CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina is going all out in its preparation for North Carolina A&T.
The Tar Heels (0-1) typically blast music from speakers the entire practice. Tuesday and Wednesday at Navy Field, Carolina had music blasting as usual, but it wasn’t the hip-hop or rock music that normally drowns out the coaches whistles. This time, it was the sound of horns and drums that played for the duration of practice.
When the Aggies (1-0) come to town, UNC will have to deal with a team coming off an impressive 61-7 week-one win over Shaw. The Tar Heels, who like to show off their dance moves in practice, will also get a heavy dose of the latest tunes from the A&T marching band. Judging by the music selection at practices, the Heels should be ready for it.
Choice in music aside, the task at hand for North Carolina is to snap a three-game losing streak that dates back to last season, and stop a dangerous A&T squad that can hurt you in many ways. Against Shaw, the Aggies, who are expected to repeat as MEAC champions, scored on the ground three times, three times through the air, had a safety, and returned an interception and kickoff for a score. It’s cliche to say the Heels have to be solid in all three phases of the game, but that is actually the case.
And head coach Larry Fedora doesn’t want to hear any talk about over looking an FCS opponent.
“A lot will be said about how we approach this team,” Fedora said. “This team can beat us just like any other team can beat us. It’s all about our attitude and our mindset the way we approach this football game. It should be no different than the way we approached the last one, and that’s what we’re striving for.”
Last week UNC was preparing for a national televised game against an SEC opponent in an NFL stadium. This week they are preparing for a first ever meeting against a MEAC school in its home opener. So has Fedora seen the same approach?
“I have so far.”
Fedora said this game will say a lot of his team. Again, Carolina hasn’t won a game since November of last year. In coach speak, and Fedora stressed this on Wednesday, the next game is the most important game.
While UNC will be a huge favorite, not to mention have more depth and talent at its disposal, A&T isn’t coming into Kenan Stadium as a pushover.
The Aggies, coached by former UNC player and assistant Rod Broadway, feature MEAC preseason Player of The Year, Tarik Cohen, who rushed for 104 yards and two scores last week. Cohen is most famous for his video that went viral of him catching a football in one hand while doing a backflip. It’s unknown if Fedora has seen that clip, but Cohen’s on the field skills has Fedora’s attention.
“That guy can go, he’s got great speed,” Fedora said. “He can take it from goal line to goal line on any play. He can take it the distance, he can burn you.”
UNC junior cornerback Des Lawrence referred to the 5’6” 173 pound Cohen as a “scat back”, quite the contrast from the big, physical backs North Carolina faced last week. A&T also has 6’4 wide receiver Denzel Keyes, who made six catches for 119 yards and two scores.
“He gets ups and makes plays, contested plays at that,” Lawrence said. “You just have to be fundamental. If he makes one, you can’t hang your head. You just have to play ball.”
Safety Donnie Miles, who led UNC with 12 tackles in week one, said the key to containing Cohen will be to tackle him in space. Otherwise, he will embarrass the North Carolina defense.
“They have some athletes, they have some guys who can make plays.”
North Carolina coaches are stressing that. The players are saying all the right things about A&T, but again, it’s all about the approach they take. The team had to do extra up-downs after practice on Tuesday, perhaps a sign of a lack of discipline in practice. Now that the coaches have the players attention, it appears so do the Aggies.
“They have (players) who can embarrass you,” Lawrence said. “We’re coming into the game treating them like they’re the champions of their league, which they are, so we’re going to go out there and try to dominate.”