed. Davis caught the game-winning touchdown in the overtime victory at Virginia Tech. That should tell you a lot about how much faith Williams and the coaching staff has that Davis will come up with the clutch play.

Brenner: What can Marquise Williams do better than anybody else in the ACC - including his counterpart Saturday?

Carter: This might be a cop-out of an answer, but I think Williams has to be among the most mentally tough players in the country. That’s a difficult thing to say without knowing the stories of a lot of other players nationally, but Williams has been through just about everything in his college career and he’s come out the other side better for it.

Williams has gone through three head coaches. Two completely different offensive schemes. Three offensive coordinators. A couple of position coaches. He was kicked out of school for a while a couple of years ago and then made his way back. He had to fight for his starting position before the 2014 season. He was benched earlier this year in the win against Delaware.

And don’t forget, too, about the miserable three-interception performance against South Carolina to start the season. That likely would have wrecked a lot of players’ confidence. Somehow Williams seemed to grow stronger from it. So I’d say he can handle adversity better than anybody. If he makes mistakes, if he takes a big hit, if things go wrong – he’s tough enough to handle it and still produce. Williams just has this weird knack for staying really positive, all the time. That also rubs off on his teammates and it’s one of the reasons why UNC is on this kind of roll.

Brenner: Certainly, the Tar Heels have turned things around under new defensive boss Gene Chizik. Whos a game-wrecker or two Clemson needs to know about?

Carter: Nazair Jones is a promising sophomore defensive tackle who’s having a nice season. He’s UNC’s best interior defensive lineman. On the outside, Dajuan Drennon and Junior Gnonkonde aren’t as established, or good, as, say, a Shaq Lawson, but those two are capable of making some plays and disrupting things in the running and passing games. UNC has some capable senior linebackers in Jeff Schoettmer and Shakeel Rashad. Not the most naturally-gifted athletes – Schoettmer arrived as a walk-on – but both are just hard-nosed, gritty guys who play with a lot of heart.

The strength of this defense is in the secondary, though. UNC has two good cornerbacks in Des Lawrence and M.J. Stewart. To me, how they fare on Saturday will be the most interesting part of the game. They’ve played really well against not-great passing offenses this season. It’ll be interesting to see how they handle, by far, the best passing game they will have faced.

Brenner: Has Clemsons propensity to turn the ball over (albeit against weaker teams) been discussed, and is that a highly-valued factor in the Tar Heels plan to win Saturday?

Carter: The importance of turnovers – forcing them and limiting them – is definitely an area of concern for UNC. The Tar Heels have committed three turnovers in each of their past two games, and that comes after a three-game stretch in which they didn’t commit a single turnover. Not surprisingly, those games without turnovers were some of UNC’s best of the season. The Tar Heels have had difficulty lately, especially, with fumbles, and that’s a trend that needs to stop for them to have a shot on Saturday.

Defensively, forcing turnovers will be a huge emphasis for UNC. It has forced at least three turnovers in five games this season, but only came up with one turnover last week at N.C. State. The Tar Heels are tied for 17th nationally in interceptions (15) but they haven’t faced a quarterback nearly as good as they’ll see on Saturday.