North Carolina football: 3 under-the-radar Tar Heels whose performances will impact the ACC Championship
To win a conference title, cohesion is needed across offense, defense and special teams.
Saturday, No. 24 North Carolina will need to be as cohesive at it has been all year in order to upset No. 10 Clemson in the ACC title game. That will require not only stellar performances from the Tar Heels stars, such as quarterback Drake Maye, receiver Josh Downs and first-team All-ACC linebacker Cedric Gray, but every Tar Heel on the field for snaps at Bank of America Stadium.
With that being said, here are 3 players who, while they might not fill up the stats sheet, will play a huge role in determining North Carolina’s chances of winning its first ACC title since 1980.
1. Kevin Hester Jr. (nose tackle)
Nose tackles never rack up tackles, instead making it easier for everyone else to do their job defensively. With Clemson among the top 20 nationally in rushing attempts per game against FBS opponents (41.2 per contest), look for Hester to receive a heavy snap count Saturday, particularly on early downs and short-yardage situations.
On the season, Hester has collected 45 total tackles (17 solo, 28 assists), including a 5-game stretch from the win against Duke to the loss against Georgia Tech during which the Georgia native racked up 24 total tackles.
At 6-foot-4 and 305 pounds, Hester anchors the interior for defensive coordinator Gene Chizik. But on the season, the Tar Heels run defense is outside the top 90 nationally. That simply won’t cut it against running back Will Shipley and quarterback DJ Uiagalelei, 2 runners who are extremely difficult to bring down.
However, Hester can help steady the ship at the point of attack. If the former 3-star prospect takes on enough blockers to allow the likes of Gray and linebacker Power Echols to clean things up in the run game, the Tar Heels defense will have a much better chance of getting off the field in Charlotte.
2. William Barnes (right guard)
Protecting Maye will be of the utmost importance Saturday, and naturally, that puts a lot of responsibility on left tackle Asim Richards. After all, safeguarding your quarterback’s blind side is the surest way to keep him clean, especially considering Maye’s poise when faced with a rusher he can see.
But against Georgia Tech, Maye was sacked a whopping 6 times, and William Barnes’ struggles were a factor. Against a terrific Clemson defensive line featuring ends Myles Murphy and KJ Henry and tackles Tyler Davis and Bryan Bresee (who have combined for 16.5 sacks this season), Barnes will have to be stout up front.
That will mean being solid against multiple looks, as Clemson often utilizes stunts to create confusion for opposing offensive lines. The Florida native has appeared in 36 of 38 contests since the start of his redshirt freshman campaign — now, it is time to put in what is among his best nights at the office yet.
3. Omarion Hampton (running back)
Maye still is far and away the Tar Heels’ leading rusher (629 yards and 6 touchdowns on 161 carries), but during recent weeks, Elijah Green has been a steady source of production on the ground. His turbo-charged touchdown dash against Georgia Tech displayed his ability to hit the hole with authority, and the past 4 contests for North Carolina have featured the 4 highest rushing attempt of the sophomore’s career.
But Green is not the only Tar Heels running back involved in the gameplan. Omarion Hampton, a 4-star freshman out of nearby Clayton, offers a change of pace when offensive coordinator Phil Longo is looking to keep defenses off-balance.
Hampton possesses burst and strength, and he has impressed on multiple occasions. Against both Florida A&M and Georgia State, he surpassed 100 yards (on just 14 and 16 carries, respectively), and averaged 7 yards per tote on 5 carries against Georgia Tech 2 weeks ago.
Coming into the year, it would have been easy to categorize Hampton and fellow freshman 4-star George Pettaway as a duo. But despite flashes (he averaged 12.8 yards per carry against Florida A&M on 4 attempts), Pettaway is a clear 3rd fiddle in the tailback room, behind Green and Hampton.
If the Tar Heels offense is to get things going in the run game, Hampton will have to effectively spell Green and showcase the skills that made him a top-5 Class of 2022 recruit in the state of North Carolina.