And then, at last, it was game week.
“Y’all have something to do now,” Larry Fedora, the North Carolina coach, said on Monday, addressing the reporters in front of him.
Five days before the Tar Heels begin the season on Saturday against California, Fedora on Monday met with media members for the first of his weekly press conferences. Some things to note:
1. Maybe the quarterback situation really is undecided.
If you’ve followed my coverage throughout the preseason, you know that I’m skeptical about UNC’s supposed quarterback competition. Why? A couple of reasons: One, it’d make little sense to bring in Brandon Harris only to have him start the season on the sideline (unless he has especially struggled in the preseason) and, two, Fedora hasn’t exactly always been up front about these sorts of things.
In 2014, you’ll remember, Marquise Williams and Mitch Trubisky spent the entire preseason vying for the starting job. Williams eventually won the position. When asked after UNC’s first game when he found out, Williams admitted that he’d known for two weeks that he was going to be the starter. If there’s similar gamesmanship at play now, give Fedora credit for creating quite the illusion.
He has continued to insist that no quarterback – not Harris, the transfer from LSU, nor Chazz Surratt, nor Nathan Elliott – has separated himself. Fedora said the same thing on Monday, again, and it doesn’t sound like he’ll name a starter before Saturday. What he says publicly, though, can be a lot different from what he says in private, as it was in 2014 about Williams and Trubisky.
Even so, Fedora on Monday argued that the Williams/Trubisky competition was “a legitimate battle,” just as the current competition among Harris, Surratt and Elliott is also “legitimate.” All three of those players are listed on the public depth chart quarterback with the word “OR” between their names.
“I mean, you guys may not think that they’re legitimate battles, but they’re legitimate battles in my mind,” Fedora said. “When I announce them publicly, that may not happen the day that I make a decision, but it’s very similar (to 2014). It’s very similar. … That year it was probably just two guys that really had a legitimate shot, and I think we have an opportunity to have more guys than just two this year.”
Might UNC use more than one quarterback on Saturday against Cal? Fedora didn’t dismiss the thought. Maybe the Tar Heels would use two quarterbacks. Or three. Or four. A multiple-quarterback approach is probably unlikely but Fedora, it seems, is content to leave people guessing about this until Saturday.
2. The “ceiling is the roof” is on the ceiling – sort of.
Moments after Michael Jordan said “the ceiling is the roof” during his appearance in early March at halftime of UNC’s basketball game against Duke, the phrase went viral. Jordan, there to promote UNC football’s new partnership with Jordan Brand, a subsidiary of Nike, was trying to say, perhaps, that the sky is the limit for the UNC football program.
Instead he said “the ceiling is the roof,” and soon enough it was all over Twitter. UNC, and its supporters, were happy to embrace the phrase. Soon enough, it was on t-shirts and signs, and now those words are atop the tunnel the Tar Heels will run through before home games at Kenan Stadium, right there beneath the Jumpman logo that’s ubiquitous with Jordan Brand.
Fedora explained the use of Jordan’s phrase, which has become a part of UNC fan culture:
“It was authentic. It just came out when he said it. And, to me, it’s something special. It’s something that we have that nobody else in the world has. Nobody has that, where the man himself said it that night, and that’ll never change. And so to me it’s almost kind of a rallying cry for our program and our fans that we have something special. We have something that nobody else has. And so, embrace it.”
Fedora, by the way, is known to end many of his tweets with the hashtag #citr. It’s an acronym that now shouldn’t be too difficult to decipher.
3. UNC’s offensive line is in flux.
These are odd times for the Tar Heels’ offensive line. Tommy Hatton would have probably entered the season as a starter at left guard had he remained in preseason practice, but he hasn’t been with the team since the first week of the preseason.
Jared Cohen, another offensive guard, also could have entered the season as a starter. But he left the team on Friday, and left for the second time, after he never showed up for the start of preseason practice back in 2015.
Cohen’s strange odyssey led him from Chapel Hill in 2015, back to his hometown in Maryland, where he worked for a short time at a sporting goods store. Then he decided to transfer to Virginia, but that was short-lived, and he made his way back to UNC this summer, where as of a couple of weeks ago things seemed to be going well, according to Chris Kapilovic, UNC’s offensive line coach.
And now … well, now Cohen is gone again. Will he be back for a third go-around? Doesn’t sound like it, based on Fedora’s reaction: “I hate it for the kid and I hope he gets his personal issues worked out and I wish him the best for the real world, because that’s what he’s going to be doing.”
As for Hatton, “he’s still battling to get out there,” Fedora said, but it’s anybody’s guess as to what that means, or if Hatton, who also left the team briefly last season, will be back. The Cohen/Hatton drama isn’t the only UNC’s offensive line has experienced in the preseason, either.
Khaliel Rodgers, a graduate transfer offensive guard from Southern California, decided to retire during the first week of preseason practice. Until, that is, he un-retired to rejoin the team. All of UNC’s attrition – or attrition-turned-non-attrition, in the case of Rodgers – has happened on the interior of the line.
Two more things:
4. Another opener against a new coaching staff.
Last year, it was Georgia, and then six other games with a new coaching staff. This year, more of the same: another season-opener, and another game, period, against a school with an entirely new coaching staff. That makes it more difficult than it would be otherwise to prepare for Cal.
“We’re looking at a lot of tape, wasting a lot of time, when it comes down to it,” Fedora said, speaking of the need to study what Cal’s coaches have done before they arrived in Berkeley. “... But you have no way of knowing. So you spend a lot of time trying to over-prepare, so that your kids have some kind of idea of what’s going to happen in the game.”
5. Out of context Fedora quote of the day:
“I don’t get a lot of pleasure out of talking to you guys.”
Indeed, football season is back again.