The most recent time, before now, that North Carolina offensive coordinator Chris Kapilovic entered a season with as many questions as he has now was, well …
“First time,” for me, Kapilovic said on Tuesday. “And I’ve been at all levels, all over the country. (It’s) just really the first time you’ve had this much youth, and then all the things that have happened this camp, on top of it.
“It’s why you coach, right? It’s exciting and challenging, and we’ve got to figure out a way to do it.”
The Tar Heels begin the season on Saturday at Kenan Stadium against California, and nobody – not Kapilovic, not Larry Fedora, the head coach, not the players themselves – are really sure what to expect, especially from an offense that lost nearly everyone of significance from a season ago.
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UNC generated 5,707 yards of total offense last year. Players who accounted for 98.6 percent of that production are gone.
Fedora, entering his sixth season as UNC’s head coach, said before preseason practice began that he’d never encountered a similarly-challenging rebuilding project. Kapilovic, who began his career as a high school assistant coach 25 years ago, has never seen anything like this.
Even UNC’s players insist they don’t know how this will go. There are mysteries small and large, questions about how the offensive line will come together amid unexpected preseason attrition, and questions about replacing significant lost production at running back, receiver and quarterback.
Austin Proehl, the senior receiver, is essentially UNC’s only proven returning player at any one of those positions. The son of an NFL wide receiver, and one who has been around football his entire life, even Proehl is looking forward to Saturday if only because it will answer, at last, one important question.
“Our starting quarterback,” Proehl said. “I mean, golly, man – nobody knows. They won’t tell us nothing.”
That is but one of the answers that is coming this weekend: “Somebody,” as Fedora often likes to put it, will start at quarterback. It could be Brandon Harris, who chose to transfer from LSU to UNC so that he could lead a Tar Heels offense with a well-earned reputation for its potency.
It could be Chazz Surratt, the former high school All-American from tiny Denver, N.C., between Hickory and Charlotte. It was there, at East Lincoln High, where Surratt became one of the top quarterback prospects in the country and the Parade Magazine National Player of the Year.
Harris became the favorite to be UNC’s starting quarterback from the moment he arrived on campus in late May. Surratt’s preseason emergence, though, has made Fedora’s choice more difficult. Kapilovic, the offensive coordinator, intimated that UNC could use more than one quarterback on Saturday.
“We’re trying to see, quarterback-wise, first guy we put out there, can he handle and lead and manage this team, and take care of the football?” Kapilovic said when asked what he was most curious to learn during the first game. “That’s number one. And then, from there, it’s who are our playmakers?”
For years, since Fedora arrived in 2012, these were questions with clear answers. The Tar Heels established a natural progression at quarterback, from Bryn Renner to Marquise Williams to Mitch Trubisky. At running back and receiver, UNC entered the past five seasons with proven talent.
This preseason, meanwhile, just about everything has been in flux on offense. The coaching staff has insisted the quarterbacks have rotated with little separation. At running back and receiver, unproven players have attempted to emerge. And the offensive line has, at times, been a carousel.
UNC lost one lineman early in the preseason, Tommy Hatton, to a concussion, and he hasn’t returned. Another lineman, Khaliel Rodgers, retired from football and then changed his mind and rejoined the team a couple of weeks later.
And yet another lineman, Jared Cohen, rejoined the team after leaving it in 2015, only to leave again, apparently for good, on Friday. Hatton and Cohen might have entered the season as starters, and Cohen’s departure, especially, has rankled the coaching staff.
“That’s a tough one,” Kapilovic said. “That’s why we had him walk on, because we weren’t sure if he was mentally ready to do this. And I don’t understand how you can go through all the summer conditioning and training camp, and then leave, but that was something that he decided.”
And so now here UNC is, days before its first game, without two linemen who could have started, without a clear idea of who its most productive running backs and receivers will be and without a definitive starter at quarterback.
No wonder, then, that Fedora spoke earlier in the week of being kept awake at night with apprehension. He was describing the fear of the unknown amid so many unknowns. It’s not a new sensation, given the usual paranoia of college football coaches, but now the feeling has multiplied.
Fedora and his assistants, like all football coaches, appreciate the power of control. Now, days before the start of the season, there is little any of them can do except wait to find out answers to questions that have been following them, in some cases, for months.