Offensively last season, North Carolina was a juggernaut. The Heels set school records for points per game (40.6), and total points (487). Those marks were good enough for second in the ACC, and eighth nationally in scoring offense. Larry Fedora wants to dictate tempo, stress a defense, and run 80-85 plays a game. Regarding the spring game, Fedora said, "Offensively, I thought our tempo was just very, very average, to say the least. I didn't think there was anything special about it." Although, he basically said the same thing after the 2012 spring game.
Accurate passer Bryn Renner (65.40% in 2012) returns for his final go-around with 25 career starts under his belt. Renner completed 16 of 27 passes for 216 yards, 3 touchdowns, and a pick during UNC's spring game. Before that, Renner was so-so in the team's final scrimmage leading up to the spring game, "Renner had three overthrows on open guys and was picked off twice. He looked good on timing routes and made a couple of pretty throws in tough situations — e.g. dropping that one in to Davis."
Sixty-eight percent of UNC's receiving yards from 2012 return in '13. The most notable losses were Erik Highsmith and Giovani Bernard.
|Name||Receptions||Yards (Team Rank)|
|Erik Highsmith||54 (2nd)||587 (3rd)|
|Giovani Bernard||47 (3rd)||490 (4th)|
This is what Bryn Renner said about his group.
[Team's leading receiver] Quinshad [Davis]has made a ton of progress as far as his work ethic in the weight room, getting bigger and faster. He missed a little bit of training camp and didn't have a chance to get that weight on him. Him coming back and having that playing experience -- hopefully he can continue to have a big year. But I think, Sean Tapley hopefully we'll get T.J. Thorpe healthy, guys like Kendrick Singleton, Jack Tabb, Eric Ebron -- we have some receivers that can make plays. The only thing they're lacking is making plays on a down to down basis. Once we get into the flow of the season and get more reps in training camp, they'll be able to step right in there and play good football for us.
A top priority of spring ball for Carolina was identifying potential replacements for tailback Giovani Bernard (1,228 yards, 12 TDs). True freshman, early enrollee, Khris Francis turned heads rushing for 101 yards on 20 carries for the white (mostly non-starters) team during the spring game. While Francis' performance might have been the most surprising, other Heels had a productive afternoon too.
Romar Morris, a rising sophomore, gained 80 yards on 15 carries and scored on a 2-yard run for the Blue team. A.J. Blue, who along with Morris is likely to fill the void left by Giovani Bernard, gained 30 yards on eight carries. He also had a 33-yard touchdown reception for the Blue team.
Hokies will painfully remember every one of Gio's 262 rushing yards last October, and while both Blue and Morris are capable, Bernard had the benefit of a talented, veteran offensive line. It will be no easy task replacing three senior starters.
Three seniors are lost along the offensive line, led by All-American left guard Jonathan Cooper. Outside of senior left tackle James Hurst and junior center Russell Bodine, UNC lacks clear answers both in the starting lineup and on the second level. In all likelihood, sophomore Landon Turner will retain the job at right guard after starting the final four games of 2012.
Cooper was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals 7th overall. Russell Bodine (6-4, 310, center) and James Hurst (6-7, 305, tackle) started 12 and 9 games respectively last fall. Hurst was voted second team All-ACC last year.
Rebuilding an offensive line with inexperienced players is never easy. It certainly helps that those guys, Landon Turner (6-4, 320, guard, 4-star), Caleb Peterson (6-5, 300, guard, 3-star), and Kiaro Holts (6-4, 295, tackle, 4-star), were highly regarded prospects. It seems like the group will go through many different iterations in an effort to produce depth and find a best five. The o-line's development, or lack thereof, will be a major factor of how effective Fedora's offense will be in year two.
Fielding a defense to match Fedora's high-tempo offense will no doubt be a priority for North Carolina in August.
UNC lost four starters from a defense ranked 56th in total defense, and 53rd in scoring defense.
Carolina will miss defensive tackle Sylvester Williams and linebacker Kevin Reddick in the middle of the defense. Tim Jackson and Shaun Underwood have experience on the defensive line, but the linebacker corps will feature a lot of new faces. "Having to plug Kevin's spot will be a lot tougher than it will be to plug Sly's spot, just from an experience standpoint," [defensive end Kareem] Martin said. As for the leadership Williams and Reddick provided, Martin said he himself planned to step forward. Some names that jumped out on defense Thursday: Shakeel Rashad, Junior Gnonkonde, and Dan Mastromatteo, a redshirt freshman from Absecon, N.J. Mastromatteo seemed to be all over the field, and his name gave PA announcer Greg Tilley fits.
Kareem Martin returns the team's most sacks (4), and will be counted on as a defensive leader.
There's a battle for both starting linebacker jobs. Juniors Tommy Heffernan and Travis Hughes are the frontrunners to start at Will (weak side) backer, while redshirt freshmen Dan Mastromatteo and Nathan Staub will try to fill the shoes left by four-year starter Kevin Reddick at Mike (middle) backer.
Bandit, UNC's hybrid outside linebacker–defensive end position, saw heavy competition during spring practice as well.
Right now junior Norkeithus Otis and sophomore Shakeel Rashad are the top two players for the Tar Heels at 'Bandit.'
Rashad came on strong early in the spring season and spent a lot of time with the first defensive unit, but Otis has grown by leaps and bounds and now he's been getting reps with the starters.
"Yeah, they're getting a lot of really good reps. That's a great competition right now," said UNC head coach Larry Fedora about the 'Bandits.'
"It's very competitive. Shakeel is a great athlete. Junior (Gnonkonde), he's a great athlete. We just compete each and every day," Otis added.
Rising fourth-year junior Darius Lipford, who was held out of spring ball, might factor into the competition this summer. Shakeel Rashad's on-the-field experience last season is a big advantage.
Ram is another hybrid position, "The ram roves the secondary but will also line up as a linebacker and even at times at end." Junior Brandon Ellerbe and walk-on sophomore Ryan Mangum were the only two players listed at ram on the spring game roster, and seem to be the favorites to replace departed starter Gene Robinson.
Bandit and ram are positions similar in their uniqueness and importance (although not necessarily responsibilities) to Tech's Whip. Transitioning from the previous regime's traditional 4-3, to Fedora and Co's 4-2-5 left UNC without many natural options. That is to say, players the current staff recruited specifically to play bandit and ram. Hokies have seen how hard it is to find a good Whip, and Tech's coaches have recruited for it.
Even though UNC was ranked 81st nationally in pass defense last season, the strength of their defense might be its secondary, which returns all four starters (72 total career starts). Tim Scott (4), Tre Boston (4), and Darien Rankin (3) combined for 11 picks in '12, which helped the Heels tie for the ACC's best in interceptions (16).
Although in spring, injuries sidelined some of their projected contributors.
"We've got a couple hurt guys," said rising senior cornerback Jabari Price, one of a core of UNC defensive backs, including Darien Rankin, Sam Smiley, T.J. Jiles, and Malik Simmons, who have missed some or all of spring workouts.
"When you have guys contributing and stepping up when guys are hurt like Rankin and Smiley, it feels natural. And I think that's what the secondary is feeling right now. I feel like this is our second nature, and we're really playing now," added fellow senior Tre Boston.
According to UNC's spring game roster, Jabari Price and Darien Rankin didn't play.
North Carolina should be a team that challenges to win the ACC Coastal Division. There are some glaring holes that must be filled at defensive tackle, linebacker, bandit, ram, and most importantly offensive line. However, they are solid at quarterback, offensive skill positions, and I believe the overall experience of the secondary will translate into improved production.