CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – It finally happened for North Carolina’s defense.
In the second quarter of the Tar Heels’ 65-10 rout of Western Carolina on Saturday, the Tar Heel defenders put the ball in the end zone after going without a defensive touchdown in the first 10 games of the year.
Catamounts quarterback Tyrie Adams took the ball to the right hash on a designed keeper, and had it popped out of his hands when he crashed right into the Tar Heels’ defensive line. Jonathan Smith, the only linebacker on the field in the dime formation, scooped the ball up and took it 28 yards to the house.
The score gave confidence to a defensive side that, while improved from last season, hasn’t been as successful with takeaways as it’d hoped – UNC has forced 15 turnovers in 2017-18, tied for 73rd in the country.
“It was great,” head coach Larry Fedora told the media on Monday. “We go into every game expecting to get two or more of those (turnovers). It was big for Jon. Jon came in and we needed him to come in in that situation and he made a play. It was big for him and his confidence and the team’s confidence in him. All the way around. It’s always good to score off of turnovers.”
Smith played a majority of the game in the dime package after starters Cayson Collins and Cole Holcomb both left Saturday’s game with injuries. Fedora said that both Holcomb and Collins are expected to play against N.C. State this week.
The sophomore linebacker started playing regularly this season after middle linebacker Andre Smith suffered a season-ending knee injury against Louisville.
He has made 16 tackles in seven games this year, after missing the back half of the 2016-17 season with a fractured right foot.
Fedora said that Smith’s freshman year being cut short made his fumble recovery touchdown that much sweeter.
“He’s going to be a really good player,” Fedora said. “It did slow him down. That’s just the nature of the beast. All the guys that have injuries this year, it’s slowing down their development. Every rep that you miss is slowing down your development. But Jon has worked really hard to get himself back and I think he’s getting close to that point.”
And if Smith’s play wasn’t a big enough part in Saturday’s victory, it also holds a key importance to him off the field.
“It meant a lot,” Smith said…