Larry Fedora enters a critical fourth season at North Carolina with lots of talent and high expectations. He's won more ACC games than he's lost (13-11) but hasn't been able to get the Tar Heels over the hump and compete for a division crown. In fact, Fedora's win total has dropped year over year in each of his three seasons at the helm in Chapel Hill. Marquise Williams is back under center on offense and former Auburn coach Gene Chizik joins the ranks in an effort to reform what was an atrocious defense a year ago.
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Previewing North Carolina’s Offense for 2015
North Carolina brings back 10 offensive starters and several key reserves from 2014, resulting in some unusual continuity. The Tar Heels return 100 percent of their rushing yards, 99.2 percent of their passing yards and 83.7 percent of their receiving yards from last season.
Quarterback Marquise Williams is the trigger man after setting a single-season school record for total offense. He is a dual threat who led the team in rushing last season, but coaches want to ease his burden in the run game so that he takes fewer hits in 2015.
The success of that plan depends on the play of UNC’s talented running backs and the improvement of a developing offensive line. The Tar Heels have running backs with a variety of skills in T.J. Logan (all-around ability), Elijah Hood (power), and Romar Morris (speed). The offensive line is headlined by senior right guard Landon Turner, who is joined by fellow third-year starter Jon Heck at right tackle. Sophomore Bentley Spain has ascended to the starting position at left tackle, where he figures to become a fixture.
In the passing game, UNC’s collection of receivers is impressive. Quinshad Davis, Mack Hollins, and Bug Howard all stand at least 6'4" and make for inviting targets, while 5'10" Ryan Switzer is a big-play threat on short and long passes alike.
Previewing North Carolina’s Defense for 2015
Head coach Larry Fedora hired former Auburn coach Gene Chizik to fix a defense that finished last in the conference in every major category and set league records for points and yards allowed. Chizik is installing a base 4-3 to take the place of the 4-2-5 scheme that the Tar Heels used over the last three seasons, and players have noted that it is easier to understand and execute.
The defensive line lacks a proven stud, but it features some intriguing young prospects in sophomores Nazair Jones and Dajaun Drennon and freshmen Jeremiah Clarke and Jalen Dalton. Senior middle linebacker Jeff Schoettmer emerged during the spring as the leader of the defense, and he is coming off a season in which he finished second on the team in tackles. UNC returns seven of its top eight defensive backs from a year ago, including a potential standout in cornerback Brian Walker. But the Tar Heels need improvement from everyone in the secondary after allowing an ACC-record 31 touchdown passes last season.
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Previewing North Carolina’s Specialists for 2015
After struggling on punt returns last season, Switzer is looking to recapture the form he showed in 2013 when he led the nation in punt return average and tied an NCAA record with five punt returns for touchdowns. UNC has far bigger worries on special teams. Kickoff specialist Nick Weiler and redshirt freshman Freeman Jones are competing for the placekicking job after the Tar Heels missed all seven of their field-goal tries from beyond 30 yards a year ago. UNC also is breaking in a new punter.
North Carolina's season depends heavily upon two factors: the health of Williams, and how much the defense can improve on last season’s disastrous results. The Tar Heels don’t look like a championship contender, but they have a couple of factors in their favor. One, they play in the ACC’s Coastal Division, so they don’t have to worry about league heavyweights Florida State and Clemson in the standings. And two, they don’t have to worry about Florida State and Clemson at all because they don’t play them (or Louisville, for that matter) this season. A winning season and another bowl trip are within reach, and any result substantially better than that could make Chizik an appealing candidate for a head coaching job with another program.