North Carolina fans could really not be any more pleased with how Year 1 of the Larry Fedora era in Chapel Hill went in 2012, other than the fact the Tar Heels couldn’t capitalize on their first-place tie in the ACC Coastal Division because of their NCAA-mandated postseason ban. The good news is that the ban was just for one season, so there are no such distractions to worry about for 2013. With All-ACC quarterback Bryn Renner and electric wide receiver Quinshad Davis returning, the offense should be just as explosive, if not more so, although there are question marks surrounding the offensive line and just how productive the running game will be with Giovani Bernard headed to the NFL. The defense returns six starters, but has plenty of room for improvement following last season’s up-and-down performance in the new 4-2-5 alignment. Despite these question marks, there’s no reason to not expect another winning season (and this time a bowl berth with it) from Fedora’s team this fall, especially considering there’s no Clemson or Florida State on Carolina’s ACC slate.
North Carolina Tar Heels 2013 Spring Preview
2012 Record: 8-4 (5-3)
Spring practice dates: March 6-April 13
Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 7
Passing: Bryn Renner, 276 of 422, 3,356 yards, 28 TDs, 7 INTs
Rushing: A.J. Blue, 82 att., 443 yards, 9 TDs
Receiving: Quinshad Davis, 61 rec., 776 yards, 5 TDs
Tackles: Tre Boston, 86
Sacks: Kareem Martin, 4
Interceptions: Tre Boston and Tim Scott, 4
Redshirts to watch: OL Caleb Peterson, OL J.J. Patterson, S Clint Heaven, S Joe Jackson, TE Terrance Knox, OL Jon Heck
Early Enrollees to watch: QB Mitch Trubisky, WR Jordan Fieulleteau, RB Khris Francis, OL R.J. Prince
at South Carolina (Thurs.)
at Georgia Tech
at Virginia Tech
at NC State
Offensive Strength: Quarterback Bryn Renner may not be the ideal fit for Larry Fedora’s no-huddle spread attack, but he has proven that he can be successful and productive in it. Last season Renner finished third in the ACC in passing efficiency and touchdown passes, while also setting a school single-season record with his 28 touchdown tosses. With a full season of experience in the new offensive scheme under his belt and dynamic pass-catchers led by wide receiver Quinshad Davis and tight end Eric Ebron, look for similar, if not better, numbers from the senior signal caller this season.
Offensive Weakness: The cupboard is far from bare, but it will not be easy for the Tar Heels to replace three All-ACC offensive lineman and first-team All-ACC running back Giovani Bernard. Bernard led the ACC with 1,228 yards rushing last season, while left guard Jonathan Cooper, who will likely be a first-round pick in April’s NFL Draft, was named the conference’s Offensive Lineman of the Year.
Defensive Strength: Just like the offense, the defense has now had a full season learning and getting comfortable with the unique 4-2-5 alignment. Six of Carolina’s top 10 leading tacklers from 2012 return, including four from its defensive backfield.
Defensive Weakness: Hopefully with experience will come better results, as this unit struggled at times last year, especially against the pass (81st in the nation). Even though seven starters return, the departures of first-team All-ACC honorees defensive tackle Sylvester Williams and linebacker Kevin Reddick, as well as starting Bandit (hybrid DL/LB) Dion Guy can’t be overlooked.
Spring Storylines Facing the Tar Heels
1. Rebuilding the offensive line. North Carolina set single-season school records for total (485.6 ypg), passing (291.8 ypg) and scoring offense (40.6 ppg) last season. While the shift to new head coach Larry Fedora’s no-huddle spread attack had a lot of do with this production, another key was the offensive line. Not only did Jonathan Cooper, Travis Bond and Brennan Williams earn All-ACC honors in 2012, they started a combined total of 99 games as Tar Heels. They are all gone, leaving left tackle James Hurst, a second-team All-ACC performer last season, and starting center Russell Bodine as the only offensive linemen with more than four career starts. Three other starters and the rest of the rotation need to be determined, and there’s no doubt spring practice could play a huge role in how the line will look and perform come this fall.
2. Revamping the running game. Giovani Bernard left early for the NFL after leading the ACC and finishing 33rd in the nation in rushing with 1,228 yards as a sophomore in just 10 games. Junior A.J. Blue and sophomore Romar Morris both rushed for more than 400 yards and averaged better than five yards per carry in 2012, but combined the duo had fewer carries (151) than Bernard (184). Whether Fedora and offensive coordinator Blake Anderson name either Blue or Morris as the primary ball carrier or goes with a committee approach remains to be seen, but this is one of the skill position battles to watch this spring.
3. Finding more weapons in the passing game. Barring injury, quarterback Bryn Renner has a good chance of owning most, if not all, of the major passing records in program history before his senior season comes to an end. Renner’s favorite targets this fall most likely will be wide receiver Quinshad Davis, who led the team in catches and receiving yards as a freshman last season, and athletic tight end Eric Ebron, a junior. If another receiver or two can step up and establish themselves this spring, it will not only help the aerial attack, which relies on tempo and quick strikes to wear down defenses, but also take some pressure off of a rebuilt offensive line and revamped running game. Junior wideout Sean Tapley, who tied for the team lead with five touchdown catches last season, should get the first shot, but there’s no lack of candidates on the roster. Other returnees include wideouts Mark McNeill and Nic Platt, as well as early enrollee and in-state product Jordan Fieulleteau and Jonathan Howard, a highly regarded four-star recruit from Georgia who will arrive on campus later in the summer.
4. Will Year 2 of 4-2-5 bring better results? It’s one thing to change coaching staffs. It’s entirely another to change your entire defensive philosophy. North Carolina did both leading into last season, as new head coach Larry Fedora installed new offensive and defensive schemes. Not only was co-defensive coordinators Dan Disch’s and Vic Koenning’s 4-2-5 scheme new, it’s also unique as few schools in college football employ it. The results in 2012 were definitely mixed, as the Tar Heels’ defense fared well enough to let the offense do its thing and finish with a winning record, but struggled mightily at times. The defense gave up more than 500 yards of total offense three straight games at one point, including 588 in a 68-50 home loss to Georgia Tech. Six starters and several others on the depth chart return with a full year of experience playing in a 4-2-5, which should help. However, the defense also will have to replace several key contributors, most notably All-ACC performers defensive tackle Sylvester Williams and linebacker Kevin Reddick, as well as starting Bandit (hybrid DL/LB) Dion Guy. More help is on the way in the form of redshirts and incoming freshmen, but the onus will be on them to learn the ins and outs of the scheme quickly, while the burden will fall to the veterans to show just how much they learned as rookies in the new system last season.
5. The quarterback of the future. Renner is firmly entrenched as the starter and, barring injury, should make a run at All-ACC honors again. Eventually, however, the focus will have to shift to 2014 and who will take over at quarterback. Marquise Williams, one of the top signees in the Tar Heels’ ‘11 recruiting class, was believed to be the leading candidate, but he is not currently enrolled in classes at UNC and his status on the team is somewhat of a mystery. For his part, Fedora has said that Williams is still a part of the team and that he will be back in the summer. Until then, this presents early enrollee Mitch Trubisky, a four-star recruit from Mentor (Ohio) High School, with a golden opportunity to take full advantage of spring practice and stake his claim to the backup job headed into the summer. If anything, Williams’ sudden departure, even if it does end up being temporary, makes it even more critical that Renner make it through not only spring practice, but also this coming season, healthy.
Related College Football Content
ACC Football 2013 Spring Preview and Storylines
ACC Football Schedule Analysis for 2013
College Football's Top 10 Spring Storylines for 2013
Ranking the ACC Coaching Jobs for 2013
Ranking All 125 College Football Coaching Jobs for 2013
College Football's Top 15 Spring Quarterback Battles for 2013
College Football's Top 5 Running Backs on the Rise for 2013
College Football's Top 5 Quarterbacks on the Rise for 2013
Miami Hurricanes 2013 Spring Preview