Springtime in Chapel Hill usually means one thing: the hope of a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. With the Tar Heels entering this week in the top 10 of the national polls and having already secured no worse than a share of the ACC regular season title, this year is no different.
So quietly, football head coach Larry Fedora will be trying to rebuild his team after suffering some major personnel losses following an 8-5 campaign that ended with a loss to Stanford in the Sun Bowl. Here are five things to watch as North Carolina gets it going on the gridiron.
5 Storylines to Watch in North Carolina’s Spring Practice
1. Quarterback Battle
North Carolina will have a new starting quarterback... again. Mitch Trubisky’s one season as the leader of the Heels’ offense resulted in the Mentor, Ohio, product becoming a projected first-round NFL Draft pick. Fedora will now look at several options including Chaz Surratt, Nathan Elliott and Logan Byrd. Surratt, a redshirt freshman, may have the inside track.
2. Offensive Skill Positions
Trubisky was hardly the only offensive weapon that has left Chapel Hill. Running back Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan are moving on while receivers Ryan Switzer, Bug Howard and Mack Hollins need to be replaced as well. Austin Proehl and Thomas Jackson will be the leaders at wideout as they enter their senior year and will try to help develop the inexperienced members of the receiving corps. At running back, Fedora hopes that Jordon Brown can improve after seeing spot time as a freshman and keep an eye on early enrollee Michael Carter.
3. Offensive Line
To add to North Carolina’s offensive to do list, the offensive line needs to be re-tooled as well. Guard Tommy Hatton got some starts at the end of his redshirt freshman season and will look to take the next step this spring. Bentley Spain will be the anchor at left tackle but North Carolina will need a replacement for Jon Heck on the other side.
The Tar Heels lost cornerback Des Lawrence and safety Dominique Green from last year’s squad. But cornerrback M.J. Stewart decided to return for his senior season and will anchor the back end, and there are some exciting, younger options to keep an eye on. Myles Dorn was on the two-deep as a true freshman and is counted on as Green’s replacement at free safety. Another 2016 contributor, Patrice Rene, has an opportunity to grab the open cornerback spot. D.J. Ford, Greg Ross, K.J. Sails, and Myles Wolfolk are other members of the 2016 recruiting class that will compete for time in spring workouts.
5. New Defensive Coordinator
Defense has not been a strength for North Carolina but there was progress made over the past couple of seasons under Gene Chizik. Now that Chizik has left the program, John Papuchis has taken over the reins. Papuchis was the linebackers coach under Chizik and mentored Andre Smith and Cole Holcomb, two players that will be back for Carolina. How Papuchis tweaks the system and how the players respond will be something to keep an eye on as practice begins.
Pre-Spring Outlook for North Carolina in the ACC
There are personnel changes galore for North Carolina, especially on offense. Just about every major contributor – with the exception of left tackle Bentley Spain – has either seen his eligibility expire or chosen to jump to the NFL. Defensively, the Tar Heels need to replace only a few components and return two productive linebackers in Andre Smith and Cole Holcomb. But with John Papuchis taking over for Gene Chizik as defensive coordinator, there will be an adjustment period for that unit too. Head coach Larry Fedora has done a fine job in Chapel Hill but getting this team to challenge in the ACC Coastal Division in 2017 will be a monumental challenge.
— 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.