CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WNCN) – Head coach Larry Fedora and the UNC Tar Heels are getting ready for Duke, but they’ll be without junior cornerback Brian Walker.
Fedora announced Monday that Walker left the team on his own terms the day before the team’s Thursday night match-up with Pittsburgh.
“I think he’s interested in finding a place where he can get more playing time,” Fedora said. “It means we have one less guy. It’s no different than if you have an injury. Guys will step up and somebody will have an opportunity.”
Walker, who is from Charlotte, appeared in all 13 games as a true freshman in 2013 and started all 12 games for UNC in 2014 as a sophomore. He saw less playing time in 2015, recording only 12 tackles in the first seven games. UNC quarterback Marquise Williams, who played with Walker at Mallard Creek High in Charlotte, said he will be missed.
“It’ tough. I’ve known Brian seven years and for him to no longer be on the team is devastating to me,” Williams said. “It sucks to see him leave but whatever’s best for his interest, I’m still going to believe in him and be his brother. He will truly be missed on this football team.”
Duke’s loss to Miami
Much of the discussion at Monday’s press conference centered on the wild finish Saturday night, when Miami beat Duke 30-27.
Fedora said the outcome, which resulted in the ACC suspending the officiating crew for two league games, does not impact the credibility of the league.
“We have good officials in this league,” Fedora said. “I don’t care what league you’re in, and I’ve been in a bunch of them, you have mistakes that are made in officiating in every single game. That just happened to be the last play of the game. But every call in a game affects the outcome of the game.”
Running back Elijah Hood said he ““couldn’t believe” the ending.
“That’s crazy, insanity, a mess, exciting it was a lot of things,” Hood said. “College football I guess,” saidHood. “Yea I was happy they were going to lose, but it’s rough to lose a game like that, I can always sympathize with players in that situation because of all the work you do.”
A family affair
Just as it will be in the stands on Saturday, it will be a family divided for UNC quarterback Marquise Williams. Duke defensive tackle Carlos Wray is Williams’ second cousin.
“He hasn’t talked any junk yet,” Williams said, “but I’m waiting for that text of phone call. It’s exciting to go against a family member just to have bragging rights. Last year I had the bragging rights. Leading up to that he was talking how he was going to sack me five times, get his draft stock off me and be big time off me, and we ended up winning, and he had nothing else to say.”
ACC lead at stake
The Tar Heels are in a much better situation this year, sitting atop the ACC, than last year when they finished 4-4 in conference play and 6-7 overall before ending the season with a loss to Rutgers in the Quick Lane Bowl.
“It’s more fun when people are telling you you’re doing a good job and patting you on the back, than when people are walking around campus like, ‘Who’s that guy?’” Williams said.
At 7-1 with their only loss coming in the season opener to South Carolina, the Tar Heels are now ranked 21st in the Associated Press poll.
“Our goal hadn’t been to be in the poll,” Fedora said. “We’ve got bigger goals than that. It just happens to come with it but it doesn’t really change who we are, so it really doesn’t have much effect on our football team.”
The Blue Devils finished second in the Coastal Division behind Georgia Tech at 5-3 in the ACC, 9-4 overall. They also lost in their bowl game, losing to Arizona State in the Hyundai Sun Bowl.
As for the Victory Bell, the traveling trophy that goes to the winner of the annual game between Duke and UNC, the Tar Heels are looking to keep it after the 45-20 win over the Blue Devils in Durham last year.
“We have to fly around and have a lot of energy I remember in that game (last year) we had a lot of energy,” Williams said. “I remember they played ‘Knuck if you buck’ by Crime Mob, a lot of our guys heard that and got even more fired up and we just went on from there.”
“For our goals, they’re in our division, they’re in the state, to be Coastal division champs, to be state champs, for how it affects recruiting it’s very important in the state,” Fedora said in regards to the rivalry.
Saturday’s matchup is a noon kickoff in Chapel Hill. Duke (6-2, 3-1 in ACC) can still win the Conference if they beat North Carolina (7-1, 4-0 in ACC) and win out. The Blue Devils wrap up the season at home against Pittsburgh, before finishing out on the road against Virginia and Wake Forest.
Carolina wraps up its season at home against Miami before also finishing on the road at Virginia Tech, in what will be Frank Beamer’s last home game, and in Raleigh against N.C. State.
“I hate it for college football, I hate it for our league,’ Fedora said of Beamer’s pending retirement. “He’s one of the greatest coaches who’s ever coached the game. College football is a better place when he’s involved with it.”
Fedora on Duke
“You’ve got to start with their defense,” Fedora said referencing his game plan against Duke.
When it comes to the Duke defense, it all starts with Jeremy Cash. The senior safety is one of 16 finalists for the 2015 Jim Thorpe, given annually to the best defensive back in college football.
“He is a really good football player,” Fedora said of Cash. “They put him in a lot of different places, they do a lot of things with him and he’s really good, he’s the heart and soul of their defense.”
“He’s one heck of a football player,” Williams said.
“I feel like this week we may have something special because Jeremy Cash is a special player when it comes to blitzing and getting tackles for losses and being disruptive in the pass game,” Hood said. “So there might be something we put in just in case to make sure we’re alerted whenever he’s in the nickel or coming off the edge because he can be kind of a disruption when he has the opportunity.”
The Duke defense is allowing less than 17 points per game this season. Only Miami (30) and Virginia Tech (43) in their last two games have scored more than 20 points on the Blue Devils.