The journey to claim the 2012 national title begins in February, March and April, as 124 college football teams open up spring practice over the next three months. Athlon will preview some of the top teams and storylines across the nation, as the countdown to 2012 inches closer.
North Carolina Tar Heels 2012 Spring Preview
2011 Record: 7-6, 3-5 ACC
Spring practice: March 15-April 14
Returning Starters: Offense – 8, Defense – 6
Passing: Bryn Renner, 239 of 350, 3,086 yards, 26 TDs, 13 INTs
Rushing: Giovani Bernard: 239 car., 1,253 yds., 13 TDs
Receiving: Erik Highsmith: 51 rec., 726 yds., 5 TDs
Tackles: Kevin Reddick, 71
Sacks: Kareem Martin, 4
Interceptions: Tre Boston, 3
Redshirts to watch: DL Devonte Brown, OL Kiaro Holts, QB Marquise Williams, S Darien Rankin, OL Jarrod James
Early Enrollees: TE Terrance Knox, LB Shakeel Rashad
Sept. 1 Elon
Sept. 8 at Wake Forest
Sept. 15 at Louisville
Sept. 22 East Carolina
Sept. 29 Idaho
Oct. 6 Virginia Tech
Oct. 13 at Miami (Fla.)
Oct. 20 at Duke
Oct. 27 vs. NC State
Nov. 10 Georgia Tech
Nov. 15 at Virginia
Nov. 24 Maryland
Offensive Strength: North Carolina has two of the ACC’s top returning offensive players in quarterback Bryn Renner and running back Giovani Bernard. Renner led the ACC in passing efficiency last season as a sophomore, while Bernard, who will be just a sophomore in 2012, is the conference’s leading returning rusher. The Tar Heels also return four starters on the offensive line, which is anchored on the left side by Jonathan Cooper and James Hurst. Both earned 2nd team All-ACC honors in 2011.
Offensive Weakness: There’s no question the Tar Heels will miss wide receiver Dwight Jones. Last year he led the ACC with 85 catches, was third in receiving yards (1,196) and fifth in the conference in touchdowns (12). The focus now shifts to who will step up and help senior Erik Highsmith (51 receptions in 2011) and become a reliable receiver for Renner. There’s also the matter of making the switch to new head coach Larry Fedora’s spread offense from the pro style scheme used last year by interim head coach Everett Withers and his staff.
Defensive Strength: The Tar Heels return six starters on defense, headlined by linebacker Kevin Reddick, cornerback Tre Boston and defensive end Kareem Martin. They also return several experienced players from last year’s two-deep who are ready for the opportunity to become starters. This year’s defense will be under the direction of new co-coordinators Vic Koenning and Dan Disch. Koenning had been the defensive coordinator at Illinois the past two seasons, during which time the Fighting Illini’s defense improved from 91st in the country in total defense in 2009 to seventh in 2011. Disch follows Fedora from Southern Miss where he successfully implemented his brand of a 4-2-5 defensive scheme.
Defensive Weakness: Although the defense returns six starters, it still lost a lot of talent and production in the departures of the other. Defensive end Quinton Coples is projected as a first-round pick in the upcoming NFL Draft and linebacker Zach Brown will more than likely hear his name called in the early rounds as well. Defensive lineman Donte Paige-Moss and Tydreke Powell and cornerback Charles Brown could also get drafted or eventually end up on a NFL roster too. Just like the offense, the defense will be switching schemes as Koenning and Kisch are expected to implement a hybrid 4-2-5/3-3-5 style.
Spring Storylines Facing the Tar Heels
1. On Monday, the NCAA announced that the North Carolina football program had been banned from postseason play in 2012 and other additional penalties stemming from numerous violations committed under former head coach Butch Davis. The program was also placed on three years’ probation and increased the reduction of scholarships from nine to 15 over the same period. The school was well aware that this announcement was forthcoming, but it’s still not the way new head coach Larry Fedora wanted to start his first season as head coach. Davis and all the other key figures associated with the violations, which included academic fraud, impermissible agent benefits, participation by ineligible players and a failure to monitor the football program, are all gone so at least now the focus can switch back to the product on the field.
2. Fedora will be working hard to teach his spread offense to his new team this spring and it will be interesting to watch how quickly they pick it up. In his four seasons at Southern Miss, the Golden Eagles finished in the top 20 in the nation in total offense three times. The best North Carolina did in that same time span was 51st in 2010. Tar Heel fans shouldn’t expect to see instant results, as Renner isn’t the prototypical quarterback to run a spread offense, but should like and enjoy the new scheme more and more as the season progresses. Don’t be surprised to see Fedora and offensive coordinator Blake Anderson, who was with Fedora at Southern Miss, tailor the offense more this season to better fit the strengths of both Renner and Bernard, two of the ACC’s premier playmakers.
3. Another reason to temper expectations with the offense is the lack of returning experience and production in the receiving corps. Highsmith is the Tar Heels’ leading returning receiver with 51 catches for 726 yards and five touchdowns. Bernard is next with 45 receptions out of the backfield. After the remaining returning wide receivers combined for 20 catches last year. The returning tight ends had more, but regardless someone will have to step up in the spring if North Carolina wants to develop any sort of consistent passing attack. Senior Jheraine Boyd and sophomore T.J. Thorpe are two receivers to watch, along with senior tight end Nelson Hurst and sophomore Eric Ebron. Two freshmen to keep an eye on are receiver Quinshad Davis, one of the key pieces to Fedora’s first recruiting class, and tight end Terrance Knox.
4. Although the offense will be changing, the defense is undergoing an even more extensive makeover, switching from a 4-3 to a hybrid 4-2-5/3-3-5 scheme. Six starters return, but besides learning all the concepts of the new defense, some of them also may be changing positions as Koenning and Disch figure out where each player fits best. The defensive line lost three standouts in Coples, Paige-Moss and Powell, but linebacker is the position that has the biggest question marks headed into spring practice. Tackle machine Brown is gone and although Reddick is more than capable of assuming the leadership role in the linebacker corps, who will line up beside him remains to be seen. Two players to watch here are junior Darius Lipford and sophomore Travis Hughes. The secondary will play an even more important role in the new scheme putting pressure on returnees like Tre Boston, Jabari Price, Gene Robinson and Tim Scott. Don’t be surprised to see breakdowns in coverage and execution early in the season as the players adapt to and get comfortable in the new system.
5. Fedora and his coaching staff already had enough to deal with in their first season in Chapel Hill, including getting settled in their new surroundings, putting together a recruiting class in a short amount of time and start the process of teaching the players the new offense and defense. Now following the NCAA’s announcement of the additional penalties levied on the football program, they have a new challenge – keeping the team motivated throughout a season that will not include a bowl game. Because of the postseason ban, seniors will be able to transfer to another school and play right away. It remains to be seen if any Tar Heel seniors will go this route, but the success of the North Carolina football program moving forward could very well depend on how the younger players approach this season. Will it be the first step in laying a foundation for the future or will they just go through the motions and not take the opportunity to learn what Fedora and the coaching staff are trying to teach as he works to transform the football program into what he envisions. Only time will tell, but given all the circumstances you could argue no one has a tougher job in college football right now than Fedora and his staff.
Related College Football Content
Athlon's Early Top 25 for 2012
Grading College Football's New Coaching Hires for 2012
College Football Coaches on the Hot Seat: Spring Practice Edition
College Football's Top 10 Spring Storylines to Watch
2012 ACC Schedule Analysis