Tar Heels hit the field; Meet fans today
North Carolina's annual "Meet the Heels" event today from 4-6 p.m. at Kenan Stadium will give fans their first chance to interact with the new additions to the Tar Heels.
The most sought-after newcomer will likely be Charlotte running back Elijah Hood, widely regarded as the state's top recruit in the Class of 2014.
Hood took snaps with the second team, behind sophomore T.J. Logan, as UNC opened training camp Friday morning. His progress will be one of the main storylines as the Tar Heels go through four weeks of practice before hosting Liberty on Aug. 30.
Ryan Switzer tied an NCAA record with five punt returns for touchdowns in one season in 2013. Logan, also a true freshman, averaged 5.7 yards a carry. Who will have a breakthrough first season in 2014?
The most obvious candidate is Hood, a 225-pound high school all-America who squatted 605 pounds last month -- and could have done more of the trainers didn't stop him.
Speaking at media day last week, UNC coach Larry Fedora not only praised Hood's speed and ability to fight through contact, but also his football savvy.
"There’s more to it than carrying the football," Fedora said. "In what we do, (the running back's) got to be able to pass protect, he’s got to know protections, he’s got to do a lot of things. He blew me away in how quickly he picked those up -- faster than any freshman running back I’ve ever had."
Another true freshman who could play right away is left tackle Bentley Spain, who will challenge sophomore John Ferranto for the starting job. Like Hood, Spain enrolled early, though he was limited during spring practice because of a pec strain and a knee sprain.
"He’s in the mix to be the starter at left tackle," Fedora said. "That thing is still wide open."
On the subject of positions that Fedora said were wide open, it doesn't get bigger than quarterback.
Junior Marquise Williams appears to have the edge after going 4-2 as a starter last year -- he was taking snaps with the 1's when Friday's practice began -- but he will be challenged by redshirt freshman Mitch Trubisky.
Williams became the first quarterback to lead UNC in rushing since Gayle Bomar in 1968 and spent the offseason working on his arm, both with quarterbacks coach George Whitfield and at the Manning Passing Academy. But Williams and Trubisky split time evenly with the starters during the spring, and the position battle could even extend into the season. Fedora said he wasn't opposed to both players appearing in games.
"I wouldn’t say that if I didn’t believe both kids could win," Fedora said. "That is a viable option. We’ll have to wait and see. In my years of being an offensive coordinator and head coach, I’ve done it a lot of different ways. Believe me, I will do whatever it takes to win football games."
THE OFFENSIVE LINE
While the quarterback competition has received the bulk of people's attention, Fedora said that the real focus should be the offensive line.
"That’s going to determine whether we’re going to be successful or not -- those five guys," Fedora said.
After losing five offensive lineman to the NFL over the past two seasons, including center Russell Bodine and left tackle James Hurst after last year, junior guard Landon Turner (17 starts) is the most experienced player on the unit. Everyone else will probably be underclassmen -- sophomores Lucas Crowley at center, Jon Heck at left tackle and Caleb Peterson at left guard and either Ferranto, Spain or freshman R.J. Prince at left tackle.
Compounding the issue, UNC's no-huddle, fast-paced offense doesn't allow much time for linemen to make adjustments.
"We’re talented but we’re young," Fedora said. "And you’re not talking about one position, you’re talking about all five working in unison together. The type of offense we run, it’s more difficult for those guys because they’ve got to process very quickly."
THE FRONT SEVEN
Besides the offensive line, the biggest question mark going into camp is the defensive front, which lost two potential starters in middle linebacker Darius Lipford and defensive tackle Shawn Underwood last month because of academic issues. As a result, bandits Norkeithus Otis and Junior Gnonkonde are the only member of the front seven who had more than 10 solo tackles last season, while senior defensive tackle Ethan Farmer is the only other player with more than 20 total tackles.
Speaking after Lipford turned pro but before Underwood left, Fedora said that depth was a concern.
"It puts that much more of a strain on the guys at that position," Fedora said. "That means we’ve got to keep them healthy, we have to adjust the way we practice. That means I’ve got to do a good job of figuring out where that fine line is, how much hitting we actually do."
Otis, who had 7.5 sacks last year, is the unquestioned leader of the defense. But after four straight years of having an early-round NFL draft pick anchoring the line -- Robert Quinn, Quinton Coples, Sylvester Williams and Kareem Martin -- the Tar Heels will be relying on unheralded players up front.
"Across the entire front, we probably don’t have that name guy that everybody’s talking about," Fedora said. " I think that’s great motivation for those kids."
Follow Harold Gutmann on Twitter at @haroldgut.