North Carolina fans had to enjoy the 2015 football season. For the first time since 1997, the Tar Heels had a double-figure win total and they gave conference champ Clemson all they could handle in theACC title game. They were rewarded with a bid to the Russell Athletic Bowl where they played Baylor.
That’s where the fun ended. UNC’s performance in the bowl game was not what most expected, especially considering Baylor’s injury situation coming into the game. While the lopsided loss did not wash away the good feelings established over the course of the fall, it does make the Tar Heels' spring season a bit more interesting.
5 Storylines to Watch in North Carolina’s Spring Practice
1. Mitch Trubisky, Come On Down
Coaches will always tell you that they love competition. When it comes to the quarterback position, that’s a bit of a lie. They like having the guy. The succession plan that is in place in Chapel Hill is perfect. Marquise Williams departs; Mitch Trubisky steps in. The junior-to-be from Mentor, Ohio, was outstanding during his limited opportunities in 2015, completing a stunning 85 percent of his passes for six touchdowns against no interceptions. This spring, the team is his and everyone will be watching to see how he responds.
2. Last Chance for Bug Howard
Howard had a great high school career and was a big get for the Heels when he chose them over the likes of Clemson, Mississippi State and Kentucky. The Rochelle, Ga., product had a promising freshman season with 22 catches and followed that up with a solid sophomore year. But he took a step back last year and became the fourth receiving option behind Ryan Switzer, Quinshad Davis and Mack Hollins. North Carolina needs a big receiver to replace Davis and it’s now or never for the 6-foot-5, 210-pound Howard.
3. Run Defense
Stopping the run was a problem for North Carolina all year. The 217 yards per game allowed on the ground going into the Russell Athletic Bowl was not good. But Baylor’s 645 yards rushing in the bowl game was embarrassing. It is year two for Gene Chizik as defensive coordinator at UNC and you can expect his top unit to get tested by the veteran Tar Heel offensive line and running back Elijah Hood quite often this spring. Making matters more difficult…
4. Plugging Holes at Linebacker
Shakeel Rashad and Jeff Schoettmer combined for 223 tackles last fall and that is production from players that will not call Chapel Hill home in the fall. The possible next guys up, Andre Smith and Ayden Bonilla, saw their first collegiate action this past fall and will need all the reps they can get this spring. Bonilla, a redshirt freshman that came to UNC as a safety, must continue to add size and strength in order to be competitive in the ACC. Smith, Schoettmer’s likely successor in the middle, got into the fray enough to register 53 tackles as a true freshman in 2015.
5. Dajaun Drennon
The 6-foot-4, 255-pounder from Clementon, N.J., was a coveted prospect that said no to Alabama, Florida State, USC, Clemson and many others when he signed with North Carolina in 2013. He’s been a solid contributor for two seasons, but it is time for him to really emerge. To set the tone for a breakout 2016 season, the groundwork needs to be laid this spring. While North Carolina ranked 18th in pass defense, they were 81st in sacks. Drennon has the ability to provide pressure and should also provide a boost to the Tar Heels’ rushing defense.
Pre-Spring North Carolina Outlook in the ACC
Despite the dismal defensive showing against Baylor, head coach Larry Fedora has the UNC arrow pointing in the right direction. Star offensive guard Landon Turner, quarterback Williams, and wide receiver Davis are gone, but everybody else returns to an explosive offense. Trubisky looks the part as Williams’ heir and as a result, the Tar Heels should score points in bunches next fall. It’s the defense that was the concern in 2015 and will be again in ‘16. If the Tar Heels can’t stop the run then a schedule that features the likes of Florida State and Dalvin Cook, Pittsburgh with Qadree Ollison and hopefully James Conner, Miami and Joseph Yearby, the Georgia Tech triple option, and the Georgia Bulldogs in the season opener, will make a potential repeat as Coastal Division champs that much more difficult.
— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.