Triangle teams kick off 2018 with tough tasks ahead

September 3, 2018

Head coach Larry Fedora of the North Carolina Tar Heels. Preseason practice Thursday August 9, as the Heels gear up for a challenging 2018 schedule. (Chris Baird/WRAL Contributor).

The first weekend of college football technically began Thursday night for ACC teams in North Carolina, when Wake Forest edged Tulane 23-17, but in the Triangle home games get going Friday.

Duke, NC State and UNC each open the 2018 season without easing into anything: the Blue Devils and Tar Heels each face a team they lost to last season while the Wolfpack hosts a foe coming into the season off a narrow loss in last season’s FCS National Championship.

Duke gets its fare share of reps versus teams that play some form of the triple-option offense, with Georgia Tech holding its spot in the ACC Coastal Division scheduling lock and through regular meetings with Army. This season, the team opens versus exactly that.

It’s usually the defense -- needing to mind its assignments, read plays as they happen rather than trying to guess and keying with heightened discipline to avoid being exploited -- that is the focus in leading up to playing any triple-option. Head coach David Cutcliffe remembers that the team had a mere eight possessions as the Black Knights chewed up the game clock, and that on three of those Blue Devils’ quarterback Daniel Jones was sacked in last Veteran’s Day’s loss at Army.

So, Duke spent eight of its 17 preseason camp practices actually working against Army schemes, both on defense and offense, putting an emphasis on Jones learning the looks of what he’ll see and on the defense hoping to deny any massive plays.

“With Army, a lot of their pressures are not a one-on-one battle, more so, they’re going to bring different pressures, give you different looks to try to confuse you or get you to go the other way,” Jones said. “That’s a lot on my shoulders to make sure we’re in the right protection.”

The Blue Devils’ coaching staff continued to mix in Duke plays with Army ones through practice to help offset rhythm, too much comfort or anticipation and try to mimic game play-call uncertainty. That uncertainty is one thing that is heightened for the defense in this season opener in a rare way.

“We’re a much better defense,” Giles-Harris said. “That’s the biggest key for us, it’s honing in on what you have to do to limit big plays -- doing your one-eleventh.

“You just have to focus, focus and (have) discipline.”

The Blue Devils kick off at 7 p.m. in Wallace Wade Stadium.

NC State’s repeated goal following a historic 2017 season is to build off of what the team did last year -- that includes holding a spot in national rankings, winning another bowl game and (more noteably) an explicit goal of winning the ACC. Game one versus James Madison University won’t help toward the Pack’s conference title goals, but it should be a bit of a better barometer of how the team has replaced key exits in the offseason than other recent season openers were for NCSU.

The Dukes, however, are replacing key components of their 2016 FCS National Championship team and last season’s national runner-up team including players of their own on the defensive line and a quarterback.

The Pack has just two rookies listed as a starter (redshirt freshmen Isaiah Moore, MLB, and Damien Darden, TE) and two sophomores who will start on the right side of the offensive line.

While many eyes were on filling in the platoon exit of the defensive line (plus two exited starting linebackers), two seniors and two redshirt juniors will put their hand in the dirt opposite an undisclosed (or maybe two) starting QB for the Dukes. With young Moore, graduate student Germaine Pratt will start at linebacker.

Perhaps the biggest question surrounds what NC State’s ground game will look like. Reggie Gallaspy is a veteran with hold on the starting running back spot, but there is uncertainty and relatively poor health behind him (Ricky Person OR Tyler Baker-Williams will play next) and even Gallaspy sat out of practice toward the end of last week as a preventative measure when old injuries became particularly agitated.

“It’s finally time to play,” head coach Dave Doeren said. “Their players, winning 28 games in two seasons, they’ve played a lot of football. Even though they’ve lost some starters in some areas, they’ve got a lot of guys that have played.

“They expect to win just like we do.”

Suspensions forced Larry Fedora’s hand in announcing that Nathan Elliott will be the Tar Heels’ starting quarterback Saturday, but the head coach stayed true to his tradition of secrecy in the first game week of the season by denying fans, media and (pointedly) Cal a copy of his NCAA-depleted depth chart or of his injury report.

Inside Carolina reported during camp that 2017 second-leading rusher Michael Carter was hurt (he posted about 10 days ago an image of himself from the website, adding his own caption: “Free 8,” which is his jersey number). Carter played in 11 games with two starts as a true freshman last season. Later, defensive tackle Aaron Crawford reportedly suffered a lower body injury. Crawford started all 12 games last season.

There is no clarity as to whether or not Crawford or Carter plays, UNC did not shed much light on who will catch Elliott’s passes (other than, presumably, star Anthony Ratliff-Williams) as the largest WR on the roster, Beau Corrales sits one of his four games and there is no certainty as to how many other undisclosed players could be dinged up to the point of not playing.

Likely, OSU transfer running back Antonio Williams will make his debut in the Tar Heels’ backfield and Elliott (who appeared in five games and started the last three games for UNC last season, for a 2-1 record, the only ACC win and a 75-146-5 completion-attempt-INT mark) will call the audible for the snap each play (especially given the difficulty Fedora explained having in picking the redshirt junior’s backup).

But, following tradition, there isn’t much actually known about North Carolina leading up to kickoff.

Can confirm, however, that the Tar Heels’ game at Cal kicks off on Fox 50 in the Triangle (4 p.m.).

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