It feels like the North Carolina Tar Heels football team has been here before. A season’s worth of expectations coming in to a new year, then some difficulty hamstringing the early part of the season only for the Heels to build enough momentum in the second half of the season to once again put themselves on the precipice of expectations. People are looking for North Carolina to seize the Coastal this year, just like they were last year. Others are betting on one or another of the horses in the Coastal Division to emerge. How will it play out this time?
Coach: Larry Fedora (3rd year, 49-29)
Stadium: Kenan Memorial Stadium (Capacity: 63,000)
Last Season: 7-6, 4-4 (ACC)
It was a tale of two seasons really, the Tar Heels coming out slow. The defense looked malleable early in the year, climaxing with a blowout loss to East Carolina. 5th year senior quarterback Bryn Renner was lost early too, which ended his run at the Tar Heels record book. The team rallied behind redshirt sophomore quarterback Marquise Williams on offense, and the defense followed the example of senior end Kareem Martin. What followed was a four game winning streak and a showdown with Duke. Though the Blue Devils kept the Victory Bell, the Tar Heels were invited to the Belk Bowl in Charlotte. They defeated Cincinnati to claim their first victory in four tries at the Charlotte based bowl.
Offense: Oklahoma State spread variant
The Fedora spread relies on tempo to work best. Not only does Fedora want to create mismatches by playing three or more wideouts, he wants the defense to be unable to adequately substitute tired or outmatched players. This usually means a one back set, but the number of Tar Heel runners that could see carries is currently at four, so two back sets may appear without a traditional fullback.
The spread demands accuracy of its quarterbacks and precision from its wide receivers. That was the one question mark surrounding Marquise Williams, was he accurate enough? This is seemingly an open question, as there is currently still a quarterback competition going on at Chapel Hill, between Williams and the more accurate redshirt freshman Mitch Trubisky. Despite that, Williams has been in front of the media, and in ‘leadership’ situations that would suggest that the job is still his.
UNC will miss the absence of Eric Ebron, who was a matchup nightmare for defenses. However, they have senior Jack Tabb, who has been productive at times. The wide receivers suffered less turnover, as junior Quinshad Davis returns to lead that group. TJ Thorpe has reinjured his left foot, so it is hard to say where he fits in, but sophomore Ryan Switzer will play a bigger role out wide than he did previously.
The Tar Heels have four running backs that will see time. TJ Logan is looking to see what he can do with a full season under his belt. Junior Romar Morris is healthy again, and Sophomore Khris Francis is back. Freshman Elijah Hood may provide a change-of-pace, as he is more in the power back mold.
The one big question will be the offensive line. Trusted anchors James Hurst and Russell Bodine are gone. Lucas Crowley was good enough to see time as a freshman, but the line will be either new or inexperienced this year. That could be a problem against more puss rush oriented defenses.
North Carolina is in their third year of the 4-2-5, but face major turnover on the defense. Secondary cogs Jabari Price and Tre Boston are in the NFL now. Martin and line mate Tim Jackson are too. Linebacker Darius Lipford left for the supplemental draft. Shawn Underwood and a couple others became academically ineligible. There will be spots to fill on the defense.
To counteract that, the Tar Heels are bringing back some nice players. Tim Scott will be moving to safety. A number of guys saw time at defensive back last year, so they have some experience to match their youth. The line returns senior Norkeithus Otis, who blossomed as a Bandit (hybrid DE/LB) last year. One of his potential partners will be junior Shakeel Rashad, who had a promising freshman campaign but did not see much action last year due to injuries and a suspension for hitting Duke WR Conner Vernon. With the line somewhat in question, linebackers will have to make up the difference.
Senior Thomas Moore returns as kicker for the Heels. Moore does not have a lot of range, so expect the Heels to be aggressive on fourth down opportunities.
Senior punter Tommy Hibbard returns for the Heels. Hibbard is a preseason Ray Guy Award watch list guy and been a solid punter each of his three years.
TJ Logan will likely be involved in returning kickoffs, while his partner will be different, assuming Thorpe is not back for the season opener. Ryan Switzer will no doubt be returning punts after an All-America season last year.
Player to Watch: Ryan Switzer, Sophomore, Wide Receiver, 5’10” 180 lbs
You thought I brushed Switzer off a little quickly there? No, there is no doubt the West Virginian is the most exciting player on the Tar Heel roster. He started slow last year, but came on like a freight train toward the end of the season, tying an NCAA record with 5 punt return touchdowns. He did all that work in four or five games. It could be argued that he single-handedly won the Pittsburgh game last year. Nor is he shy about his ability to do it again, believing he can take it back every time.
Although Switzer is fast, his most dangerous asset on returns is his vision. Switzer has good instincts for where his blockers are and adjusting his speed to his needs. This will an interesting thing to see on offense, where Fedora will try to run him on slants and screens. That will turn those plays into something akin to punt returns, where Switzer can feel out the chaos of the defense for holes. How fast he’ll pick up route-running is anyone’s guess, but Fedora will find a way to get him the football.
9/6- San Diego State
9/20- AT East Carolina
9/27- AT Clemson
10/4- Virginia Tech
10/11- AT Notre Dame
10/18- Georgia Tech
10/25- AT Virginia
11/1- AT Miami
11/20- AT Duke
11/29- NC State
Prediction: 8-4 (5-3 ACC)
North Carolina will likely end the year where they started it, poised to make a big move next year. Despite some Clemson defense problems, I do not see the Tar Heels beating the Tigers in Death Valley. I also think that Duke will find a way to defend their home field in November. I believe that UNC will beat Notre Dame on the road, but lose to ECU on Hall of Fame day in Greenville. The final loss is at Miami, since the two Coastal teams are so close, home field may swing it. Whether 6-2 is good enough to win the Coastal (some years it is) will be decided on Saturday when we preview the ACC.
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