Team: North Carolina Tar Heels
2012 W-L: 8-4 (5-3)
Head Coach: Larry Fedora (8-4; second season)
Returning Starters: 13 (6 Offense, 7 Defense)
Last year appeared uneventful for the Tar Heels from the opening whistle: A bowl ban prevented them from going anywhere in the postseason, they had a new coach in Larry Fedora and in an ACC Coastal Division dominated by Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech since its inception, it looked as if they had no shot. But then the team caught on to Fedora’s spread offense quicker than expected, halfback Giovani Bernard put together one of the country’s best all-around seasons and the team road a very manageable schedule to a tie for the division title (despite not being able to compete for it). After all that, now the stakes are much higher for North Carolina — a team that’s spent several years knocking on the door of upper-level success, and may finally be able to break through this year.
Offensively, the Heels were only really stopped by themselves last year. A lack of focus here and there, and no true top receiving target left things to question more often than likely anyone would be comfortable with. And yet, in a completely new scheme, it’s frightening to think things could’ve gone better than they did last year. But they honestly could this fall. Before Fedora arrived in Chapel Hill, Bryn Renner was a simple pro-style passer, accurate and methodical in his delivery. Now, he appears to be a master of the spread, losing very little in accuracy while throwing 72 more passes (in one less game) and increasing touchdown and yardage numbers while decreasing sacks to a paltry 11. He still doesn’t have a top-flight wideout this season, but there’s thought this team’s progressed on that front too (a welcome sign for the senior QB). Quinshad Davis showed off some flashes of brilliance as a real deep threat receiver last year, and tight end Eric Ebron is being talked about as one of his position’s best in the country. Even if just those two pass-catching options can make good on some preseason hype, that’ll be more than enough for Renner to work with. Despite losing standout guard Jonathan Cooper to the NFL, this year’s group is still strong, and should be able to protect their quarterback just the same as always.
Where it’ll be interesting to see them progress, however, is in terms of run-blocking, though. Gone is all-world halfback Giovani Bernard, and in his place is former reserve A.J. Blue. Blue excelled in a limited role in 2012, picking up over 500 yards and 10 scores on just 91 total touches, but that was with plenty of help. Bernard was the focus of most defenses, and the offensive line featured a future top-10 draft pick. It still might in James Hurst, though Blue should be fine just the same. At 6’2″ and 215 pounds, he’s a much bigger runner than Bernard was and should make his living running up the gut. Should he be able to keep up his 5.2 yards per carry this season on a more consistent workload, he could be in for a monster year — made even more so by the fact that he’ll have no one to vulture touchdowns from him as Bernard dealt with with Blue. His counterpart in the backfield is Romar Morris, who is a speedier, smaller back to offset Blue’s more physical style. Between the two, it’s unlikely there’s much drop-off for the Heels’ stellar run game — an essential element of their passing success.
Where this squad could get tripped up is on defense. In year two of the 4-2-5 formation, there’s still plenty to learn, and last year’s group certainly looked out of sorts at times. Linebackers are all new too this fall, and that means even more transition. As the roster continues to fill out with players that are better matches for Fedora’s scheme the “Bandit” and “Ram” positions should take on more defined roles. But for now, the team will do what it can with what it has. Tommy Heffernan figures to anchor that group from the middle, while the team’s younger starters develop. They’ll need to do so quick though, so as not to hang the line out to dry. Replacing standout Sylvester Williams is no small task, but seniors Kareem Martin and Tim Jackson will sure try to pick up the pass-rushing slack. Martin, in particular, is a simply massive player (6’8″ and 285 pounds) on the outside, and has the potential to put in a very strong senior campaign.
Over in the secondary, the experienced group should at least provide some reinforcements to their greener counterparts up front. Safety Tre Boston‘s been around the block a few times, though being a senior doesn’t automatically mean he’s bulletproof. He makes plenty of stops and forces turnovers too, but his riskier play also contributes to the high number of passing plays of 20- and 30-yards completed against UNC. Last year, they allowed 42 plays of 20 or more and 19 of 30 or more. For a secondary with this type of experience (two seniors and a junior), that’s simply unacceptable. The hope is that Boston makes a leap this fall, but he’s not the only one who needs to step up. Fellow senior Jabari Price has also failed to reach his true potential, tallying more tackles than any corner really should — so the pressure is on from all angles.
North Carolina is tested just a few times this fall. And as much as that may seem great on its face, it puts a whole lot more emphasis on those games as well. Dates versus South Carolina, Georgia Tech and Miami could respectively define their season in the first half, and with the increased national attention, who knows how the program will react. There shouldn’t be any worry about the offense in these or any contests (averaging over 40 points per game will do that), but if you were to raise concerns for UNC, the defense is an easy target. I think they can whether the personnel shifts, but not without a significant step forward for multiple players (Boston, Martin and Price, in particular). These are exciting times for North Carolina. Now let’s just hope they stay focused, instead of stopping to take it all in.
Prediction: (10-2) (7-1); Sun Bowl