The Tar Heels rank No. 69 in Athlon's Top 130 for 2018
The North Carolina Tar Heels' three wins in 2017 were the program's fewest since 2006. The climb back to a winning record starts at quarterback. North Carolina's offense ranked last in the ACC by averaging just 19.3 points in conference games and needs Chazz Surratt or Nathan Elliott to emerge as the clear answer. The Tar Heels are stocked with talent at the skill positions, but question marks remain up front after the line allowed 30 sacks last year and loses four full-time starters. Improvement on offense won't be enough to avoid a repeat of last year. The defense was gashed on the ground and surrendered 31.3 points per game. Coach Larry Fedora has recruited well, so the cupboard isn't empty. Improvement should be noticeable, but a return to the postseason might be a year away.
Previewing North Carolina Football's Offense for 2018
North Carolina's offense has been its strength under coach Larry Fedora, but the unit struggled during an injury-marred 2017. Chief among the questions facing the team in 2018 is the identity of the starting quarterback as Chazz Surratt and Nathan Elliott battle for the position. Surratt is an exciting dual-threat talent who got off to a fast start last season, but Elliott was at the controls in the final four games when UNC played its best. Elliott lacks Surratt's size and speed, but coaches and teammates appreciate his leadership.
Regardless of who gets the nod at QB, that player will have at least one big-time target. Anthony Ratliff-Williams emerged as UNC's top receiver last season, and his speed and leaping ability allow him to make big plays on short and long passes alike. Ratliff-Williams will be joined by a pair of exciting freshman wideouts in Dyami Brown and Antoine Green. The Tar Heels might be forced to play without senior tight end Brandon Fritts, who went down with a serious knee injury in the spring.
On the ground, UNC has a nice 1-2 punch with tailbacks Jordon Brown and Michael Carter, who combined to rush for 1,171 yards and 12 touchdowns last season on only 235 carries. Of concern, however, is who will pave their running lanes. Tackles Charlie Heck and William Sweet have starting experience, but the rest of the offensive line is unproven.
Previewing North Carolina Football's Defense for 2018
The Tar Heels have finished last in the ACC against the run in each of the last five seasons, a trend they need to halt in 2018. UNC returns eight of its top nine defensive linemen, including four upperclassmen rotating at the two tackle spots. Defensive end Malik Carney should be poised for a big senior year after leading the team in sacks in 2016 and '17.
UNC lost two of its top three linebackers from a year ago, but senior Cole Holcomb returns after leading the team in tackles each of the last two seasons. The Tar Heels need Jonathan Smith, who made 40 tackles in limited action a year ago, to emerge as a major contributor for a group that is mostly unproven.
In the secondary, UNC must replace stalwarts M.J. Stewart and Donnie Miles. Safety Myles Dorn, who earned extensive playing time as a freshman and sophomore, is the leader of the group after tying for the team lead with two interceptions and finishing third on the team in tackles in 2017. Cornerback K.J. Sails showed improvement as last season progressed and finished as the team leader in pass breakups.
Previewing North Carolina Football's Specialists for 2018
Ratliff-Williams was an All-ACC return specialist in 2017, returning two kickoffs for TDs, an area where UNC has excelled under Fedora. Freeman Jones was solid in his first season as the placekicker, making 6-of-7 attempts inside 40 yards and recording touchbacks on over half of his kickoffs. Hunter Lent takes over as the punter after impressing in limited action a year ago.
The Tar Heels have plenty of room for improvement after limping to a 3-9 record in 2017, but it remains to be seen whether they have enough talent to make much progress. Top priorities on offense are patching together a passable offensive line and getting consistent play at quarterback. On defense, UNC must avoid major breakdowns after allowing five runs of more than 50 yards and five TD passes longer than 65 yards a year ago. With a non-conference schedule that includes two road games and a matchup against UCF, a bowl game would be a good accomplishment.