The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 30 North Carolina.
Previewing North Carolina’s Offense for 2014:
North Carolina has plenty of weapons entering Year 3 with coach Larry Fedora’s fast-paced attack. The question is whether the Tar Heels will get enough help from the offensive line in order to utilize their skill position talent.
Quarterback Marquise Williams figures to be the trigger man after guiding UNC to four wins in its final five games last season. Williams has improved as a passer and has the strength and toughness to pick up tough yards as a runner.
UNC is especially loaded at running back, where returning starter T.J. Logan leads a quartet full of speed and power. Incoming recruit Elijah Hood figures to make an immediate impact with his punishing style, and fleet-footed Romar Morris and Khris Francis also will contribute.
At receiver, the production of All-ACC tight end Eric Ebron will be difficult to replace. But the Tar Heels have nice variety among their wideouts. Quinshad Davis and Bug Howard are tall, rangy targets on the outside, and Ryan Switzer and T.J. Thorpe are shifty, speedy players with open-field ability.
Up front is where the questions exist. The Tar Heels lost their top two performers from a unit that was shaky for much of last season. They must find a left tackle to replace departed star James Hurst, and they need Lucas Crowley to emerge in his starting role at center.
Previewing North Carolina’s Defense for 2014:
Torched for the first half of the 2013 season, UNC’s defense improved as players gained a better grasp of Vic Koenning’s aggressive scheme. Star defensive end Kareem Martin is gone, but the unit should be better than it was in Fedora’s first two seasons.
Koenning likes to bring blitzes from all over the field, but he should be able to get a consistent pass rush from Norkeithus Otis at the Bandit position. Otis had 7.5 sacks last season and leads a deep group up front that also features run-stopping nose tackle Ethan Farmer.
At linebacker, senior Travis Hughes returns for one final chance to capitalize on lofty potential that has gone mostly unfulfilled. The coaching staff wanted to get UNC’s best athletes on the field together more often, so speedy senior Darius Lipford was shifted from Bandit to middle linebacker. However, Lipford declared for the NFL's supplemental draft in July.
The secondary should be improved with the emergence of cornerback Brian Walker, a potential star, and the move of senior Tim Scott from corner to free safety. Safety Dominique Green and Ram Malik Simmons also are coming off promising finishes to 2013.
Previewing North Carolina’s Specialists for 2014:
The Tar Heels are dangerous on special teams. Switzer, who led the nation in punt return average and tied an NCAA record with five punt returns for scores last season, puts fear in the hearts of opposing coaches and punters. Logan brought back a pair of kickoffs for touchdowns last season, and Thorpe led the ACC in kickoff return average in 2011. Punter Tommy Hibbard has helped the Tar Heels lead the league in net punting each of the last two years. Kicker Thomas Moore lacks accuracy from long range, but he is reliable from inside 40 yards.
The Tar Heels have enough talent to challenge for first place in the ACC’s Coastal Division, which remains unpredictable and up for grabs, but their margin of error is small. In truth, UNC looks to be in better shape for 2015 than for this season. The offense has only one senior on the two-deep depth chart, and the defense would benefit from another year of experience up front and in the secondary. But the Tar Heels have to play the 2014 season first. If they perform better than expected along the offensive line and get a breakout season from someone on a defense that lacks an established star, the future could be now.