North Carolina begins preseason practice on Wednesday, and few teams nationally face the abundance of questions – especially on offense – that the Tar Heels face. They must replace their quarterback, their best running backs, their most prolific receivers.
And they are likely to be most reliant, especially early in the season, on a defense that has questions of its own amid the transition to a new defensive coordinator. With the start of practice days away, the 10 most important questions surrounding UNC:
1. What happens at quarterback?
By early January, when Mitch Trubisky announced he was leaving UNC to enter the NFL draft, his decision surprised no one. At the beginning of last season, though, Larry Fedora and his coaching staff at UNC expected that Trubisky would be the Tar Heels’ starting quarterback for two seasons.
Trubisky excelled so much in his lone season as the starter that a return to school didn’t make sense. His emergence created a good-news, bad-news dynamic for UNC – the good being that it reaped the benefits of a wave of positive publicity when Trubisky became the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft.
And now the bad: UNC enters the preseason without any assurances at quarterback. That’s a first in Fedora’s tenure, now entering its sixth season. The Tar Heels, at least, aren’t without options, several of which appear viable.
Brandon Harris, the graduate transfer from LSU, is likely the favorite to earn the job. Nathan Elliott, a rising sophomore, backed up Trubisky last season and is the only returning quarterback with any college experience.
And Chazz Surratt and Logan Byrd, a pair of second-year freshman, both were highly-regarded prospects when they committed to UNC. They sat out their first season and at least one of them, presumably, is expected to become UNC’s quarterback of the future.
But what about the present? The competition to win the starting quarterback job appears wide open.
2. Will Harris be ready to compete for the position when practice begins?
Harris announced in March (hours before the Tar Heels’ basketball victory against Kentucky in the NCAA tournament) his intent to transfer from LSU to UNC. He didn’t arrive on campus, though, until June, which left him less than two months to familiarize himself with his surroundings.
Though Harris is now UNC’s most experienced quarterback, he’s not necessarily a sure-thing to win the starting job. That’s true for a couple of reasons: for one, he struggled at times at LSU (he has never completed more than 55.6 percent of his passes in a season). Second, UNC’s offense is new to him.
Since Harris hadn’t yet arrived by last spring, UNC’s practice on Wednesday will be his first with the Tar Heels. He’ll have about a month to prove that he grasps the offense well enough to lead it when UNC begins the season against California on Sept. 3.
Fedora implied earlier this month that he will not tolerate a learning curve. There is no grace period. The expectation, Fedora said, is that Harris has been learning the playbook on his own and that he’ll be prepared on Wednesday to prove, immediately, that he belongs.
“I’m going to expect him to know the offense when we get to the first day of practice,” Fedora said. “If he does that, then I know that he’s serious about it and he wants to be the starter, and now he can now compete for the job.
“Because if he’s trying to learn what to do, he’s got no chance, because those other three guys know what to do. So he won’t get enough reps to establish himself as the guy. So he’s got to know it before we start it.”
3. Who becomes the Tar Heels’ featured running back?
UNC last season accounted for 1,896 yards rushing. Players who accounted for 99.1 percent of those yards are no longer around. Elijah Hood, who in his best moments looked like one of the best backs in school history, left after his junior season.
T.J. Logan, as versatile a running back as UNC could have hoped, ran out of college eligibility. As did Khris Francis, an unheralded reserve who accepted his role and added depth the past four years. The Tar Heels don’t necessarily lack for running back depth now, but none of it is proven.
Jordon Brown, a sophomore who ran for 45 yards a season ago, is UNC’s most experienced returning running back. Stanton Truitt is a graduate transfer from Auburn who ran for 215 yards in two seasons there. Michael Carter is a promising freshman who enrolled in January.
Carter, considered one of the top high school prospects in Florida last season, is the latest in a line of highly-regarded prospects (Logan, Hood) to arrive at UNC in recent seasons. He should not lack for opportunity in what will be a completely rebuilt backfield.
4. Who, aside from Austin Proehl, can be counted on at wide receiver?
UNC’s most productive receivers in recent seasons – Ryan Switzer, Mack Hollins, Bug Howard – were all seniors a season ago. And so, continuing the theme, their departures created much uncertainty among those left behind.
Unlike at quarterback and running back, though, UNC does welcome back a proven difference-maker at receiver. Austin Proehl finished third on the team last season with 597 yards receiving. Now, though, he could go from the third or fourth option to the first, which can be a daunting challenge.
Behind him, there are few proven players. Thomas Jackson, a former walk-on, made some memorable plays last season – his late touchdown at Florida State among them – but he caught only 17 passes. No other returning player caught more than six.
Juval Mollette, Anthony Ratliff-Williams and Rontavius Groves, who is recovering from a knee injury he suffered during spring practice, are the favorites to replace the production that has been lost. All of them have at least three years of eligibility remaining.
All of them have questions. On this offense, though, what else is new?
5. How does the defense change under a new coordinator?
The short answer: probably not much. When Gene Chizik resigned last February to spend more time with his family in Alabama, Fedora promoted J.P. Papuchis to defensive coordinator. Papuchis spent two seasons on Chizik’s staff, coaching the Tar Heels’ linebackers.
Schematically, there aren’t likely to be many, if any, substantial changes. Within the scheme, though, Papuchis will add his own wrinkles, one of which could be an increased emphasis on aggressiveness and risk-taking.
During Chizik’s two seasons, UNC’s defensive approach could be accurately described as “vanilla.” The Tar Heels, with vivid memories of the big plays they surrendered with routine regularity for years under the old defensive staff, usually kept things simple and basic.
Now, three seasons removed from one of the worst defensive seasons in school history, there could be more opportunity to experiment. The defense, especially early in the season, is likely to be counted upon in a way that it hasn’t been, to date, in Fedora’s tenure.
“The things that J.P. has added in the spring to the package are going to help us tremendously in what we do,” Fedora said recently. “And I mean, if you look at what we did, we stayed pretty basic (last season). … But it was about hey, let’s don’t give up the big plays.
“And they didn’t, and we won 19 games that way. But now, I think we’re going to have to put a little bit more pressure on the defense to help us win more games.”
6. Will the defensive front seven prove to be as formidable as UNC needs?
The pressure will be on the Tar Heels’ defensive line and linebackers to produce at a high level, and rightfully so. Everyone of significance returns at those positions, with the exception of Nazair Jones, the team’s best defensive lineman last season. UNC returns all three of its starting linebackers and, aside from Jones, everyone who played a meaningful role on the defensive line last season.
7. How does the offensive line come together amid key departures and new arrivals?
The offensive line doesn’t face the kind of questions surrounding the other positions on offense, but, nonetheless, there are still some unknowns here. Center Lucas Crowley, guard Caleb Peterson and tackle Jon Heck are all significant losses from a season ago. Two graduate transfers, including Cam Dillard from Florida, have since arrived to complement a returning cast led by tackle Bentley Spain.
8. Who fills significant voids on special teams?
UNC in recent seasons has benefited from strong special teams, whether it came in the form of Nick Weiler’s 54-yard game-winning field goal at Florida State, or Ryan Switzer’s punt returns. They’re both gone, though, leaving uncertainty in places that were once positions of strength. Freeman Jones, whose college experience is comprised of one extra point, is the favorite to replace Weiler.
9. Without Nazair Jones, who becomes the leader of the defensive line?
And that’s not necessarily the only important question facing that group. Another: Will Jalen Dalton, now a junior, finally realize his considerable potential? Dejaun Drennon, a senior defensive end who is finally healed after a nagging foot injury that hampered him last season, is likely the favorite to take over Jones’ role as a vocal leader.
10. How good will the secondary be?
Like the defensive line and linebacker, the defensive backfield should be a position of strength for the Tar Heels. M.J. Stewart, an All-American candidate at cornerback, is back, as is the reliable safety Donnie Miles. Two sophomores – safety Myles Dorn and cornerback Patrice Rene – could go a long way toward deciding whether this group goes from good to great.