Last season’s juniors are now this season’s seniors, and with that comes extra responsibility and expectations. In the ACC, while there were plenty of players selected in the NFL Draft, the conference still returns a strong group of seniors — many of whom are set to make a strong impact in their final seasons of eligibility.
Over these few weeks, we’re going team-by-team in the ACC to identify the “standout senior” that’s key to his respective squad, and why he’s so important. Think we should’ve featured another player, though? Feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts in the comments.
Last season, all the focus was on Giovani Bernard, and rightfully so. The now-Cincinnati Bengals running back put in one of the best seasons in UNC history at his position, and was a large part of the program’s eight wins last season. But by focusing in on Bernard, the team’s quarterback — Renner — ended up shuffled into the background; something that could end up being a blessing for him in his senior season. For those who may not be aware, Renner’s thrown for nearly 6,500 yards over the past two seasons, to go with 54 touchdowns and just 20 picks. While his accuracy may have taken a slight dip in 2012 (from 68-percent completion to 65), he’s still throwing better than most starters in the game. And all this while running a Larry Fedora offense that’s entirely based off of calling as many plays as possible, while worrying about efficiency later. While Renner was not a natural for the spread style Fedora installed upon coming to Chapel Hill, he sure looked like one by the end 2012, completing 81 of 110 passes (74 percent) for 970 yards and 10 scores over his final three games.
The biggest key for Renner, right off the bat, is the advantage he gains from a quick release. In 2011, he took 26 sacks in 13 games, but in 2012, he had just 11 all season. o course, some of that is due to the fact that he had a top-10 draft pick in front of him (Jonathan Cooper), but Cooper was there in 2011 as well. Even better, that quick release hasn’t created a huge discrepancy in yards-per-attempt either, as is typical. Throwing 72 less balls in 2012 (in one less game), he averaged nearly eight yards per attempt — versus nearly nine yards per throw in 2011. While “efficiency” isn’t the right word here, as he did complete a lower percentage of throws, I think it is safe to say that Renner was more effective as a passer in 2012 than the season before. And this year, despite some turnover on the line, we may see even more improvement.
One of Bernard’s best traits was his pass-catching ability out of the backfield (92 receptions in his two seasons), and returning rusher A.J. Blue should actually provide more of the same cushion for Renner. Durable and efficient (averaged 5.6 yards per touch last year), the bigger back may end up being an upgrade to Bernard in some respects (no disrespect to Gio, of course). Plus, there’s the lack of a learning curve with regard to the entire offense — a huge factor that’s likely to pay some dividends this season. As mentioned earlier, Renner appeared to be a natural for the spread come 2012’s end, and it’s highly likely he’ll continue on that upward trajectory. If this team — now postseason eligible — is going to contend for a conference championship, it’ll be on the arm of Renner. And while you may not be hearing his name much in the national conversation right now, I’ve got a pretty good feeling he’ll be shooting up Davey O’Brien award lists and mock draft boards by October.