The second Mack Brown era in Chapel Hill gets underway
In many ways, the North Carolina football program and the current seasonal change are on similar paths. As spring commences, a welcome relief from the cold is taking place, with the warm air giving hope that the winter doldrums will soon be a memory. Likewise, the new Mack Brown era has put the last two years of Larry Fedora's chilly tenure in the rearview mirror with a plan for better times ahead.
As the Tar Heels begin their spring preparation for 2019, there are lingering question marks on the team, including one at a position group that became more muddled in the past week. So while the positive vibes are all around Chapel Hill, it’s now time for Brown and his staff to really start working on making sure Carolina has better results next fall and beyond.
5 Storylines to Watch During North Carolina's Spring Practice
1. Philosophy change
It’s more than just the switch to Mack Brown as the head coach. Two new coordinators arrive and with that comes a new look on both sides of the ball. Getting Jay Bateman from Army was a coup. The undersized Cadets finished eighth nationally in total defense in 2019 and were top 10 in both scoring and rushing defense. Phil Longo will run the offense, something he did very successfully during his two years at Ole Miss. He likes to spread things out and throw it around, so solving the second question becomes very important.
2. Who is the quarterback?
Chazz Surratt or Nathan Elliott? That has been the question for UNC for much of the past two years. For 2019, the answer is neither. However, the Heels are no closer to finding their man at quarterback. Surratt has moved to the other side of the ball at linebacker and Elliott gave up his final year of eligibility to take a graduate assistant coaching job at Arkansas State. So the battle will be between redshirt freshmen Cade Fortin and Jace Ruder as well as early enrollee Sam Howell.
3. Is Dazz Newsome a No. 1 receiver?
Newsome built on a solid freshman campaign by catching 44 passes for 506 yards as a sophomore. He also averaged 13.7 yards on seven jet sweeps and his 15 yards per punt return was good for fourth in the country. Now, with Anthony Ratliff-Williams off to the next level, Newsome will be the guy that defenses key on. It would be helpful if, along with a strong performance by one of the three quarterback contenders, another receiver — like Dyami Brown — steps up to take some pressure off the Hampton, Virginia, product. On a positive note, Longo did a great job at Mississippi developing A.J. Brown and DeMarkus Lodge as well as NFL Scouting Combine freak D.K. Metcalf, so he has a knack for getting the most out of skilled receivers.
4. Finding new production at linebacker
Over the past three seasons, Cole Holcomb totaled 312 tackles despite being banged up for much of the time. Jonathan Smith, who has battled his own injuries while at UNC, should return, but he will miss the spring semester with an academic issue. So over the next six weeks, there will be some new faces trying to make an impact. Dominique Ross was fifth on the team in tackles with 47 despite only playing eight games in 2018 and as a senior will be asked to provide a more consistent presence, something that was missing at times last season.
5. Replacing Malik Carney
The defensive end that had been a solid performer the two prior seasons, busted out in a big way as a senior. After serving a four-game suspension due to the shoe debacle, Carney had six sacks and 12 tackles for lost yardage in just eight games. Tomon Fox is solid on one edge, but the Heels would like a nasty, quick-twitch athlete on the other side to make quarterbacks sweat. Chris Collins, a redshirt freshman from Richmond, Virginia, that had offers from Miami, Georgia, Michigan State, and Tennessee, may just be that guy.
— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.