North Carolina

Why Larry Fedora’s preseason countdown could be more stressful than usual at UNC

UNC coach Larry Fedora knows that, as of Friday, there are only 51 days for the Tar Heels to answer some important questions before the start of the season.
UNC coach Larry Fedora knows that, as of Friday, there are only 51 days for the Tar Heels to answer some important questions before the start of the season. Robert Willett

During his five seasons as the head football coach at North Carolina, Larry Fedora has made a habit of embracing countdowns. He can often recite the precise number of days until an anticipated game, and so he might understand better than the most the fleeting commodity of time.

Fedora and two of his players, offensive lineman Bentley Spain and defensive back M.J. Stewart, arrived in Charlotte on Thursday for the ACC’s annual preseason football kickoff, a made-for-media event. It is earlier than ever this year and, indeed, here in mid-July the season can still seem far away.

It is not, however. As attuned to countdowns as he is, Fedora has to know that, as of Friday, only 50 days separate the Tar Heels from their season-opening game on Sept. 2 against California. Those days might pass especially quickly for UNC, given all it must accomplish between now and then.

After the tumult and drama of a 6-7 season in 2014, Fedora has guided the Tar Heels to 19 victories during the past two seasons. UNC won the Coastal Division in 2015 and had a chance to win it again a season ago before faltering in November.

The relative disappointment of lost opportunity faded, somewhat, in the spring, when Fedora and his program celebrated the publicity that surrounded Mitch Trubisky, UNC’s former quarterback. He became the No. 2 pick in the NFL draft, and UNC’s first quarterback to be selected in the first round.

Trubisky’s departure created but one of several important questions that UNC will attempt to address during the next seven weeks before the start of the season. Entering the unofficial start of college football season – conference media days – a look at the story lines surrounding the Tar Heels:

1. Uncertainty at the most important position

Fedora never doubted that Trubisky would become a coveted NFL prospect, and one day a high draft pick. It just happened to transpire, perhaps, faster than Fedora envisioned. He’d been planning for Trubisky, who’d waited patiently for his opportunity, to start for two seasons instead of one.

And then, when Trubisky decided in January to enter the NFL draft, it left the Tar Heels with a considerable void at quarterback – one so concerning that UNC began courting graduate transfers. Brandon Harris, from LSU, was among them.

He committed to UNC in the spring, and quickly became the favorite to become the starter. Chazz Surratt and Logan Byrd, two second-year freshmen who redshirted last season, will also compete for the job, as will Nathan Elliott, who served as Trubisky’s backup a season ago.

While Harris arrived with his experience from his days at LSU, he isn’t necessarily known for his passing accuracy, and he’s a rookie in UNC’s up-tempo spread. It remains to be seen how quickly he adapts to his new surroundings.

Byrd and Surratt, meanwhile, labored through parts of spring practice and neither indicated a readiness to play immediately. And so for the first time in Fedora’s tenure at UNC, the Tar Heels enter a season with far more questions than answers at the position most critical for a team’s offensive success.

It’s a dramatic change from years past. Last year, Trubisky entered the preseason the clear-cut starter. Before that, Marquise Williams and Trubisky provided UNC with enviable options at quarterback. Before that, Fedora inherited Bryn Renner, who started in Fedora’s first two seasons at UNC.

And now? Now UNC is without the luxury of knowing what to expecte at quarterback.

2. Who fills the voids everywhere else?

Whomever wins the starting quarterback position, whether it’s Harris or someone else, will lead an offense that will be reliant, at the skill positions, on almost an entirely new cast. And so there are questions everywhere else, too.

Schematically, the Tar Heels’ offense won’t change much – nor will it ever as long as Fedora, long a proponent of his version of the spread, remains the head coach. The leading personnel, though, will almost be unrecognizable this season compared to last.

Not only did the Tar Heels lose Trubisky, but they also lost their top three running backs (Elijah Hood, T.J. Logan and Khris Francis), three of their best receivers (Ryan Switzer, Mack Hollins and Bug Howard) and two of their best linemen (center Lucas Crowley and guard Caleb Peterson).

In all, UNC moves on without players who accounted last season for 98.3 percent of its passing yards, 99.1 percent of its rushing yards and 70.3 percent of its receiving yards. Replacing all of that production will be daunting, especially given the lack of clearly emerging talent.

Austin Proehl, the senior receiver, returns as the most experienced, and productive, offensive skill player. He was UNC’s third-leading receiver a season ago, with 597 yards and three touchdowns. Outside of him, the receiving corps will need to be completely rebuilt.

The team’s leading returning running back, Jordon Brown, gained 45 yards on 20 carries last season. Fedora added a graduate transfer at that position, too: Stanton Truitt, from Auburn. He gained 137 yards for the Tigers last season.

Undoubtedly, new players, or returnees who are ascending into new roles, will emerge to account for some of what the Tar Heels lost. Approaching the start of preseason practice, though, there are few guarantees on UNC’s offense.

3. A special reliance on defense, for a change

To varying degrees UNC has always been more reliant on its offense, compared to its defense, since Fedora’s arrival in 2012. That’s not necessarily surprising, given Fedora worked his way through coaching ranks as a wide receivers coach, and then as an offensive coordinator.

At times, like in 2012, the gap between UNC’s offense and defense has been somewhat modest. At other times, like in 2014, it has been canyon-sized. This season, for the first time under Fedora, the defense is in better position than the offense to dictate wins and losses.

That’s a dramatic change for a program that just three years ago labored through one of the worst defensive seasons in school history. Since then UNC has been gradually rebuilding its defense, and now it will be expected to be as stingy as any UNC defense since Fedora’s arrival.

It’s not necessarily a given that it will happen that way, though. For one, the defense still lapsed at times a season ago, and finished 43rd nationally in yards allowed per play (5.37). More significant, Gene Chizk, the coordinator Fedora hired in 2015 to rebuild the defense, resigned in February.

John Papuchis, the former linebackers coach, is now in charge. He spent two seasons working alongside Chizik, and so Papuchis is more than familiar his personnel, and the task at hand. He should benefit from the return of most of the players who accounted for UNC’s defensive production.

Up front, the Tar Heels welcome back all of their notable defensive linemen from a season with the exception of Nazair Jones, who left school to enter the NFL draft. UNC’s returns its three starting linebackers, and half of its starters in the secondary, as well.

In years past UNC at times only needed its defense to achieve a basic level of competency. The expectations will be higher now, as they should be given what UNC returns. The defense will be expected to lead, and not follow – especially early while the offense is finding its way.

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter