In North Carolina’s loss to Clemson on Saturday, the Tar Heels gave up 59 points, the most allowed by UNC since 2005, and the defense appeared especially weak against Tiger quarterback Tajh Boyd and his 367 passing yards.
And for the rest of the season, defending the pass may be even tougher for the Tar Heels.
University officials announced Monday that senior safety Matt Merletti will be out for the season after spraining his MCL and ACL in his left knee.
Merletti, who is tied for third on the team with 36 tackles this season, left Saturday’s game in the first half and didn’t return for the rest of the game.
Merletti received a medical redshirt in 2009 after tearing his ACL in preseason practice.
“We’re going to try to do everything we can to help Matt through all of this,” interim head coach Everett Withers said at a press conference Monday.
“But it’s really, really a hard blow for me personally, having coached him … We’ll try to keep Matt around, so he can help coach some of the rest of our guys.”
Junior safety Gene Robinson said Merletti and senior safety Jonathan Smith have been the leaders for the secondary all season long.
Moving forward, Robinson said, the unit will have to adjust in order to succeed without Merletti.
“It’s tough because he does everything right, as far as you never have to say, ‘Let’s go, Matt,’” Robinson said. “That’s tough. But someone has to step in and play ball.”
Saturday against Clemson, simply holding on to the ball seemed to be enough of a challenge for the Tar Heels.
Withers said he felt his team kept up with the then-No. 7 Tigers defensively in the first half. But with two fumbles and a thrown interception after intermission, the UNC defense couldn’t seem to get off the field.
“We’ve got to obviously play better down in the middle of the field and on the outside,” Withers said.
“I go back to turnovers. I don’t care what kind of defense you’ve got, if you keep putting them back out there on the field, some teams are going to make some plays.”
After losing senior safety Deunta Williams and senior cornerback Kendric Burney last year, the UNC secondary came into the 2011 campaign as possibly the most inexperienced unit on the field.
But for Robinson, even amid the absence of a senior leader, the solution seems simple enough.
“Back in the secondary, we have to stand tall,” Robinson said. “When the ball is in the air, we’ve got to make the play… That’s football 101.”
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