Tar Heels shift focus to Gamecocks
Senior defensive end Kareem Martin said that North Carolina’s training camp has had a more serious vibe than it had in years past, and the reason is clear.
While UNC usually hosts an overmatched FCS opponent in Week 1, the 2013 opener is an ESPN Thursday night game at No. 6 South Carolina. And since that game serves as the opener to the entire college football season, the Tar Heels and Gamecocks will have a national stage to themselves.
“We know if someone wants to watch football on Thursday, they’re going to be watching UNC,” Martin said. “We can’t go out there and make mistakes that everyone makes on their first game. What everyone sees, they’re going to put that with Carolina football, so guys have just been focused and preparing for this stage.”
South Carolina will be the highest-ranked team the Tar Heels have faced since playing at No. 5 Virginia Tech in 2005. And UNC never has beaten a team ranked higher than No. 8 on the road.
The chance to play in the spotlight and shock a highly ranked opponent — and a border rival, at that — has added a sense of urgency and motivation during the past month of practices.
“It promotes a sense of urgency in the off-season,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said. “The kids understand that you don’t have a game to warm up. You’ve got to be ready right now.”
Fedora hopes the game also pays dividends during the season.
A year ago in Fedora’s first season, the Tar Heels opened with a 62-0 win over Elon, finishing three points shy of a school record for offense and posting the school’s first shutout in 13 years. But that game didn’t prove to be indicative of the team’s true ability — UNC lost its next two games to Wake Forest and Louisville.
UNC will have no doubt where it stands after Week 1 this season. That will be important considering the Tar Heels’ first two conference games are on the road against Coastal Division co-champions Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech.
“After that first one, you’re going to have a much better feel of what kind of team we’re going to be and where improvement needs to be made,” Fedora said. “Sometimes when you go the other way, you don’t always know that. You come out of a game and you play a lot of people and you may not know where the problems are.”
Of course, the downside is that UNC’s inexperienced players won’t have a game to settle in. Redshirt freshman Jon Heck’s first start at right tackle will involve lining up against Heisman favorite Jadeveon Clowney, while redshirt freshman Nathan Staub could start his first game at middle linebacker against a Steve Spurrier-led offense.
But Martin isn’t concerned about the pressure his team will face right away.
“Every guy came here to play on that big stage,” Martin said. “If guys didn’t want to play on that big stage, they could have gone to a smaller school. But this is everything we’ve worked for. We want to be the team that everybody’s watching, and now we finally get that opportunity. We just have to take advantage of it.”
After a season when UNC won eight times but lost at Louisville in its only game against a ranked opponent, Fedora finally will get the chance to make a statement on national TV.
“I think it’s tremendous for exposure and what we’re looking for our program and creating a sense of excitement about the Tar Heels, not only statewide but in our recruiting footprint and really the nation,” Fedora said.
Depth chart moves
UNC released an updated depth chart on Friday, its first since before training camp began.
On offense, sophomore Romar Morris is listed as the starting tailback ahead of senior A.J. Blue, who is coming off a hamstring injury. Special teams ace Kendrick Singleton also is listed as the third starting receiver, alongside fellow sophomore Quinshad Davis and junior Sean Tapley.
On the line, Jon Heck appears to have won the starting right tackle job after a tight competition with sophomore Kiaro Holtz, junior Nick Appel and freshman John Ferranto.
“Jon has kind of distanced himself in the last few days,” Fedora said.
Two spots on the defense still are up in the air — freshman Dominique Green or sophomore Darien Rankin at strong safety and freshman Nathan Staub or sophomore Jeff Schoettmer at middle linebacker. Green (ankle) and Staub (knee) were limited during training camp, and the position battles may depend on how quickly they recover.
As far as specialists, Tapley is expected to get the first crack at kickoff returner, while Jordan High graduate T.J. Thorpe and true freshman Ryan Switzer are still competing at punt returner.