Saturday, August 16, 2014

2014 season preview: North Carolina Tar Heels


8/30: Liberty
9/6: San Diego State
9/13: BYE
9/20: @ East Carolina
9/27: @ Clemson
10/4: Virginia Tech
10/11: @ Notre Dame
10/18: Georgia Tech
10/25: @ Virginia
11/1: @ Miami
11/8: BYE
11/15: Pittsburgh
11/20: @ Duke (Thu.)
11/29: NC State

Skip: Boston College, Florida State, Louisville, Syracuse, Wake Forest

2013 results:

South Carolina: L, 27-10
Middle Tennesee: W, 40-20
Georgia Tech: L, 28-20
East Carolina: L, 55-31
Virginia Tech: L, 27-17
Miami: L, 27-23
Boston College: W, 34-10
NC State: W, 27-19
Virginia: W, 45-14
Pittsburgh: W, 34-27
Old Dominion: W, 80-20
Duke: L, 27-25
Cincinnati: W, 39-17

Record: 7-6 (4-4); 5th, Coastal

Projected starters:

QB: Marquise Williams (rJr.)
RB: T.J. Logan (So.)
WR: Quinshad Davis (Jr.)
WR: Ryan Switzer (So.)
WR: Bug Howard (So.)
TE: Jack Tabb (Sr.)
LT: John Ferranto (rSo.)
LG: Caleb Peterson (rSo.)
C: Lucas Crowley (So.)
RG: Landon Turner (rJr.)
RT: Jon Heck (rSo.)

DE: Junior Gnonkonde (rSo.)
DT: Ethan Farmer (5Sr.)
DT: Justin Thomason (Jr.)
BDE: Norkeithus Otis (Sr.)
WLB: Travis Hughes (Sr.)
MLB: Nathan Staub (rSo.)
CB: Brian Walker (So.)
CB: Des Lawrence (rSo.)
RS: Malik Simmons (Jr.)
SS: Dominique Green (So.)
FS: Tim Scott (Sr.)

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

(Italics indicate new starter.)

Media prediction: 4th, Coastal

Coach: Larry Fedora (3rd season)


2013 1st team: TE Eric Ebron, OT James Hurst, DE Kareem Martin, PR Ryan Switzer
2013 2nd team: S Tre Boston
2013 3rd team: none
2013 HM: WR Quinshad Davis, C Russell Bodine, LB Norkeithus Otis, CB Jabari Price, P Tommy Hibbard
2014 preseason: PR Ryan Switzer

(Italics indicate departed player.)

Miami wasn't the only team putting a black eye on the ACC.  UNC's 2012 season was another postseason ban, but they were free of sanctions last year.  They nearly missed the postseason anyway, getting off to a 1-5 start before reeling off five wins to earn a bowl trip, which they won.  That team underachieved without a doubt.  On paper they had plenty of talent on defense, and no shortage of it on offense either.  This year Carolina is projected by the media as just shy of 1st in the division conference, so another 6-6 regular season might not sit well with UNC fans.

-- Offense

After Bryn Renne's season ended prematurely, Marquise Williams took over under center and did a more than passable job.  His completion percentage could've used a little work, but he did throw 15 TDs against only 6 INTs, and is entering his fourth year in the program, so you'd think he'd easily be the presumptive starter.  You'd be wrong.  Larry Fedora is making Williams work for it, and has opened up the competition to include redshirt freshman Mitch Trubisky.  I'd expect Williams to evenutually win the job - there's a smack of motivational ploy to this deal - but Fedora recruited Trubisky and not Williams, so, who knows?  It's probably not a good sign for UNC that Williams hasn't been able to seize the job outright against someone with two fewer years experience.

Carolina also took a hit this month when receiver T.J. Thorpe, expected to be a big part of the offense, hurt his foot.  Thorpe is out indefinitely, but the receiving corps should be alright.  Quinshad Davis, the team's top wide receiver last year, returns for his junior year.  Davis is a really good one and should come into his own this year now that high-powered tight end Eric Ebron is in the NFL.  The Heels will also expect more out of Ryan Switzer, who returned five punts to the house last year.  Bug Howard had a very solid freshman season in 2013, and UNC also expects Kendrick Singleton to make a contribution, though he caught only six passes last year.  Tight end Jack Tabb should also be a reliable target, now that he's out of Ebron's shadow.

Williams was UNC's leading rusher last year, but freshman T.J. Logan came on in the fifth game of the season and never came out of the lineup.  His role got bigger and bigger, and he ended up leading UNC's running backs in carries and yardage, averaging 5.7 per carry.  Logan himself, though, might be fending off a challenge, as UNC adds Elijah Hood to the roster; Hood was a bona fide five-star recruit, a tremendously powerful running back who reportedly squats over 600 pounds.

Lately we've been going over offensive lines that are strong on the left side and questionable on the right; UNC is the opposite.  Landon Turner is a stalwart at right guard, and often played every snap of a game last year while only a sophomore.  Right tackle Jon Heck won the starting job as a redshirt freshman last year and maintained an iron grip on the job, giving UNC a strong right side that should be around both this year and next.

Left guard is also fine, with Caleb Peterson returning as a starter.  UNC is breaking in a new center, though, with Lucas Crowley having appeared in six games as a freshman last year, and there's no depth behind him.  The all-important left tackle spot belongs for now to John Ferranto, who came on in relief of all-conference tackle James Hurst in the bowl game but is battling a pair of freshmen for the job.

This offense, once again, has plenty of talent to get it through.  If the quarterback battle isn't an ominous sign, then UNC should be in very good shape at the skill positions.  The offensive line is on the thin and inexperienced side once you get past the prospective starting five, but there's useful talent there; Turner could end up as an all-conference pick himself.  The line does need to gel some, and there's always uncertainty with a new center; still, it should be adequate at a minimum.  It's likely the offense that has the media excited about the Heels this season.

-- Defense

That said, a closer look at the defense may have been warranted.  First, the strong points, particularly safety.  UNC runs essentially a 4-2-5, using what they call the Ram safety as a hybrid S/LB.  With Tim Scott moving from corner to safety, UNC has three quality, experienced players at the position.  Dominique Green picked off three passes last year, and Malik Simmons made a successful move from corner to the Ram position.  Though UNC may want to see more production out of Simmons (47 tackles in 2013), they'll have good players here.

At corner, Brian Walker looks ready to step up to a starting role, but Des Lawrence had less extensive playing time, and the rest of the cornerback roster is a bit thin.  Alex Dixon should at least play a decent-sized role as a backup - for the third straight season - but the rest of the depth is mainly freshmen and one converted receiver.  You expect that UNC at least has confidence in their starters if they feel comfortable moving Scott, but there isn't a ton of experience at the position.

At linebacker, UNC returns Travis Hughes and Jeff Schoettmer, who had 76 and 85 tackles last year, respectively.  Coming out of spring, though, Schoettmer was listed as Hughes's backup on the weak side after starting most of 2013 as the middle linebacker.  UNC may return to Schoettmer in the middle, or they may hand the job to the relatively inexperienced Nathan Staub or the even more inexperienced Dan Mastromatteo.

UNC is looking at some conundrums up front though.  Already thin at tackle, UNC lost a prospective starter to academic issues, and now leans on Ethan Farmer as the lone returning DT starter.  Farmer is a solid player, and Justin Thomason should be serviceable at a minimum.  To alleviate the depth issues, Carolina is also working out DE Jessie Rogers in the middle as well, and will likely expect him to work both positions.  Rogers up til this point hasn't done much in his career, totaling 14 tackles in two years.

That leaves the strongside DE position to the still-developing Junior Gnonkonde, who has some potential but is still only a sophomore.  On the other end, the Heels do get back Norkeithus Otis, a productive player who registered 7.5 sacks last year.  Otis will have to produce this year while being the focus of opposing defenses, however, now that Kareem Martin has moved on to the NFL.

Is this defense worthy of a team that's expected to contend very strongly for the division title?  It's got pieces, but it's a little underwhelming, and lacking experience in many places, particularly cornerback and DT.  The whole D-line, actually, other than Otis.  It wasn't a great defense last year (against the run, mainly; it was better against the pass) and it lost quite a few key pieces.  Essentially it's a rebuilding unit, and could struggle.

-- Special teams

Ryan Switzer dazzled last year as a punt returner, getting to the end zone five times.  Very impressive.  Difficult to reproduce, but impressive nonetheless.  Tommy Hibbard is a strong-legged punter boasting a 43-yard average.  Thomas Moore's hold on the placekicking job isn't 100% solid, as he doesn't possess a lot of range and missed two extra points.

-- Outlook

I confess, I'm not as enamored of this team as the media is.  I like the offense if they can nail down a quarterback, but redshirt juniors aren't usually in a dogfight with freshmen.  But the defense has a lot to prove, I think.  This is the Coastal, of course; anything can happen as there's really no favorite here.  And UNC is, at least, a likely bowl team; it'll be an upset if they don't get to six wins, but it's not totally out of the question, either.  I do think, however, that this season will end up somewhat disappointing, unless the defense does a lot of growing up in a hurry.

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