This spring marks Year 4 of the Larry Fedora era at North Carolina and unfortunately, things have been trending in the wrong direction for the Tar Heels’ football program. Despite playing in a second straight bowl game (ineligible in Fedora’s first season), UNC’s win total has decreased each of the past two seasons since going 8-4 in 2012. While Fedora has been successful in implementing his fast-paced offense, the Tar Heels’ defense has steadily declined. Fedora brought in former Auburn head coach Gene Chizik to overhaul the defense, while the offense returns all but one starter. In a seemingly wide-open ACC Coastal Division, can the Tar Heels find a way to put it all together and break through in 2015?
5 Storylines to Watch in North Carolina’s Spring Practice
1. Starting Over on Defense
There’s no way to sugarcoat it – North Carolina’s defense was abysmal last season. The Tar Heels finished 120th in FBS in total defense (497.8 ypg) and tied for 119th in scoring defense (39.0 ppg). Their woes on defense can pretty much be summed up in the 70 points and 789 yards East Carolina piled up in its Sept. 20 win in Chapel Hill. Not surprisingly, Fedora is basically starting over; hiring former Auburn head coach Gene Chizik as defensive coordinator to oversee the implementation of a new scheme. This process begins in earnest, as Chizik and his staff will use spring practice to introduce the new system, while getting a better idea of the personnel they have to work with. Six starters are returning on that side of the ball, but given all of the issues last season, it may as well be viewed as a blank slate.
2. Quarterback Controversy?
Marquise Williams was named third-team All-ACC after accounting for 3,856 yards of total offense and 35 total touchdowns in 2014. A senior, Williams has to be considered the favorite for the starting job, but he will miss spring practice due to a hip injury. Williams’ absence presents third-year sophomore Mitch Trubisky with a chance to impress the coaching staff. Trubisky threw five touchdown passes and four interceptions last season and he was recruited by Fedora for this offense while Williams came to UNC the year before Fedora was hired. Williams has proven himself capable of orchestrating Fedora’s system, but can Trubisky show enough this spring to create a viable QB competition come fall camp?
3. Sorting Out the Backfield
The seventh-ranked rushing offense in the ACC last season, North Carolina returns every player who ran the ball, including Joey Mangili, the punter. The key returnees are Williams, who led the team in attempts, yards and rushing touchdowns, along with a quintet of running backs in T.J. Logan, Romar Morris, Elijah Hood, Charles Brunson and Khris Francis. Logan, a junior, and Morris, a senior, have the most experience, while Hood was the top recruit of the 2014 signing class. The Tar Heels don’t lack for options and Fedora isn’t shy to use them. All five backs had at least 27 carries last season. The question is, will one or more of them emerge in the spring to the point a running back and not the quarterback will lead the team in carries this fall?
4. Development of the Offensive Line
North Carolina not only returns just about every key offensive weapon from last season, but also any lineman who started a game. Nine different Tar Heels started up front, a group that’s led by third-team All-ACC right guard Landon Turner and the junior trio of left tackle John Ferranto, left guard Caleb Peterson and center Lucas Crowley. The returnees will be joined this spring by early enrollees Mason Veal and William Sweet with Tommy Hatton scheduled to arrive in the summer. Similar to the running backs, Fedora doesn’t lack for options along the offensive line. It’s figuring out which pieces fit best, as UNC looks to improve upon both its rushing production (151.4 ypg, 83rd in FBS, 4.0 ypc) and pass protection (28 sacks allowed, tied for 71st) this season.
5. Identifying Defensive Linchpins
The Tar Heels’ issues on defense are well documented, but one of the benefits of breaking in a new scheme and coaching staff is that the players can basically put the past behind them too. Competition in the spring should be pretty spirited, as everyone gets a chance to show the new coaches what they bring to the table. It would help both the coaches and the players if some leaders and/or building blocks emerge sooner than later, such as junior cornerback Brian Walker, junior defensive end Junior Gnonkonde or senior linebacker Jeff Schoettmer. The new guys, like early enrollees Jalen Dalton and Andre Smith and redshirt freshman Jeremiah Clarke, also will get their chances this spring.
Pre-Spring Outlook on North Carolina in the ACC:
The Tar Heels played in a bowl game in 2014, but won just six games and were one of the worst defenses in the entire nation. Every starter but one returns on offense, while former Auburn head coach Gene Chizik has come to Chapel Hill to overhaul the defense. Offense shouldn’t be an issue for Larry Fedora’s team, but the defense must improve if North Carolina wants to be viewed as a legitimate contender in what appears to be a fairly wide-open ACC Coastal Division in 2015.