Brent Venables saw Elijah Hood for the first time at a Dabo Swinney summer camp and thought, “linebacker.”
“I had a man crush and chased him around for two-and-a-half days,” said Venables, the Clemson defensive coordinator and linebackers coach. “He liked it for a little bit until he decided he wanted to be a running back.”
A powerful downhill runner with a high motor, Hood initially committed to Notre Dame but pulled back two months later. He decided to stay closer to home in Charlotte and signed with North Carolina. A sophomore, Hood has emerged as a valuable component in the Tar Heels’ explosive offense that resembles Clemson’s in pace and execution.
“There are a lot of similarities,” Venables said, “and there are a lot of differences as well.”
Like the Tar Heels, Clemson has running back Wayne Gallman, a third-year sophomore and two-year rushing leader, who’s violent and relentless. Gallman leads Clemson with 1,145 yards, including seven games of at least 100 yards.
In senior Marquise Williams the Tar Heels have a versatile, athletic quarterback, second in the league to ACC player of the year Deshaun Watson in pass efficiency and first in QB rushing.
“He does both well,” Venables said. “When you have a quarterback that can do those things it makes it tough. Then he’s experienced, instinctual and anticipates.”
The depth at receiver mirrors Clemson, with Ryan Switzer, Quinshad Davis, Mack Hollins and Bug Davis. Coach Larry Fedora wants to play at breakneck speed.
“Their tempo is really, really fast, all the time,” Venables said. “Our guys didn’t take long to sit up taller in their seats, a little bit less chatter, when we were watching video.”
Playing in September last season, North Carolina totaled 478 yards against a Clemson team that finished No. 1 nationally in 15 defensive categories. Williams passed for 345 yards and four touchdowns in the Tigers’ 50-35 win.
“Every year’s different,” Venables said. “They don’t need to see last year to respect Carolina. There were lapses last year, too many to count. This team will make you pay if there are lapses.”
Clemson has allowed nearly 800 rushing yards in its past five games. Throw out 39 yards against Wake Forest, and it’s a concern with Hood and Williams averaging between them 200 yards per game.
Hood provides North Carolina a potential knockout punch in an area where Clemson has been periodically vulnerable. His 1,280 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns are second in the ACC to Dalvin Cook of Florida State.
“Tough, strong, breaks a lot of tackles, can run away from you,” Swinney said. “He’s got everything; speed, power, vision, a great effort guy. He had a big-time motor in high school; just a relentless runner, a really good football player and a great person.”
For some reason, Fedora forgot that in the final minutes of the South Carolina game to open the season.
Hood had rushed for a game-high 138 yards on 12 carries but wasn’t in the game for the three plays inside the Gamecocks’ 9-yard line. North Carolina needed a touchdown to win.
On third-and-goal from the 3-yard line, Hood was pulled back when he tried to re-enter the game. Williams was sacked then threw an interception in the end zone on fourth down.
Fedora never satisfactorily explained a lapse that probably cost the Tar Heels an undefeated regular season and possibly a spot in the College Football Playoff. He was asked to make a case for the Tar Heels, should they beat Clemson for the ACC Championship.
“That was the first game of the year,” he said, “and we made some mistakes.”
What: ACC Championship
Who: North Carolina vs. Clemson
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte