Thursday, August 16, 2012

season preview: North Carolina Tar Heels


9/1: Elon
9/8: @ Wake Forest
9/15: @ Louisville
9/22: East Carolina
9/29: Idaho
10/6: Virginia Tech
10/13: @ Miami
10/20: @ Duke
10/27: NC State
11/3: BYE
11/10: Georgia Tech
11/15: @ Virginia (Thu.)
11/24: Maryland

Skip: Boston College, Clemson, Florida State

Projected starters:

QB: Bryn Renner (rJr.)
RB: Giovani Bernard (rSo.)
WR: Erik Highsmith (Sr.)
WR: Jheranie Boyd (Sr.)
WR: Todd Harrelson (5Sr.)
TE: Eric Ebron (So.)
LT: James Hurst (Jr.)
LG: Jonathan Cooper (5Sr.)
C: Russell Bodine (rSo.)
RG: Travis Bond (Sr.)
RT: Brennan Williams (Sr.)

DE: Kareem Martin (Jr.)
DT: Sylvester Williams (Sr.)
DT: Devonte Brown (So.)
BDE: Dion Guy (Sr.)
LB: Kevin Reddick (Sr.)
LB: Travis Hughes (So.)
CB: Tim Scott (So.)
CB: Jabari Price (Jr.)
SS: Tre Boston (Jr.)
FS: Sam Smiley (rFr.)
S: Gene Robinson (Sr.)

K: Casey Barth (5Sr.)
P: Tommy Hibbard (So.)

(Italics indicate new starter.)

Coach: Larry Fedora (1st season)

Media prediction: 3rd, Coastal Division


2011 1st team: RB Giovani Bernard, DE Quinton Coples, LB Zach Brown
2011 2nd team: WR Dwight Jones, OT James Hurst, G Jonathan Cooper
2011 HM: DT Tydreke Powell, SP T.J. Thorpe
2012 preseason: OT James Hurst, G Jonathan Cooper, RB Giovani Bernard, LB Kevin Reddick

(Italics indicate departed player.)

These are interesting times at North Carolina.  It was two years ago that a very, very large contingent of Tar Heel stars were suspended for various portions of the season.  It was last year that they had an interim head coach and no AD, on account of firing both less than a week before training camp.  This year, they deal with the NCAA sanctions - Carolina is not permitted a bowl trip this year - and news continues to leak out at a slow and agonizing pace about academic shenanigans dating all the way back to Julius Peppers.  Schemes to keep athletes eligible appear to have been going on for nobody knows how long, and the bottom of the rabbit hole is yet to be discovered.  And the NCAA appears to be so far ambivalent about the whole thing, although the misdeeds could yet prove to be UNC's sword of Damocles.  A new coach - who beat UVA twice while at Southern Miss - brings all-new schemes on both sides of the ball, turning UNC's formerly Wisconsinesque offense into a new-age spread.


Because of his drop-back style, Bryn Renner had to spend the spring convincing folks - including Larry Fedora - that he could run the spread offense effectively.  Renner passed with flying colors, and will likely face no further challenges to his job until he graduates after next season.  He provides the ACC with yet another blue-chip quarterback.

Fedora's spread, however, requires a plethora of receivers, which UNC is lacking.  The now-graduated Dwight Jones bogarted most of the catches last year, and top returner Erik Highsmith took most of the rest.  Highsmith is a solid player and ready to be the top dog, but after that, it's almost completely uncertain who'll provide a viable alternative.  Jheranie Boyd is fast as hell, but even more inconsistent.  If he hasn't "got it" now, as a senior, he probably never will, and that's before you account for trying to learn a new system.  Neither Todd Harrelson nor Sean Tapley - the other occupiers of the top slots on the depth chart - caught a single pass last year.  The lack of proven options at receiver is the #1 obstacle to success for the Carolina offense.

Maybe the only obstacle.  RB Giovani Bernard had a sensational freshman season last year.  Bernard proved he could be a true workhorse back, and should fit well in the spread as he's also an excellent pass-catcher; he had 45 receptions in 2011.  He was helped to his 1,253 running yards by a stout offensive line, which replaces only the center this year.  LT James Hurst is the only ACC tackle who can hold a candle to our own excellent tandem, and might in fact be the best in the conference.  His next-door neighbor, LG Jonathan Cooper, also made the preseason all-conference team.  The right side is populated by seniors with RT Brennan Williams and RG Travis Bond, both very good players, and center Russell Bodine has enough quality game experience that he should be able to step into the starting role with little trouble.  UNC will definitely have a powerful running game again this season.

However, pass protection last season was at times suspect (which is why I'm not ready to crown Hurst as the conference's best tackle quite yet) and Fedora's spread will probably widen the line splits, which will take some getting used to.  That and the dearth of receivers are the two biggest issues that'll have to be overcome.  The switch to a spread offense after years of running a pro-style can be fraught with peril.  That said, UNC definitely has the personnel to mask some of those difficulties.


It's another scheme switch here as Carolina moves to a 4-2-5 of sorts.  Only two linebackers (in name) populate the field, but a third safety has the freedom to crash the line and act as a run-stopper - in effect, an outside linebacker who plays a little further back.  New defensive coordinator Vic Koenning also adds a "bandit" position, who does something similar to the fourth, pass-rushing linebacker in the 3-4.

UNC got into a lot of backfields last year, registering 84 TFL as a team, but will have to replace a lot of that production.  DE Kareem Martin is a good start; he should be expected to at least replicate his 7 TFL, 4-sack performance from last season, and juco transfer DT Sylvester Williams had similar production from the inside.  The rest of the line is up in the air, though; the leader for the aforementioned bandit position is senior Dion Guy, a previously little-used player who has sophomore Norkeithus Otis breathing down his neck.

The leader of the defense is linebacker Kevin Reddick, the top returning tackler with 71.  Former UVA recruit Travis Hughes (from Kempsville) is expected to be the other starting linebacker; Hughes played in all 13 games last year as a true freshman and is ready for the big time.  UNC will also look for leadership from safety Tre Boston, a versatile player who intercepted three passes last year.  Boston can also play cornerback if necessary, but is better as a safety whose primary responsibility is in pass coverage.  Redshirt freshman Sam Smiley earned the free safety job in spring camp, and the former starter at that position, Gene Robinson, takes over the "Ram" safety and will act as a hybrid safety-linebacker.

The Heels also have high hopes for sophomore cornerback Tim Scott, who seized the starting job last year as a true freshman and performed admirably.  If Jabari Price is fully recovered from a hand injury that forced him out of action for a third of last season, he should be ready to finally claim a starting job of his own, opposite Scott.  As a freshman in 2010, Price started four games, so UNC has a good chance to have one of the top cornerback duos in the league.  They don't have any proven depth behind those two, though.

Departures of a few big names and the switch to an unconventional 4-2-5 have opened up more than a couple position competitions and could cause some similar growing pains to the offense.  But UNC has a lot of very solid players and a few with a chance to become stars in their own right, and I expect them to be just fine on this side of the ball - at least.


PK Casey Barth is back for a fifth and final season after being awarded a medical redshirt last year, so UNC's kicking is in good hands.  Without him, they didn't attempt many field goals if they could help it.  Sophomore punter Thomas Hibbard took the job from C.J. Feagles last fall and held onto it enough that Feagles transferred out; Hibbard was a big improvement over Feagles (who was awful) but the Heels would still like to see him nudge his average over 40 yards.


There's no bowl on the horizon this year, but it's because of the sanctions, not lack of talent.  The postseason ban could turn out bigger than just a lost trip to Orlando or Nashville; UNC has a dog-easy road schedule, with the Thursday night game against UVA their toughest ACC road game of the year, and they skip FSU and Clemson entirely.  This would've been a golden chance to win the division and play in the ACCCG.  As it is, they'll have to be content with what'll likely be about a nine-win season - one that probably won't get wiped from the record books this time.

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