The North Carolina football team heads to Berkeley, CA to begin its 2018 regular season against the Golden Bears this Saturday. Sports editor Chris Hilburn-Trenkle spoke with The Daily Californian's sports editor Josh Yuen, who offered insights on the squad ahead of this weekend's game.
The Daily Tar Heel: Ross Bowers had his best game of the season against UNC last season. He threw for four scores and completed 363 yards. Why do you think he was able to be successful in that game in particular, and do you expect a strong performance from him next week?
Josh Yuen: I think he was throwing to a lot of really great playmakers. I think when (Justin) Wilcox made him a starter about a week before last year’s opener against UNC, it wasn’t like he had run away with the job. That first game when they went out there, it wasn’t by any means smooth in the first half, but Patrick Laird and Tre Watson really put themselves out there, gave him the confidence early with a couple short passes and then kind of opened things up a little bit after that. They had that wheel route touchdown to Wharton I believe, and the one dump off on third down to Laird kind of boosted his stats a little bit. Overall, Bowers has really grown a lot in the past year. I know the Pac 12 kind of beat him up a little bit during the conference part of the season, but overall, he’s looking a lot more poised and polished, both on the field and off the field. As a leader, he’s outspoken. We’re really excited over here in Berkeley to see what he accomplishes this year.
DTH: So, with UNC’s run defense allowing a lot of big plays last season, do you see the Golden Bears executing more of a run-heavy scheme this time around, and who does UNC really need to watch for in the backfield?
JY: Definitely. Well, offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin has really emphasized a balanced attack. Again, UNC, Ole Miss, Weber State, the first few games last year, he was really focusing on taking the pressure off Bowers and finding a good balance between the run-pass game. Patrick Laird is back. He’s a redshirt senior, he’s going to be the workhorse. There’s no clear-cut backup behind Laird. He should probably get around 25-30 carries; I wouldn’t be surprised next Saturday. He’s the workhorse, he’s the clear-cut starter. He will be in the backfield and abroad, potentially playing special teams. He’s a really special talent who started his career as a walk-on and now he’s arguably the most notable threat on the offense. So look for Laird to definitely get a decent amount of carries and as long as he stays healthy, he will be in the conversation for top running back, behind Bryce Love (Stanford) in the Pac 12.
DTH: Who’s a guy that UNC should watch for as sort of a breakthrough performer, or inspiring performance, from Cal?
JY: I’d say, offensively, there’s a couple directions you can go. Kanawai Noa in the slot, after the UNC game, I don’t think he had a whole lot in that game, but the weeks after that he became Bowers’ go-to third down receiver. He’s a really special talent who has grown from kind of a secondary option to one of Bowers’ favorite targets. He’ll be in the slot. He’s sort of a bigger-bodied receiver, but he’s still got speed to him. But besides Laird, Noa is definitely a guy to look out for next Saturday.
DTH: Looking ahead to next week, what is your prediction for the game?
JY: It really does depend on who’s able to get into a rhythm early, even though jitters will be a factor. I know there’s a little more expectations than last year. Maybe why Cal started out so fast is they didn’t have a lot of pressure on them. There were very little expectations for the new head coach and a new quarterback and a completely new system. I hope Cal doesn’t think of it like they’re looking ahead to anything, but I have Cal winning by around six or seven points, probably a single score. Let’s go 34-28. Something along those lines.