Fedora: Maturation process key for young, talented Tar Heels

Jul. 21, 2014 @ 06:22 PM

Freshman Ryan Switzer tied an NCAA single-season record with five punt returns for touchdowns in 2013 — and they all came in the final six games.

Looking back at the tape, UNC coach Larry Fedora said that Switzer could have had three or four more punt return touchdowns in the first half of the season but he didn’t take advantage of those early opportunities.

“It wasn’t because he wasn’t as good — he’s the same guy,” Fedora said. “But it wasn’t until that point in the season that he looked up and said, ‘I could do this,’ and he started playing with some confidence that he had a heckuva run.”

Even an eventual all-America needed time to become acclimated to college football. Which is why Fedora said that this season will be exciting, but “it scares the heck out of me at the same time.”

With just 10 seniors on the depth chart, Fedora said this is the youngest team he’s had in 26 years.

“It should be a lot of fun but there will be some headaches involved,” Fedora said Monday at the ACC Football Kickoff.

Though the offense only has two seniors — tight ends Jack Tabb and Eric Albright — the team still has a lot of production returning, including 89.4 percent of its scoring, 87.2 percent of its rushing and 70 percent of its receptions.

At Fedora’s first appearance at the ACC’s preseason media event in 2012, he said that he was only satisfied with the depth at one position group, tight end. This season he was pleased with four groups — quarterback, running back, wide receiver and cornerback.

“We’re expanding those likes,” Fedora said. “We have talent at other positions, but the depth isn’t there or the experience isn’t there. ... It’s a lot better than the past few years.”

The most high-profile position battle is at quarterback, in which junior Marquise Williams is competing against redshirt freshman Mitch Trubisky. Although Williams went 4-2 as a starter last year and helped UNC turn around its season after a 1-5 start, Fedora said he didn’t think twice about calling it an open competition. The players split time with the starting offense during the spring.

“I thought it was natural that you compete for a job, you don’t get handed a job,” Fedora said.

Sophomore T.J. Logan, who averaged 5.7 yards a carry last season, enters the fall as the favorite to start at running back. But he will be challenged by highly-touted freshman Elijah Hood, who squatted 605 pounds in a weight room session last week, along with senior track star Romar Morris and Hillside graduate Khris Francis.

“The guy who’s most productive will play,” Fedora said. “It’s not your birthright to get the ball. It’s about who will produce.”

Fedora also said new offensive coordinator Seth Littrell will likely introduce more two-back sets into the offense.

Though UNC loses tight end Eric Ebron, the No. 10 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, the Tar Heels return four of their top five pass catchers. But while the quarterback competition and running back rotation have received most of the attention, the real key to the offense’s success will be the offensive line, which has lost four NFL Draft picks and all-ACC left tackle James Hurst over the last two seasons.

Junior right guard Landon Turner, who has 17 career starts, is now the most experienced player on the line. He may be surrounded by four sophomores — left tackle John Ferranto, left guard Caleb Peterson, center Lucas Crowley and right tackle Jon Heck. And UNC’s no-huddle style, which doesn’t allow much time for adjustments, makes it even more important for UNC’s young line to gel quickly.

“That’s really where all the talk outta be, because that’s going to determine if we’re successful or not,” Fedora said. “Those five guys.”

Getting a young team up to speed quickly is especially important for Fedora in a wide-open ACC Coastal Division. The parity in the division was reflected in the preseason media poll — UNC was picked to finish fourth with 570 points, behind Miami (614), Duke (597) and Virginia Tech (571). But the Tar Heels received 27 of 112 first-place votes in the Coastal, second-most behind Duke (33) and their highest percentage of first-place votes (24.1) since 1997.

“It is an opportunity that we want to take advantage of,” Fedora said. “If we’re going to continue to grow at the rate we want to grow and get to where we want to be, this is an opportunity we need to seize.”