North Carolina

What UNC’s Larry Fedora knows about his team after five practices

North Carolina coach Larry Fedora watches quarterback Brandon Harris during a drill at practice on Aug. 2.
North Carolina coach Larry Fedora watches quarterback Brandon Harris during a drill at practice on Aug. 2. cseward@newsobserver.com

The NCAA-mandated acclimation period is over for North Carolina, and so is its basic “installation,” as coaches call it, of the base offense and defense. And so now the Tar Heels’ preseason practices progress to a different, more important stage.

UNC completed its fifth practice of the preseason on Sunday. On Monday, coach Larry Fedora gathered with reporters for the Tar Heels’ annual media day. Among the topics of interest: the quarterbacks (as usual), a sudden retirement, expectations of the offense and, well, quarterbacks (again).

Here’s a quick rundown of the high points:

1. Fedora was disappointed that Khaliel Rodgers retired over the weekend.

Rodgers, who would have added some depth and experience to UNC’s offensive line, transferred to UNC from Southern Cal, where he’d graduated. He would have been eligible to play immediately at UNC but instead walked out of practice late last week and decided to retire. He didn’t offer Fedora a reason why, and Rodgers’ former teammates weren’t certain, for sure, why he retired, either.

In a Facebook post, Rodgers wrote that he was ready for his next step, beyond football, and he alluded to health concerns related to his continued participation in the sport. Fedora said Rodgers was “really doing well” and that “he had fit in with our football team.”

“And he just felt like it was time for him to give it up,” Fedora said. “And so he walked away, and I hated it. He was well-liked on our football team, and had already found a place within the team, and so we hated to see him go.”

Naturally, anytime a young player walks away from the game, it raises questions about how much health concerns – especially those about concussions and emerging research into CTE – played a role. More on that coming up soon.

2. Is Brandon Harris “there” yet?

Fedora received that question on Monday, in reference to Harris’ grasp of the offense. Harris is the graduate transfer quarterback from LSU, and UNC’s first practice last week was his first real practice with the team.

Fedora had expected him to know the offense and compete immediately for the starting job. Fedora sounded pleased about Harris’ progress, but the offense isn’t yet second-nature.

“Right now, he’s having to think about every detail that’s happening on the field, and so that tends to make you play a little bit slower,” Fedora said. “So eventually, you get enough reps at it to where it becomes second nature, and you can be the player that you are.”

Harris spoke with reporters for the first time on Monday (more on that later, as well), and he said learning the proper footwork, as it relates to this particular offense, has so far been his greatest challenge, as opposed to learning the scheme. Fedora supported that assertion.

Harris’ early command of the offense has been strong, Fedora said, but Harris has found trouble when his footwork has lacked. Few players can overcome that kind of fundamental weakness. Ones who can, Fedora said, are playing in the NFL – “including the one we had last year.”

3. The rest of the offensive depth chart is still unclear – but expectations won’t change.

As you’d expect, or should expect, after five practices. Remember, UNC has to replace starters everywhere: on the offensive line, at receiver, at running back and, yes, at quarterback. These are the positions that are spoken for, Fedora said: Bentley Spain at left tackle, Cam Dillard at center, Brandon Fritts at tight end, Austin Proehl at one of the receiver spots.

And then?

“That’s about it on offense that I know,” Fedora said.

Given that, you’d think there’d be some leeway approaching the start of the season. Not so, Fedora said. He was asked on Monday about whether he expected his players to have the offense down pat, or if he anticipated some bumps at the start of the season.

“My expectation is that there will be no bumps,” Fedora said. “That (offense) we use in game one they know, and they know it very well. And there shouldn’t be mistakes. We’ll see how that turns out, but that’s my expectation level. My expectation will not change for the offense, because of personnel. It’s going to be the same as what it has been. And so they’ll either meet it and surpass it, or they won’t.”

4. What about the other guy at quarterback?

Harris has to be the favorite to win the starting job, for a variety of reasons. His most significant competition, at this point, is probably coming from Nathan Elliott, who served last season as Mitch Trubisky’s back-up. Then again, it’s impossible to tell given there’s nothing to glean from closed practices. But it figures that Elliott, given his experience, is Harris’ main competition at this point.

So what about him? Fedora offered a kind appraisal on Monday:

“He’s very intelligent; he’s got a really good feel for what we’re trying to do. I do think he understands when we’ve got to try to pick up a first down, when we don’t. All the little things, the intangibles, I think he does a really good job with it. He’s another kid that can make all the throws and he runs fine.”

“Runs fine.” Probably not a phrase that will make the media guide bio, but judging from everything else Fedora said (and others have said), Elliott offers some legitimate competition.

5. And what about the other guys at quarterback?

That’d be Chazz Surratt and Logan Byrd, the two rising redshirt freshmen, both of whom sat out last season. Surratt is a former Parade All-American, and the player of the year in North Carolina. He arrived in college amid some high expectations. Byrd, like Surratt, was a top prospect in high school.

Neither one of them, the coaching staff felt, evidently, was ready to lead the offense after their first season on campus, which is why UNC felt it important to sign a graduate transfer quarterback. Even so, Fedora said of Surratt and Byrd, “both of them are excelling.”

Fedora’s main line about the quarterbacks has, and continues to be, that no one has separated themselves, anywhere on the depth chart: “I think each one of them brings something to table. I think nobody has established themselves, nobody has separated themselves at this point. But I anticipate that happening in the next couple of weeks.”

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter

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