ACC 2013 Spring Football Preview: North Carolina Tar Heels

UNC Running Back A.J. Blue Appears Ready to Pick Up Where Giovani Bernard Left Off

UNC Running Back A.J. Blue Appears Ready to Pick Up Where Giovani Bernard Left Off

As the ACC‘s spring practices get under way, we’ll be previewing the big storylines for each of the league’s 14 (15, in this case) teams. Check back on weekdays for what to look out for during your school’s spring practices and spring game.

Team: North Carolina Tar Heels

Spring Practice Start Date: March 6

Spring Game Date: April 13

Year two of the Larry Fedora regime brings with it plenty of hope and optimism. If not for postseason ineligibility, the Heels would’ve won the Coastal division in 2012. Now, despite some key losses to the NFL Draft, it’s arguable that things haven’t seemed brighter (on the field) in Chapel Hill in over a decade. So what can we expect from UNC this spring?

For one, playmakers are already established, meaning spring practice brings a much larger focus on the offensive line, which largely has to be replaced. Quarterback Bryn Renner progressed very well in Fedora’s spread offense last season, and while it’s certainly no easy feat to replace Giovani Bernard at halfback, A.J. Blue is no newcomer, either. On limited carries last year, he still managed 433 rushing yards and nine scores, so he’ll be more than capable of carrying the load from that spot. At receiver, Quinshad Davis put in an impressive freshman showing this past fall, which can only mean good things for this year. Given the veteran presence all across the offense, there’s likely to be some new folds added to the Heels already dynamic attack. Fedora’s largely worked with his personnel, rather than forced square pegs into round holes, but that’s changing now as he’s recruiting more of his type of players.

On defense, leaders have departed as well, with Sylvester Williams and Kevin Reddick both off to the NFL. For an already porous defense (their 57th overall rank is generous, by the way), those are two gaping holes that need veteran leadership to step up this spring; but who are those stars-in-waiting? Kareem Martin and Tommy Heffernan look to be early favorites to make some noise, but much of that is due to their previous experience in Fedora’s unique 4-2-5 scheme. For some of the newcomers who haven’t seen game action in the set, it may be a tougher road to get acclimated, but again, that’s what the spring is for. While things get settled along the front seven, they’ll be relying upon the secondary — where all four players are returning. It may be a tall order for a group that finished 83rd against the pass last season, but if they hope to start the season strong (especially given their season-opener against South Carolina), there’s really no other option.

As Larry Fedora’s emphasized over and over, this spring is all about speed. He brought plenty of it when he took the helm this time last year, but as is the case with most spread coaches, he’s still pushing for more. With the skill positions set on offense, he needs to get the very green offensive line caught up over the next month to maximize the abilities of ballcarriers (and Renner’s quick release). For the defense, emphasis must be placed on better downfield coverage, plus getting after opposing passers. Fedora understands this is not a simple process, but if this team hopes to take the next step and actually win a division title (and play for a conference championship), pieces have to start coming together now.

Previously: Boston College, Clemson, Duke, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Louisville, Maryland, Miami, NC State

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