Luke DeCock

It’s who you don’t see that’s most noticeable as UNC opens football practice

UNC coach Larry Fedora directs his players on the Tar Heels’ first day of football practice on Wednesday.
UNC coach Larry Fedora directs his players on the Tar Heels’ first day of football practice on Wednesday. cseward@newsobserver.com

Even if the surroundings hadn’t been unfamiliar and different, even if practicing on the game field at Kenan Stadium – as North Carolina will do all season while its practice fields are being renovated – wasn’t odd enough, all you had to do was look around to see who wasn’t there.

So many familiar names, mainstays of the North Carolina football program over the past few seasons, all gone. This was true in the spring, when the real transition to this new and largely unproven roster began, but there’s always something about the first day of practices that newly drives home old realizations, and in this case it was both the place and the personnel.

So exit, among others, six all-ACC players: Ryan Switzer, Jon Heck, Lucas Crowley, T.J. Logan, Mitch/Mitchell Trubisky and Elijah Hood. Enter, among others, four graduate transfers brought in as immediate help. Three will almost certainly start right off the bat, perhaps along with a true freshman or two, and the fourth is part of a four-way competition at quarterback, a position that has gone from bedrock solid under Marquise Williams and Trubisky to a complete unknown.

Asked a question afterward about a freshman who appeared to work with the starting group during the open portion of practice, Larry Fedora insisted he didn’t even have a starting group yet.

“Where were the ’1s?’ ” Fedora asked, rhetorically.

This first day of practice in Chapel Hill had a lot in common with the first day of basketball practice last October, when the Tar Heels felt the absence of Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson so acutely. It was tough to focus on what the Tar Heels could do at that point when it was so easy to focus on what they had lost. Wednesday, instead of Paige and Johnson, it was Switzer and Trubisky.

That worked out OK in the end for the basketball team, but unfortunately for the football team, the first day of practice is probably where the similarities end. Not only are basketball players generally more interchangeable than football players, with their ability to play early and the fluidity of positions, but the football team, unlike their campus counterpart, doesn’t return a whole mess of talent from a team that came within a possession or two of winning a national title.

Instead, it has a few key returnees and a lot of questions. One will get answered immediately: Just how well have Fedora and his staff have recruited behind their star players over the past few years? Fedora hasn’t had to go through this kind of full retooling since he walked in the door, especially on offense, where on Wednesday he pledged to be more involved than he has been with some of his more experienced teams.

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Quarterbacks Nathan Elliott (11), Brandon Harris (6) and Manny Miles (16) throw passes during a drill at UNC’s first football practice on Wednesday. Chris Seward cseward@newsobserver.com

And the Tar Heels will have to do it all in front of the unusual backdrop of the Kenan Stadium stands, displaced and disjointed. Fedora and his staff went through a full walk-through of practice on Tuesday just to make sure they were able to fit everything onto the field – instead of the multiple fields, turf and grass, the team normally uses, it has two half-fields marked out sideways at Kenan – but the quarters are so close it appears there’s a risk of a Talladega-style pile-up if the offense and defense ever cross the streams.

It’s all a little disorienting for everyone. A year ago, punter Tom Sheldon had just arrived from Australia. Everything was new to him, from practice to punting. Now, just when the 28-year-old figured to have everything down about this American football business, they changed things up on him.

“It was probably all a bit of a blur,” Sheldon acknowledged. “It’s definitely different but I think it’ll be fine. It’s nice practicing in the stadium. It’s got a bit of atmosphere about it.”

It’s August again and he’s back in a (relatively) unfamiliar place surrounded by new faces. This time, he’s not alone.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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