Blue takes over in UNC backfield
As the frontrunner to replace one of the most electrifying players in recent North Carolina history, running back A.J. Blue will be one of the most watched players on the field during UNC’s spring game.
But the rising senior is more concerned with his fundamentals when the starters face the backups today at Kenan Stadium (3 p.m., ESPN3.com).
“Just hold onto the ball, that’s my main thing, and protect the quarterback,” Blue said. “I missed a couple of assignments Friday.”
All-ACC running back Giovani Bernard, who will be honored on the field during the first quarter, is one of many key players who need to be replaced off last year’s 8-4 team, which would have advanced to the ACC championship game if not for NCAA sanctions.
The offense also must find three new starting lineman, while the defense will be missing four-year starting linebacker Kevin Reddick and standout tackle Sylvester Williams.
But the biggest opening is in the backfield, where Bernard ran for 2,481 yards and 25 touchdowns in two seasons before declaring for the NFL draft. Blue has held the starting position this spring, while sophomore Romar Morris and early enrollee Khris Francis also have been getting repetitions with the first team.
“My main goal this spring was to take no days off,” Blue said. “It sounds easy, but once you get here and you get tired, it’s kind of easy to take a day off.”
The spring game will be the first chance for fans to see former backups such as Blue take on new roles. But it’s important not to put too much stock in what happens.
“I want these guys to have a good time,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said. “I mean, they’ve worked hard for (14) practices now and need to go out there and play hard and fly around and just have fun. That’s the main thing. I’d like to see them just turn it loose and play.”
The four-quarter scrimmage will feature the starting offense and defense on the white team and backups on the blue team. There will be a normal clock for the first half and a running clock in the second half.
There are 14 scholarship players who will not participate, including returning starters such as left tackle James Hurst, tight end Eric Ebron, cornerback Jabari Price and kick returner T.J. Thorpe. The injured group also includes safeties Sam Smiley and Darien Rankin, linebacker Darius Lipford and wide receiver Reggie Wilkins.
The injuries have left openings for younger players take on responsibilities. Fedora said he’s been impressed this spring with left guard Caleb Peterson, wide receiver Jordan Fieulleteau, quarterback Mitch Trubisky and walk-on wide receiver Dalton Stogner.
On defense, Fedora mentioned bandit Shakeel Rashad, linebacker Nathan Staub and defensive end Jessie Rogers.
With the departure of Reddick and Williams — and with Price, the most experienced member of the secondary, out with an undisclosed injury — the defense also has needed to develop new leaders. That has come from lineman Kareem Martin and Tim Jackson and linebacker Travis Hughes.
After getting embarrassed in the first scrimmage in Charlotte, the defense held its own in the rematch April 5 at Kenan Stadium.
“They played with so much more energy,” Fedora said. “The guys on defense — Tim Jackson, Kareem Martin and Travis Hughes — they were leading out there on the field and they were talking and they were communicating and they were playing hard.”
Tight end Jack Tabb said that today’s scrimmage will be a chance to show everyone what the team has been working on all spring.
“You want to go out there, have fun, make a lot of plays and try to limit the mistakes,” Tabb said. “Since we’ve been doing all this hard work, we might as well show what we’ve been doing.”
NOTES — Admission is free and parking is $5. ... A new blue and white uniform scheme will be displayed outside the Kenan Football Center. At halftime, several players will model the new uniforms on the field. ... Players will be available for autographs from 12:45-1:45 p.m. near Gate 3. ... Bernard will receive a College Football Performance Award as the nation’s top punt returner in 2012. ... Jeff Saturday will be recognized in the third quarter. The recently retired All-Pro NFL center was a two-time all-ACC performer at UNC in 1996-97.