It was a tale of two halves for North Carolina last season. Larry Fedora’s team lost five of its first six games, including a disheartening 55-31 home loss to East Carolina and 0-3 start in ACC play. From late October until the end of the season, however, the Tar Heels lost just one game, a 27-25 thrilling contest to Coastal Division champion Duke in the regular-season finale. Carolina then closed 2013 out on the right note, soundly defeating Cincinnati 39-17 in the Belk Bowl to put the finishing touches on an impressive turnaround.
Now entering Fedora’s third season and with a total of 14 starters returning, expectations are on the rise in Chapel Hill. Fedora’s calling card has been his up-tempo, spread offense and the 2014 version has the potential to be one of the nation’s most explosive units. That said, whether or not the Tar Heels can contend for the top spot in the Atlantic this fall will likely come down to the improvement shown on the other side of the ball.
North Carolina Tar Heels 2014 Spring Preview
2013 Record: 7-6 (4-4 ACC)
Spring Practice Opens: March 5
Spring Game: April 12
Four Things to Watch in North Carolina’s 2014 Spring Practice
1. There’s a new OC in town. For the first time in five seasons, Larry Fedora had to find a new offensive coordinator after Blake Anderson, whose ties with Fedora go back to Southern Miss, accepted the head coaching job at Arkansas State in December. To replace Anderson, Fedora hired Seth Littrell, Indiana’s co-offensive coordinator the past two seasons. Littrell’s official title is assistant head coach for offense and he also will oversee the tight ends, something he did at Indiana as well as Arizona, where he coached from 2009-11. While in Bloomington, Littrell paired with Kevin Johns to help the Hoosiers post some of the biggest offensive numbers in program history. Last season, Indiana finished ninth in the country in total offense while setting numerous school single-season records, including ones for total yards, points, passing touchdowns and first downs. The Hoosiers also were just one of three teams (Baylor, Florida State) in the nation to average more than 300 yards passing and 200 yards rushing per game in 2013. The Tar Heels’ offense isn’t exactly “broken,” as they finished 49th in the country in yards and 28th through the air last season, but that doesn’t mean there’s not room for improvement either. Carolina was just 84th in rushing offense last season. It will be interesting to see how Littrell’s philosophies and ideas mesh with Fedora’s own and the personnel this spring.
2. Restocking the offensive line. Just like last year, one of the busiest position coaches during spring practice figures to be offensive line coach Chris Kapilovich. After the 2012 season, North Carolina lost three standout offensive linemen, including first-round NFL Draft pick, guard Jonathan Cooper, and now Kapilovich’s newest challenge will be replacing a pair of All-ACC honorees in left tackle James Hurst (first team) and center Russell Bodine (honorable mention). The cupboard isn’t exactly bare, not with guards Caleb Peterson and Landon Turner and tackle John Heck, each of whom started at least 12 games last season, returning. While this trio forms a solid foundation that Kapilovich can build around, it doesn’t change the fact that one way or the other the Tar Heels will have two new faces along the offensive line in 2014 and these “rookies” could be inserted into arguably the most important positions up front – left tackle and center. Among the newcomers expected to vie for these spots is redshirt freshman R.J. Prince and incoming freshmen Josh Allen, Jared Cohen and Bentley Spain. Of these Spain is definitely a name to watch as the highly regarded (No. 115 in the 247Sports Composite) in-state prospect from Charlotte enrolled early so he could participate in spring practice.
3. Quarterback battle. Despite being one of the few quarterbacks in the ACC that returns with any starting experience, there is no guarantee that Marquise Williams will get the call for the Aug. 30 season opener against Liberty. Even though Williams helped spark his team to a strong finish last fall, the junior finds himself in a battle this spring with sophomore Kanler Coker and redshirt freshman Mitch Trubisky. Williams made a total of five starts last season, finishing 2013 with 1,698 yards passing and 15 touchdowns. He also led the team in rushing with 536 yards and six touchdowns and caught two passes for 52 yards and a score. Williams clearly has the playing experience edge over Coker and Trubisky, but the latter was one of the top prospects of last year’s signing class and could wind up being Williams’ main competition. Whomever ends up under center for the Tar Heels won’t lack for weapons even with the departure of first-team All-ACC tight end Eric Ebron. The backfield includes returnees T.J. Logan (533 yards rushing, 4 TDs), Romar Morris (296, 5) and Khris Francis (236, 1) and will add one-time Notre Dame commit Elijah Hood, a top-10 running back prospect according to 247 Sports, Rivals and Scout. At wide receiver, Quinshad Davis is back after earning Honorable Mention All-ACC recognition in 2013, along with freshman All-American return specialist Ryan Switzer and wideouts Bug Howard and T.J. Thorpe.
4. Continued progress with the 4-2-5. This is Year 3 for the unique 4-2-5 defensive scheme employed by coordinators Vic Koenning (Associate Head Coach for Defense/Safeties) and Ron West (co-Defensive Coordinator/Linebackers) and, hopefully, the unit will continue to make strides. During last season’s 1-5 start, the Tar Heels’ defense gave up at least 27 points in all but one game and surrendered more than 550 yards of offense twice. Over the final seven games, the damage on the scoreboard was limited to 19.1 points per game and the most yards the defense gave up in a single game were 461 in the two-point loss to Duke. This side of the ball has lost some key players, notably first-team All-ACC defensive end Kareem Martin and secondary stalwarts Tre Boston and Jabari Price. However, seven starters and a host of key contributors return along with some additional reinforcements for the defensive line in the form of several redshirt freshmen and a pair of intriguing, incoming prospects. The linebackers could be pretty deep and the secondary boasts some talent and experience of its own. There appear to be plenty of pieces for Koenning, West and the rest of the defensive staff to work with and the spring will allow them to get a head start on putting the complicated puzzle that is the 4-2-5 together.
2014 Early Projected Win Range: 7-9
North Carolina saved its best for last in 2013, winning six of its final seven games, including the Belk Bowl over Cincinnati, to finish 7-6. While the Tar Heels have some questions to address on offense and plenty of room for improvement on defense, they should at least get off to a better start this fall. Instead of opening against South Carolina, Larry Fedora’s team welcomes Liberty to Chapel Hill. You also know Fedora won’t have to worry about a lack of motivation for the rematch with East Carolina on the road.
North Carolina opens ACC play at Clemson and by hosting Virginia Tech and also has Notre Dame on the schedule this season. However, scoring points shouldn’t be that hard for this offense and if the defense continues to improve with another season’s worth of experience in the 4-2-5 under its belt, there is no reason the Tar Heels can’t match last season’s win total before the postseason comes around. In fact, if both the offense and defense take that next step this fall, then Fedora and company could find themselves contending for the top spot in the Coastal Division and a chance to play for the conference championship in December.