After a three-year run which saw North Carolina win the ACC Coastal in 2015 and finish no worse than a tie for third the other two seasons, the Tar Heels are practically starting over. Six starters return on each side, but the offense is looking to replace a most, if not all, of its production. The defense will have a new coordinator running things and hopefully will hold up better against the run than it did in 2016. Even though the Coastal seems wide open once again, it would be somewhat of a surprise to see this Tar Heels team among the contenders.
Previewing North Carolina Football’s Offense for 2017
If North Carolina again fields a high-powered offense that has become its trademark, it will do so despite major personnel changes. The Tar Heels lost 99.0 percent of their rushing yards, 98.3 percent of their passing yards, 70.5 percent of their receiving yards and 85.7 percent of their scoring from a year ago.
The identity of the starting quarterback will be decided in training camp, but LSU graduate transfer Brandon Harris is the favorite. Harris is the only quarterback on the roster with starting experience, and his dual-threat ability is ideal for UNC’s spread attack. The receivers have plenty to prove, regardless of who is delivering the passes. Senior Austin Proehl is the only player on the roster with more than 275 career receiving yards.
Harris isn’t the only graduate transfer who figures to have a significant role. Stanton Truitt from Auburn will get reps in a backfield that features just one player (sophomore Jordon Brown) who had carries for UNC a year ago. Freshman Michael Carter also will get significant playing time.
Up front, grad transfers Cam Dillard from Florida and Khaliel Rodgers from USC will add needed depth to the offensive line. The group returns three-year starter Bentley Spain at left tackle and promising sophomore Tommy Hatton at guard, but creating cohesion during training camp will be key.
Previewing North Carolina Football’s Defense for 2017
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has taken steps forward defensively in each of the last two years, but more improvement is needed in 2017 to offset the lost offensive firepower. The Tar Heels have a new coordinator in former linebackers coach John Papuchis, who took over when Gene Chizik resigned for family reasons, but the scheme will remain the same.
The defensive line returns 11 of its top 13 contributors, including team sack leader Malik Carney, from a year ago. But improvement against the run, where the Tar Heels allowed an ACC-worst 227.3 yards per game, is paramount. UNC returns its top five linebackers, which should help improve the run defense now that they have a year of experience. Andre Smith is the headliner of the group, providing a hard-hitting presence in the middle of the field.
The secondary, which was the strength of last year’s defense despite totaling an NCAA-worst one interception, has a nice mixture of proven talent and potential. M.J. Stewart is one of the ACC’s top cornerbacks, and Donnie Miles is a sure-tackling safety. A large group of young players — including four who played last year as true freshmen — will rotate in and gain experience.
Previewing North Carolina Football’s Specialists for 2017
The loss of kicker Nick Weiler and returners Ryan Switzer and T.J. Logan, who were multi-year stars in their respective roles, leaves the Tar Heels vulnerable in the kicking game. On the positive side, punter Tom Sheldon is back after allowing opponents a total of two yards on punt returns (best in the nation) last season. Freeman Jones could be a capable replacement for Weiler, but he has yet to be tested in game situations.
Hopes were high a year ago, but the Tar Heels fell short in their quest to reach the ACC Championship Game for the second year in a row. While the Coastal Division race remains as unpredictable as ever, UNC probably has too much uncertainty to be considered a legitimate threat. Are there enough playmakers on offense? Can the graduate transfers provide a big lift immediately? Can the defense become an asset instead of a liability? Can the team hold its own on special teams? The Tar Heels have enough talent to earn a fifth consecutive postseason berth, but doing so probably won’t be easy.