The Tar Heels are coming off a breakthrough year in Larry Fedora’s fourth season in Chapel Hill. North Carolina won 11 games, claimed the Coastal Division title and finished No. 15 in the final Associated Press poll. Both sides of the ball suffered some key losses, but the Tar Heels are reloaded and open 2016 as the favorite to win the Coastal Division once again. Quarterback Mitch Trubisky is expected to have a breakout season in his first year as the starter, while running back Elijah Hood should be one of the best in the nation at his position. Trubisky is also surrounded by a deep group of receivers and one of the ACC’s top offensive lines. The Tar Heels made strides on defense last season, but there’s still a ways to go in coordinator Gene Chizik’s second year.
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Previewing North Carolina’s Offense
North Carolina led the nation in yards per play (7.28) last season and figures to be explosive again despite some new faces. Offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic takes over as offensive coordinator for Seth Littrell, who left to become head coach at North Texas, and fourth-year junior Mitch Trubisky replaces Marquise Williams as the starting quarterback. Even with the changes, the Tar Heels will run the same system at the same frenetic pace that head coach Larry Fedora prefers.
Trubisky is a capable runner and an accurate passer who completed 40-of-47 throws with no interceptions in 2015. He played in 21 games over the last two seasons, so he has experience heading into his first year as the starter. He also has plenty of help around him. Running backs Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan form a powerful 1-2 punch on the ground, and senior wide receivers Mack Hollins, Ryan Switzer and Bug Howard are dynamic threats in the passing game.
The Tar Heels also welcome back four returning starters and their top reserve on the offensive line. Left guard Caleb Peterson and right tackle Jon Heck enter their fourth year starting for a group that helped UNC rush for a school-record 5.96 yards per carry and allow an ACC-best 1.1 sacks per game.
Previewing North Carolina’s Defense
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UNC’s defense was among the most improved in the nation in 2015, but there’s more room for growth as Gene Chizik enters his second year as defensive coordinator. The Tar Heels allowed 61.9 yards per game fewer and 14.5 points per game fewer than the year before, but they ranked at or near the bottom of the ACC in sacks (1.6 per game), run defense (5.1 yards per carry) and third-down stops (ACC-worst 44.2 percent conversion rate).
UNC could use a big step forward from its defensive line after the Tar Heels allowed 424 rushing yards per game and 6.6 yards per carry in the final three games last season. End Dajaun Drennon and tackle Nazair Jones are the top performers, but they need some help. At least five underclassmen figure to see significant playing time up front. Behind them, linebacker is the position of biggest uncertainty on the roster. Team leaders Shakeel Rashad and Jeff Schoettmer departed after productive senior seasons, leaving Andre Smith and Cayson Collins to headline an athletic group that lacks experience.
The secondary is in solid shape with three key returners. Cornerbacks M.J. Stewart and Des Lawrence both finished in the top five in the ACC in passes defensed last season, and they should be one of the league’s top tandems again. Safety Donnie Miles is looking to improve in pass coverage after establishing himself as a sure tackler with a team-best 128 stops.
Previewing North Carolina’s Specialists
Switzer is the headliner here, striking fear into opponents every time they punt the ball. He returned two punts for touchdowns last season and has seven such scores for his career, one short of the NCAA record. Kicker Nick Weiler looks to build on an outstanding season in which he made 20-of-23 field goals, including 16-of-17 attempts inside 40 yards.
This team will go as far as its new quarterback and unproven defense can take it. The Tar Heels need Trubisky to be as good in a starring role as he was in cameo appearances a year ago. They also need him to stay healthy, because his backups have combined for one career pass attempt. While it’s unfair to expect UNC to improve as much defensively as it did a year ago, more progress is needed in order for the Tar Heels to repeat as Coastal Division champions. The schedule is more difficult this season, leading to less margin for error.