Tuesday, August 13, 2013

season preview: North Carolina Tar Heels


8/29: @ South Carolina (Thu.)
9/7: Middle Tennessee
9/14: BYE
9/21: @ Georgia Tech
9/28: East Carolina
10/5: @ Virginia Tech
10/12: BYE
10/17: Miami (Thu.)
10/26: Boston College
11/2: @ NC State
11/9: Virginia
11/16: @ Pittsburgh
11/23: Old Dominion
11/30: Duke

Skip: Clemson, Florida State, Maryland, Syracuse, Wake Forest

2012 results:

Elon: W, 62-0
Wake Forest: L, 28-27
Louisville: L, 39-34
East Carolina: W, 27-6
Idaho: W, 66-0
Virginia Tech: W, 48-34
Miami: W, 18-14
Duke: L, 33-30
NC State: W, 43-35
Georgia Tech: L, 68-50
Virginia: W, 37-13
Maryland: W, 45-38

Record: 8-4 (5-3); 1st of 6, Coastal Division

Projected starters:

QB: Bryn Renner (5Sr.)
RB: A.J. Blue (5Sr.)
WR: Quinshad Davis (So.)
WR: Sean Tapley (rJr.)
WR: T.J. Thorpe (rSo.)
TE: Eric Ebron (Jr.)
LT: James Hurst (Sr.)
LG: Caleb Peterson (rFr.)
C: Russell Bodine (rJr.)
RG: Landon Turner (rSo.)
RT: Kiaro Holts (rSo.)

DE: Kareem Martin (Sr.)
DT: Tim Jackson (Sr.)
DT: Shawn Underwood (Jr.)
BDE: Shakeel Rashad (So.)
LB: Travis Hughes (Jr.)
LB: Tommy Heffernan (rJr.)
CB: Tim Scott (Jr.)
CB: Jabari Price (Sr.)
FS: Darien Rankin (rSo.)
SS: Tre Boston (Sr.)
RS: Brandon Ellerbe (Jr.)

K: Thomas Moore (Jr.)
P: Tommy Hibbard (Jr.)

(Italics indicate new starter.)

Coach: Larry Fedora, 2nd season

Media prediction: 3rd of 7, Coastal Division


2012 1st team: RB Giovani Bernard, OG Jonathan Cooper, KR Giovani Bernard, DT Sylvester Williams, LB Kevin Reddick
2012 2nd team: OT James Hurst, TE Eric Ebron, K Casey Barth, DE Kareem Martin, P Tommy Hibbard
2012 HM: OG Travis Bond, S Tre Boston, QB Bryn Renner, CB Tim Scott, OT Brennan Williams
2013 preseason: TE Eric Ebron, OT James Hurst, DE Kareem Martin, S Tre Boston

(Italics indicate departed player.)

If not for NCAA sanctions, UNC would've been the Coastal Division rep in the ACCCG last season, even with only a 5-3 record in the conference.  Quite a bit of the talent that got them there has departed, but even more of it remains, and UNC - now free from postseason bans - remains a primary contender for the divisional crown.

-- Offense

Bryn Renner proved to be a very adept operator of Larry Fedora's spread offense last season, racking up some of the best passing statistics in the ACC.  If not for Tajh Boyd, he'd probably have been named to the preseason all-ACC team.  Renner completed over 65% of his passes and threw 28 touchdowns against 7 interceptions.  The Heels are as set under center this season as any team in the conference.

In an ideal world, though, Fedora would have more depth at wide receiver than he had last season or will have this season.  There's some very good talent at the top; Quinshad Davis had one of the best seasons of any true freshman in the conference, leading the Heels with 61 catches, 776 yards, and 5 touchdowns.  Davis is tall and has a real knack for getting open over the middle.  And Eric Ebron is definitely one of the better pass-catching tight ends in the conference.  However, the next receiver in the pecking order, Sean Tapley, played mainly a supporting role in the passing game last year and will have to elevate his game this year.  There are some other receivers with the potential to be big players; T.J. Thorpe is a lightning-fast athlete whose freshman season in 2011 saw him set school kick return records, but who missed all of 2012 with a broken foot.  Kedrick Davis is a redshirt freshman who had a breakout performance in Carolina's spring game and could also play a big role on the field this season.

UNC is also searching for answers at running back after losing Gio Bernard to the draft.  The solution will probably involve a platoon between big, bruising A.J. Blue and the speedy Romar Morris.  The two split carries fairly evenly as Bernard's backup last season; Blue especially in short-yardage situations (he scored 9 of UNC's 28 rushing touchdowns.)  Morris did some kick return work last season and has the skills to replace Bernard in the pass-catching department as well.

The offensive line has a pair of stalwarts and the rest is replacements.  LT James Hurst is among the very best offensive linemen in the ACC and has started 36 games in his career - he's going into his fourth season as a starter.  And center Russell Bodine started all 12 games there last year in addition to a few as a redshirt freshman.  Landon Turner took over at right guard for the final third of last season, and will continue there this year, and at right tackle, Kiaro Holts spent most of last year as a backup tackle on both sides.  He should be ready for the starting job this year.  The one mostly unknown quantity is at left guard, where Caleb Peterson appears to be the likely frontrunner.  He's a redshirt freshman, so the likely guess is talented but obviously inexperienced.

The Carolina offense is probably not going to set the world on fire, but it'll be good.  Especially if the three new starters get up to speed quickly.  Renner knows what he's doing and while I don't expect his stats to drastically improve from last year, that's because they were already pretty good.  I think the backs will be productive, and the receivers at least decent, and overall the offense should be in the upper half of the ACC at a minimum.

-- Defense

The scare factor on UNC's defense this year is going to come from DE Kareem Martin, expected to be one of the top pass rushers in the ACC this year.  He had four sacks and 15.5 TFL in 2012 and it'll probably be considered a disappointment if he doesn't beat those numbers this year.  On the other end, at what UNC calls the bandit position, Shakeel Rashad flashed some playmaking abilities as well last year and has potential to give UNC a really tough pair of bookends.  In the middle, though, the Heels will miss the ability of Sylvester Williams to get into the backfield; Tim Jackson and Shawn Underwood are capable players but not with the playmaking abilities Williams had.

UNC runs something that is sort of like a 4-2-5 with two linebackers and what they call the Ram, their word for the linebackerish safety.  Duke does the same, but UNC does it with better linebackers; Tommy Heffernan was a pleasant surprise for the Heels last season, with 73 tackles and 8.5 for loss, and this is the season where the Heels finally expect Travis Hughes to put it together and be a major producer.

However, it's probably most accurate to say the secondary is the strength of the Heels' defense.  There are two veteran cornerbacks to start off with; Tim Scott and Jabari Price each broke up nine passes in 2012, and Scott intercepted four as well.  UNC is deep and talented at safety as well.  Tre Boston was the team's leading tackler; that's normally interpreted as a bad thing, but UNC was fourth in the league in rushing defense last year, so in this case it's a sign of playmaking skill.  Boston also intercepted four passes.  Two other safeties, Darien Rankin and Sam Smiley, got plenty of starting experience last year as freshmen and should give UNC an excellent rotation; Rankin picked off three passes of his own in 2012.  The only place that still looks a little shaky is the "Ram" position; that was manned by a senior last year and UNC lists very few players as contenders for the job this year, none of whom have much experience outside special teams.

It ought to be pretty tough to pass the ball against this defense.  Good pass rush and very solid in the back end.  Not as sure about the run defense, but it should at least be decent; a lot might depend on Hughes's development as well as who the Heels select for that "Ram" position.

-- Special teams

Tommy Hibbard is one of the best punters in the league with a 43-yard average last season, and the media's selection for preseason all-ACC at his position.  Thomas Moore has some game experience backing up Casey Barth, who was injured at times in the past two seasons, and has been steady enough to move right into the job.

-- Outlook

The UNC defense is part of the reason I'm so skeptical of Miami's chances of winning the division.  (I mean, Miami's own defense is another.)  UNC's offense looks nearly as good on paper and their defense looks much better.  They're not overwhelmingly scary and not at all a lock to take the division crown, but they're a bowl team for sure and have as good a chance as any other team to go to the ACCCG.

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