New-look Tar Heels to debut in spring game Saturday
CHAPEL HILL — The Kenan Stadium debut of top recruit Elijah Hood will be one of the top storylines as North Carolina conducts its spring game today (3 p.m., ESPN3.com).
The Blue team (starters) will play the White team (backups) in two 15-minute quarters with regular stoppages followed by two 15-minute quarters with a running clock. Here are five things to watch during the scrimmage:
Hood, a Charlotte native, was the cornerstone of UNC’s 22-player incoming class. The state’s AP player of the year set a Mecklenburg County record in 2013 with 53 touchdowns and ran for 3,690 yards, the second-highest single-season total in state history.
The former Notre Dame commitment enrolled at UNC in January, giving him a head start on learning the offense and making him eligible for today’s game.
“He’s used to making plays and being special, and I think he’s brought that attitude here,” top offensive assistant Seth Littrell said. “It’s not good enough for him to get on the field. He wants to compete at a high level and be the guy. He has a long way to go, in a sense that he just got here. But I’ve been very impressed with his attitude and his work ethic.”
Hood will join a crowded backfield that includes 2012 AP state player of the year T.J. Logan of Greensboro, Durham Hillside grad Khris Francis and sophomore Romar Morris, who couldn’t participate this spring because of an injury.
For the first time in four years, graduating senior Bryn Renner won’t be the opening-game starter. Sophomore Marquise Williams and freshman Mitch Trubisky have been splitting the reps with the starting offense during spring practice.
Williams started six games last year when Renner was injured, going 4-2 while leading the team in rushing yards (536) and posting a higher quarterback efficiency rating (141.1) than Renner (139.9). That there’s still an open competition shows how much the coaches think of Trubisky, who is also a dual-threat quarterback and drew raves during practices in his redshirt year.
SENIORS ON MOVE
Some of UNC’s most experienced players took on different responsibilities this spring. Tim Scott, UNC’s only three-year starter, has moved from cornerback to free safety, while Darius Lipford has shifted from strongside to middle linebacker.
Scott initially moved to safety for the Belk Bowl because of injuries, and he recorded six tackles and a sack against Cincinnati. The coaches made the switch permanent because of the emergence of freshmen corners Brian Walker and Desmond Lawrence, who Fedora said “have come the farthest of anyone this spring.”
Scott said the biggest change has been becoming more involved in stopping the run. As the only rising senior in the secondary, he’s also being called on to lead the unit.
“Between those two I feel like I have a lot on my shoulders, which I want to take,” Scott said. “I know I can do it.”
Three new offensive coaches joined the staff after the 2013 season — Littrell, running backs coach Larry Porter and quarterbacks coach Keith Heckendorf.
Littrell, who came from Indiana after former UNC offensive coordinator Blake Anderson was hired as the head coach at Arkansas State, said the offense won’t change much.
“We’re always looking to evolve, so there will definitely be some wrinkles here and there — different things we may stress a little more based on the personnel — but for the most part we’re very similar in what we do offensively in our structure and schemes,” Littrell said.
But Fedora went outside the program to get Littrell because he wants some new looks. Different route combinations were implemented during the spring, and while it’s unlikely that UNC will put anything new on film today, the scrimmage could provide a glimpse of how the team will look now that Littrell is calling plays instead of Anderson.
Last year, Francis ran for 100 yards against the starting defense behind the second-string offensive line, while walk-on Dominique Green had an interception. Both Francis and Green wound up contributing when the real games began in 2013.
Left guard Caleb Peterson and linebacker Jeff Schoettmer are among the returning starters who didn’t participate in the spring because of offseason shoulder surgeries, while Ryan Switzer — who tied a Division I record with five punt returns for touchdowns in a season — will likely be on the sideline because of a shoulder sprain. That should be open the door even more for a lesser-known Tar Heel to emerge.
Follow UNC beat writer Harold Gutmann on Twitter at @haroldgut