CHAPEL HILL — Each week during the football season, I will try to interview an opposing team’s beat writer. We’ll talk everything from X’s and O’s to where traveling Tar Heels fans should eat in town – if it’s a road game, and if you happen to be following North Carolina.
In honor of this feature, above is a video of an entertaining beat writer – 1920s reporter guy – doing his thing. My questions here will be a little more real.
UNC plays at South Carolina on Thursday night. So I’m pleased to be joined by Andrew Miller, who has been covering the Gamecocks for the Charleston Post and Courier. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @APMILLER_PandC and read his stuff here.
So let’s get to it:
Andrew Carter: We all know about Clowney. What should be UNC’s second-biggest concern about South Carolina’s defense beyond Jadeveon Clowney?
Andrew Miller: With all the hype that Clowney has had and it’s pretty much all deserved, it’s easy to overlook the rest of their defense. I don’t think there are any real superstars on defense beyond Clowney. Defensive end Chaz Sutton was second on the team a year ago with five sacks and he was mainly a part-time player behind defensive end Devin Taylor, who is playing for the Detroit Lions in the NFL. Sutton has been slowed a little in preseason camp with a foot injury, but he’s certainly a guy who has the potential for double-digit sacks this season. Defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles is another guy that can get to the quarterback. Even at 300 pounds, he’s very quick off the ball and has shown the ability to get into the backfield.
AC: Speaking of Clowney, how do you think he’s handled the incredible hype that has surrounded him since, oh, that bowl game against Michigan last season? Has he been fazed by it? Does he seem to care? We never know how guys will react to that kind of pressure – what’s your guess on how he handles it?
AM: I’m not sure there’s a 20-year-old kid anywhere in America that can handle the kind of hype that Clowney has had to deal with since last fall. See, Johnny Manziel. Clowney has really dealt with this kind of attention since he was in high school and was the No. 1 prospect in the country. He had a documentary film crew following him around his senior year at South Pointe High School. On the surface, he has remained relatively grounded throughout his career at South Carolina and I think that’s because of the support system around him.
He is very close with his family, especially his mother and grandfather. He’s a guy that just doesn’t seem to be fazed by anything. It’s a major reason why I don’t think he’s ever had any off the field issues. He’s not one of these guys that shies away from the attention either. He knows he’s the best player on the field. He’s confident, but not arrogant. The guys that can’t handle the spotlight are the ones that get the enormous egos and eventually end up out of control. According to teammates, Clowney’s very easy going off the field, very loose in the locker room. He keeps everyone laughing. His last name seems to be very appropriate.
AC: Obviously, Steve Spurrier hasn’t exactly been Mr. Fun N’ Gun since arriving in Columbia. His offenses have been a lot more vanilla than they were at Florida. The Tar Heels struggled defensively last season, though, and Spurrier probably saw some things on film that made his eyes light up. What’s your read on the offensive strategy for the Gamecocks on Thursday night? Might they try to open it up a bit more given UNC could score some points?
AM: Who would have thought that Steve Spurrier would build a top-10 program around defense and a ball-control offense. Spurrier (Head Ball Coach or HBC) would love to throw the ball 30 or 40 times a game, but he doesn’t have that kind of skill at quarterback or wide receiver. Going into Thursday night, the health of the Gamecock wide receivers will be a huge factor. The status of Bruce Ellington, USC’s top returning receiver, remains in doubt. So is tight end Rory “Busta” Anderson. If they’re out, expect to see a lot of the three running backs – Mike Davis, Brandon Wilds and Shon Carson. If Ellington and Anderson can’t go, Damiere Byrd, is the really only proven threat at wide receiver.
AC: Clemson and UNC are both up-tempo spread teams, though there are plenty of differences in play-calling and style and all that. Still, the Gamecocks had their way, mostly, against Clemson last year, and didn’t seem at all bothered by the Tigers’ fast pace. How much do you think South Carolina might rely on that experience on Thursday night?
AM: A lot. Ironically, it wasn’t the defense, but the Gamecocks offense that was key in both victories over Clemson the past two years. Sure the defense played well and Clowney did have 4.5 acks in last year’s game. But in 2011, the Gamecocks held the ball for 37 minutes and 14 seconds. A year ago, USC controlled the clock for about 40 minutes. The Tigers, who pride themselves on the number of plays they run each game, had just 60 and 59 plays respectively. The Gamecocks recorded 86 and 73 snaps respectively. You can’t wear down a defense if you don’t have the ball.
AC: UNC enters this game a decent-sized underdog, and with good reason. But what do you think most concerns Spurrier about the Tar Heels?
AM: I think the fact that the Gamecocks have three new starters at linebacker. Most spread offenses like to get their skill players in space and let them make a play. All three linebackers will be making their first career starts on national TV and that’s got to be nerve-wracking for them. North Carolina has done a really good job of not letting defenses get to Bryn Renner as well. Less than a sack a game in 2012 and that’s got to concern the HBC as well. What if Clowney can’t get to Renner? I’m not sure if they’ve got a Plan B on defense.
AC: Finally, for all my loyal UNC readers, what are a couple must-visits (good food, worthwhile sights) for anyone making the trip to Columbia? We know BBQ pretty well up this way, though I'm sure some might want to experience South Carolina's take on it, if there's any worthwhile.
AM: Well, I’ve got to be honest, if I were a North Carolina fan I would invest a little extra time and take the two-hour drive down to Charleston. We’ve got world-class restaurants and have been recently voted as the No. 1 tourist destination in the world. Of course, we were also named among the 10 snobbiest cities is the United States as well, but can you blame us? We’re awesome. Seriously, The Vista in Columbia is very nice. They’ve got something like 50 bars and restaurants. The Blue Marlin and Mojito’s Tropical Café have very good reputations in the Vista. Little Pigs Barbecue, I know, is considered one of the best in Columbia as well.
So there you have it, folks.