No. 41: North Carolina
By Paul Myerberg // Jul 29, 2012
Here’s an idea to consider: Would North Carolina have fired Butch Davis – had those other issues not been in play, of course – for winning seven games last fall? It’s clear that university would have been disappointed; the Tar Heels were fresh three straight eight-win seasons, after all. But all in all, seven wins and bowl berth remains a fairly solid feat in this age of U.N.C. football, even if the school dreams bigger than mediocrity. Yet standards are standards: Those in place for Davis were not the same as those in place for Everett Withers, who won seven games despite dealing with injuries, distractions and attritions, and those standards in place for Davis and Withers will not be the same as those handed to Larry Fedora, the walking, talking ball of swagger who inherits a flawed team with unbelievably tremendous upside. Is seven wins good enough in 2012? You’d think so. But will seven wins and a bowl berth cut it in 2013, 2014, 2015? The answer lies in the program’s answer to this question: What sort of program does U.N.C. want to be? I’ll give my quick take: A program doesn’t bring in a coach like Fedora unless it wants to make noise.
Atlantic Coast, Coastal
Chapel Hill, N.C.
13 (8 offense, 5 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 1
- Sept. 8
at Wake Forest
- Sept. 15
- Sept. 22
- Sept. 29
- Oct. 6
- Oct. 13
at Miami (Fla.)
- Oct. 20
- Oct. 27
- Nov. 10
- Nov. 15
- Nov. 24
Last year’s prediction
U.N.C. couldn’t drop on this list soon enough once Davis was dismissed. All the talent in the world won’t be enough for this team to keep it together… right? Say one thing about these Tar Heels: they’ve tasted adversity, having entered last fall under a cloud of N.C.A.A. sanctions and without several key starters, and should be commended for how they battled back to post another eight-win finish. But the turmoil facing last year’s team pales in comparison to mess on Carolina’s plate heading into 2011: without Davis, I can’t see U.N.C. coming close to reaching its full potential. If Davis had returned, you can see why some were touting U.N.C. as the team most likely to win the A.C.C. if Florida State and Virginia Tech faltered. Forget about that. It’s not going to happen anymore, not when this ship has lost its man at the helm. The Tar Heels will be fine, but they’re not going to have the season most expected.
In a nutshell A strikingly familiar season for U.N.C. – minus the off-field melodrama, of course. Shove around the bad teams, beat a few good teams and lose to the cream of the crop. The only noticeable difference between 2010 and 2011, for instance, may be the one fewer victory. But the losses were uglier: Clemson made the Heels look silly, N.C. State pitched a shutout and Missouri… U.N.C. never showed up. All things considered, however, I don’t think Withers did a terrible job. Was he ready for this endeavor? Not quite, but no interim coach ever is. All things considered – U.N.C. played an easier schedule, but Ohio State had more talent – Withers seemed to handle this challenge better than Luke Fickell, another B.C.S. conference interim head coach, handled his in Columbus.
High point A 5-1 start included wins over Rutgers, Virginia and Louisville, each of which looked stronger in hindsight. Outside of Clemson, no A.C.C. team had a stronger first half of 2011.
Low point The 59-38 loss to Clemson was humbling and the 13-0 loss to the rival Wolfpack devastating, but U.N.C.’s bowl performance was the low point of the season. Not that the Tar Heels had anything to play for, but the effort simply wasn’t there. Perhaps the fact that its head coach was already signed, sealed and delivered to Ohio State had something to do with the team’s poor performance.
Tidbit U.N.C. has posted four straight seasons with seven or more wins, if you count both 2008 and 2009 – two eight-win seasons since vacated due to the program’s N.C.A.A. violations. This is only the program’s fifth such run in the modern era, joining 1934-37, 1946-49, 1979-83 and 1992-97.
Tidbit (draft edition) These are some of the glory days of U.N.C. football – when it comes to putting players into the N.F.L., at least. The Heels have had 20 players taken in the N.F.L. Draft over the last five years, including a program-record nine players in 2011. This is the second-most successful five year span in program history, trailing only the 24 players taken from 1995-99. What do these two eras have in common? Try the fact that the Heels’ head coaches over these two spans were two of the greatest recruiters in college football history: Butch Davis and Mack Brown.
Former players in the N.F.L.
37 DT Marvin Austin (New York Giants), DE Kentwan Balmer (Washington), K Connor Barth (Tampa Bay), LB Zach Brown (Tenenssee), CB Kendric Burney (St. Louis), LB Bruce Carter (Dallas), DE Quinton Coples (New York Jets), RB Shaun Draughn (Kansas City), C Cam Holland (Kansas City), WR Jesse Holley (New England), DE Vonnie Holliday (Arizona), OG Mike Ingersoll (Tampa Bay), OT Kyle Jolly (Pittsburgh), WR Dwight Jones (Houston), WR Greg Little (Cleveland), DE Mike McAdoo (Baltimore), S Matt Merletti (Indianapolis), WR Hakeem Nicks (New York Giants), DT Jordan Nix (Tampa Bay), DE Julius Peppers (Chicago), TE Zack Pianalto (Tampa Bay), DT Tydreke Powell (Minnesota), TE Richard Quinn (Washington), DE Robert Quinn (St. Louis), OT Garrett Reynolds (Atlanta), C Jeff Saturday (Green Bay), S Da’Norris Searcy (Buffalo), S Gerald Sensabaugh (Dallas), LB Quan Sturdivant (Arizona), WR Brandon Tate (Cincinnati), TE Ryan Taylor (Green Bay), DT Cam Thomas (San Diego), LS Greg Warren (Pittsburgh), RB Johnny White (Buffalo), DE E.J. Wilson (Tampa Bay), WR Wallace Wright (Tampa Bay), QB T.J. Yates (Houston).
Arbitrary top five list
Center-quarterback combinations in N.F.L. history
1. Jeff Saturday and Peyton Manning, Indianapolis.
2. Kent Hull and Jim Kelly, Buffalo.
3. Jim Ringo and Bart Starr, Green Bay.
4. Mike Webster and Terry Bradshaw, Pittsburgh.
5. Dwight Stephenson and Dan Marino, Miami.
Larry Fedora (Austin College ‘85), entering his first season. Fedora was hired in January after a four-year run at Southern Mississippi, where he compiled 34-19 mark – going 12-2 in his final season. Fedora’s last two seasons in Hattiesburg saw the program make substantial strides on offense, defense and, most of all, in the win column. The Golden Eagles took a nice step forward in 2010, winning eight games for the first time under Fedora and avoiding the lulls that defined his first two years on campus. Things had been a bit up-and-down for Fedora to that point; in 2008, for example, Southern Miss opened up at 2-6 before rolling off five straight wins to end the year. The impetus behind Southern Mississippi’s strong finish that fall was a terrific offense, which set a school record with 398 points — 30.6 per game. The offense continued to hum in 2009, as the Golden Eagles broke that short-lived school record by scoring 428 points. The record fell once again in 2010, when U.S.M. scored 479 points, and again last fall, with 516 points. Fedora was hired largely because of his strong offensive background, which included a stint at Oklahoma State, where he served as the offensive coordinator from 2005-7, leading an attack that made great strides statistically in each season. Though the offense struggled in 2005, finishing 96th nationally in scoring, the Cowboys finished in the top 10 in rushing yards and the top 20 in total offense in each of the following two seasons. In 2006, the Cowboys joined undefeated Boise State as the only two teams to average both 200 yards rushing and passing. Prior to Oklahoma State, Fedora served three years at Florida (2002-4, offensive coordinator his final season) and Middle Tennessee State (1999-2001 as offensive coordinator). Fedora’s additional F.B.S. assistant experience includes stops at Air Force (1997-98) and Baylor (1990-1996). His hiring sends a clear signal: U.N.C. has visions of a football program capable of making yearly runs at the A.C.C. crown.
Tidbit (coaching edition) Fedora’s new staff is impressive: his nine hires combine comfort, experience and proven college credentials. Six are former Southern Mississippi assistants, three on each side of the ball. The most noteworthy is offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Blake Anderson, who many — including me — thought to be the best candidate for the head job in Hattiesburg following Fedora’s departure. In addition to Anderson, Fedora hired former assistants Walt Bell and Chris Kapilovic as the tight ends and offensive line coach, respectively. Bell’s a nice story: a graduate assistant at U.S.M. in 2010, he’s taken a quick ride up the coaching ladder. You’ll find another trio of former assistants on the defensive side of the ball. Coordinator Dan Disch, who did such a wonderful job in his lone season in Hattiesburg, takes over a defense depleted by graduation and one early draft entrant. Deke Adams will coach the defensive line, as he did with the Golden Eagles. David Duggan will lead the U.N.C. special teams and its outside linebackers.
Fedora was able to lure former Illinois coordinator Vic Koenning away from a handful of similarly talented suitors, which was a coup, pure and simple. Any questions U.N.C. fans may have had about a Conference USA defense — not my words — keeping pace in the A.C.C. are immediately put to bed: Koenning can run a defense anywhere, has shown he can do in the A.C.C., and could have picked his landing spot after being jettisoned by Illinois. He chose the Tar Heels. The eighth assistant should ring some bells: Gunter Brewer, the longtime Oklahoma State assistant — where he worked alongside Fedora, then the offensive coordinator — comes to U.N.C. after one miserable season spent working under Houston Nutt at Mississippi. Rounding out the staff is former Nebraska and Texas A&M running backs coach Randy Jordan, who played the position at U.N.C. from 1988-92.
Players to watch
Let’s tackle North Carolina’s biggest team-wide issue: depth. It’s a serious issue, even if U.N.C. returns 13 starters – including eight on offense – and one that could, if the Tar Heels suffer two or three serious injuries, cripple Fedora’s chances at fielding a winning team in his debut season. As Andrew Carter of The News & Observer noted earlier this week, Fedora singled out every position but tight end as lacking adequate depth heading into September. His pessimism might be aimed at hitting a chord with this roster – motivating the second tier to step up their play – but regardless, it is clear that U.N.C. lacks enough capable bodies to go deep on its depth chart.
Now, the offense. One positive: Southern Mississippi was improved right from the start, even if the Golden Eagles didn’t hit their stride until 2010. What helped Fedora in 2008 was the fact that U.S.M. had a very polished quarterback in Austin Davis, who would go on to set several school records as a four-year starter. U.N.C. has its own all-conference quarterback in junior Bryn Renner, one of the nation’s most efficient passers, and there’s reason to believe he’ll be a wonderful fit in Fedora’s up-tempo, no-huddle, spread offense.
Renner was under-the-radar terrific last fall, his first as the starter – he was the backup to T.J. Yates as a freshman, not seeing much game action but giving the then-senior a run for his money during fall camp; Yates was always going to be the starter, but Renner did make things interesting in August. Last fall, Renner completed 68.3 percent of his attempts (239 of 350) for 3,088 yards and 26 touchdowns against 13 interceptions. He had four sour showings, however, with each coming against some of the nation’s best pass defenses: Rutgers, Georgia Tech, Clemson – giving the Tigers a little bit of credit here – and N.C. State. But considering his lack of experience, Renner’s first season as the Heels’ starter went swimmingly.
Now he needs to grasp a new system on the fly. It shouldn’t be too difficult: Fedora’s offense is extremely quarterback-friendly, though it should be noted that he would always prefer a more mobile option – Renner is many things, and does many things very well, but he’ll never be confused with a dual-threat quarterback. But the speed with which he hit the ground running as a sophomore bodes well for Renner in 2012; he’s obviously a heady, adaptable, poised pocket passer, not just a thrower.
He won’t earn all-A.C.C. honors this fall, for two reasons: one, it’s likely that Renner has some up-and-down moments early while he and this offense get on the same page; and two, this league is loaded with top-flight quarterback play – Tajh Boyd, Logan Thomas, E.J. Manuel, Tanner Price and Mike Glennon, for example. But it’s safe to be highly excited about Renner’s potential as the quarterback in Fedora’s offense.
And he’s not even the star of this offense. That would be sophomore running back Gio Bernard (1,253 yards and 13 touchdowns), the league’s leading returning rusher. It’s safe to say that his breakthrough was somewhat unexpected: Bernard tore his A.C.L. just weeks before the start of the 2010 season, which made him an overlooked backfield option for U.N.C. heading into last fall. But he delivered, notching the third-most productive season by a back in school history and setting several freshman rushing records. What’s striking about Bernard – beyond the fact that he’s now two years removed from his knee injury, meaning he should have regained all his speed and agility – is his down-to-down consistency; he’s a four-yard lock, in a way, and a back who grows stronger and more productive as a game wears on. Renner might not earn all-A.C.C. honors in 2012; Bernard is an all-conference lock.
The best line in the A.C.C. resides in Chapel Hill – now all this group needs to do is grasp the new scheme. The lone new face up front can be found at center, where sophomore Russell Bodine replaces Cam Holland. It’s the status quo elsewhere: junior James Hurst at left tackle, senior Jonathan Cooper at left guard, senior Travis Bond at right guard and senior Brennan Williams at right tackle. At least two, Hurst and Cooper, will earn all-A.C.C. honors; it’s probably safe to say that Bond and Williams will challenge for postseason accolades. One thing you’ve already seen is thinner linemen, especially on the left side: Hurst and Cooper have dropped about 10 pounds apiece. Dropping weight will help Cooper, who, like Southern Mississippi’s Joe Duhon, will be used in space far more often than in the previous system. Based on talent and experience, it’s hard to match this offensive front.
Now, the depth issue. At quarterback, Renner’s potential replacements include a redshirt freshman – Marquise Williams, the backup heading into August – and two true freshmen. Bernard’s backup is sophomore A.J. Blue, a converted quarterback who has been used primarily out of the Wildcat, and redshirt freshman Romar Morris. There’s average depth up front: Nick Appel, a sophomore, can swing at both tackle spots, and junior Peyton Jenest can play both left guard and center. As I’ll touch on below, the receiver corps is not in great shape. Simply put, the lack of depth on offense is an issue.
This won’t be the first time that Fedora has inherited a program with a strong defensive pedigree; he did the same at Southern Mississippi, taking on a team then defined by the way it approached defense and remaking it as an offense-first juggernaut. Like the Golden Eagles heading into 2008, U.N.C. has won games over the last four seasons by getting stops on defense; while the Tar Heels took a step back last fall, they ranked among the top quarter of the A.C.C. in total defense from 2008-10. Another similarity: Fedora and Disch will implement the 4-2-5 base set, taking this program far outside of its comfort zone – and placing an extreme amount of pressure on this secondary.
The 4-2-5 has its quirks, with the formation itself being one. Up front, you’ll see one bigger end – basically a tackle moved outside – teamed with a hybrid end-linebacker; the latter will be the team’s best edge rusher, hopefully. There are two linebackers, one in the middle and one lined up on the weak side. The secondary features two cornerbacks, two safeties and a hybrid safety-linebacker that U.N.C. will play in or near the box. It’s going to take time for U.N.C. to adjust, as you might think.
The Tar Heels’ defensive line lost a star in end Quinton Coples, who was tailor-made to fill the role as this defense’s bigger end. Disch and Deke Adams must also replace a solid interior presence in Tydreke Powell and a disappointingly unproductive end in Donte Paige-Moss, who left for the N.F.L. one year ahead of schedule. One of the two returning starters is senior tackle Sylvester Williams (54 tackles, 7.0 for loss), who will be joined inside by sophomore Shawn Underwood. Underwood is one of three sophomore tackles pegged for a substantially increased role, joining Ethan Farmer and Devonte Brown; while Williams will demand attention inside, this group needs to supply some consistent push to help U.N.C. defend the run.
Look for Kareem Martin (40 tackles, 4.0 sacks) to go from unheralded, overlooked and fairly unknown — one of the byproducts of lining up alongside Powell and opposite of Coples — to one of the A.C.C.’s more appreciated down linemen. He’ll be an anchor for the Heels: Martin, explosive despite his 290-pound frame, has the size to slow down opposing ground games and the agility to make things happen on passing downs – in short, he’s an all-A.C.C. pick. Filling the hybrid role up front is senior Dion Guy, who goes from being a little-used linebacker to one of the keys to this entire defense.
On most downs, Guy will have his hand in the ground as a fairly prototypical end. He’ll need to take on blockers at the point of attack, which will be a change. It’s coming off the edge that Guy can be a difference-maker: he’s quick enough to run past offensive tackles, hopes Disch, and could theoretically have the same impact for U.N.C. as Jamie Collins has had for Southern Mississippi – Collins is absolutely ferocious as an edge rusher. Where Guy could be very valuable is in his flexibility, which will allow U.N.C. to shift him up to linebacker and run a 3-3-5 defense.
Moving into a two-linebacker formation lessens the pain of losing Zach Brown on the weak side. But it would help if U.N.C. could find an answer in Brown’s old spot: Disch and Duggan are still looking at a pair of sophomores, Travis Hughes and Tommy Heffernan, and won’t have the services of junior Darius Lipford (42 tackles), who will miss the coming season with a knee injury. My money is on Hughes, who made 13 tackles as Brown’s backup a year ago. The linebacker corps will be paced by junior Kevin Reddick (71 tackles, 6.0 for loss), who returns in the middle. With some new faces along the interior and a reworked back end, U.N.C. needs Reddick to solidify the heart of its defense with an all-conference season – something he’s certainly capable of doing.
This is a youthful, inexperienced secondary that may grow even younger, should a few of the three or four freshmen defensive backs step right into roles along the two-deep in August. The best need to play, of course, but in a perfect world, U.N.C. would put forth its most game-tested secondary. At least two players are ensured of a starting role: sophomore Tim Scott (43 tackles, 1 interception) at cornerback and junior Tre Boston (70 tackles, 3 interceptions) at strong safety. Scott was thrown into the fire in 2011, starting eight games as a true freshman, and should be the better for it in this coming season and beyond – but he’s still fairly inexperienced, and must becomes this defense’s unquestioned stopper with Charles Brown lost to graduation. Boston moves from free to strong safety, replacing Jonathan Smith; he’s a great fit for this new role.
How will the rest of this secondary shake out? Last year’s nickel back, senior Gene Robinson (49 tackles, 1 interception), takes on the hybrid role. The second cornerback spot will go to either junior Jabari Price or junior Terry Shankle; Price, who leads heading into August, would be the defense’s best option. It’ll be one of two redshirt freshmen at free safety: Sam Smiley or Darien Rankin – both were lower-tier recruits, according to Rivals.com. Try as they might, Scott and Boston can’t cover the entire field. Someone needs to step up from a group that is lacking in adequate game experience, outside of Robinson and Price.
One piece of good news: U.N.C. will get another year out of senior kicker Casey Barth, who missed most of last season due to injury. When healthy, Barth is one of the A.C.C.’s best – he also allows the Tar Heels to actually rely on the kicking game, something this team couldn’t do for much of last season. U.N.C. should also get more out of sophomore punter Tommy Hibbard, who had an up-and-down rookie season. T.J. Thorpe is outstanding in the return game; what will be worth watching is whether he can continue to flash this big-play ability while shouldering a bigger load at receiver.
Position battle(s) to watch
Wide receiver By definition, North Carolina’s multiple-receiver sets – the new default formation for this offense – will demand, you know, multiple receivers. This could be an issue for the Tar Heels. What U.N.C. lacks at receiver is experience: Erik Highsmith (51 receptions for 726 yards) and Jheranie Boyd (14 for 292) are the team’s lone seniors at the position, and not surprisingly, are two players set for starting roles. Whether U.N.C. lands adequate production from the rest of its receivers is contingent solely on how well six or seven yet-proven targets develop in the new system.
Keep this in mind: U.N.C. does need to go at least – at the very bare minimum – six deep at receiver. That would allow this offense to run every play with at least three receivers and go with four or five receivers on passing downs. In a perfect world, U.N.C. would go 10 deep at the position – and it will once Fedora and his staff hit the recruiting trail. For now, this staff needs solid play from three sophomores in particular: T.J. Thorpe, Reggie Wilkins and Sean Tapley. Not one of three played much on offense last fall, though Thorpe made a huge impact in the return game. With would-be senior Todd Harrelson dismissed from the program, the opportunity is there for one to grab a starting role – and you could see two sophomores starting, if Wilkins can move ahead of Boyd.
Even if all three youngsters pan out, U.N.C. is still only five-deep at the position. So the Tar Heels need more, and it’s hard to say where this help will come from. Incoming freshman Quinshad Davis? One of many former walk-ons? U.N.C. will get much-needed support from Bernard (45 for 362) – another reason why he’s a huge weapon – and from tight ends like Eric Ebron (10 for 207) and Jacob Tabb, but this offense needs to find some receivers before finding its groove in Fedora’s system.
Game(s) to watch
Can U.N.C. take this schedule, put it away and save it for a later date – say, two or three years down the road? In another year, one that found U.N.C. eligible for postseason play and more familiar with Fedora’s system, this slate would have the Tar Heels dreaming big. U.N.C. gets Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech at home; same with N.C. State, with this once-dormant rivalry showing new life over the last two seasons. The Heels’ A.C.C. road dates include Miami (Fla.) and Duke, two games that U.N.C. should win with relative ease. The season even closes with three home games in four tries: the Wolfpack, Yellow Jackets and Maryland surround the Blue Devils. In another year, once this team grasps what Fedora is looking for, this would be a schedule conducive to a B.C.S. run.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell I understand that the schedule is kind, but it will only take the Tar Heels so far. North Carolina’s first issue, the transition to a new staff and new schemes, will find this team scrambling for consistency for much of this season’s first half: U.N.C. will need time to acclimate itself to Fedora’s up-tempo offense and to the 4-2-5 defense he’s favored throughout his head coaching career. While the offense has two very promising weapons in Renner and Bernard, you can’t ignore the Tar Heels’ fatal flaw – a lack of options at wide receiver. Simply put, Fedora’s quest to implement his entire offense might be hamstrung by an inability to field adequate multiple-receiver sets; considering that U.N.C. is ready to roll at quarterback, running back and the offensive line, it would be unfortunate if a dearth of weapons at receiver prevented the offense from reaching its full potential.
As for the defense, it’s only natural to expect some painful growing pains shifting into the 4-2-5 base set – and into the 3-3-5 the Tar Heels will use on occasion, when Disch moves Guy up to linebacker. But as on offense, there’s one group that could keep U.N.C. from maintaining its recent level of play: the secondary. It’s a young, unproven, inexperienced group that will be a significant question mark until it proves itself against of the A.C.C.’s best quarterbacks. You see the same on offense and defense: close, but not quite.
Now, what about this team’s motivation? Regardless of the fact that N.C.A.A. imposed a postseason ban on U.N.C. for this coming season, the Tar Heels will be highly motivated every Saturday – and if you think otherwise, you don’t know Fedora. He’ll keep this team fired up, keeping the Heels’ eyes on the prize despite the 12-game season, and Fedora will absolutely have this team playing better football as the year wears on. There’s just too many question marks – depth is another issue, as noted – for U.N.C. to really make a run at the A.C.C. title. Considering all that U.N.C. has lost and all that it’s attempting to learn on the fly, matching last season’s win total would mark an auspicious debut for Fedora and this staff.
Dream season U.N.C. loses at Louisville and Virginia but sweeps the rest, ending the year with 10 wins and atop the Coastal division – and in the top 12 nationally. While the year ends there, it’s safe to say that Fedora’s first season went well.
Nightmare season A few injuries hit U.N.C. where it hurts, forcing Fedora to dig deep on a roster lacking any experienced depth. The Tar Heels win only four games: Elon, Idaho, Duke and Maryland.
In case you were wondering
Where do North Carolina fans congregate? Yet another F.B.S. program where you’ve got to be careful: basketball chatter lurks around every corner. For recruiting coverage, visit Carolina Blue and Inside Carolina – the latter has the best message board chatter. For a blog’s take, check out Tar Heel Fan and Carolina March. Andrew Carter covers every inch of U.N.C. sports for The News & Observer.
North Carolina’s all-name nominee DE Allen Champagne.
Through 84 teams 331,936.
Who is No. 40? Tomorrow’s program has posted three undefeated seasons over the last 20 years, the most of any team in its conference.
Tags: A.C.C., Blake Anderson, Bryn Renner, Casey Barth, Dan Disch, Dion Guy, Eric Ebron, Erik Highsmith, Giovani Bernard, Gunter Brewer, James Hurt, Jheranie Boyd, Jonathan Cooper, Kareem Martin, Kevin Reddick, Larry Fedora, North Carolina, Reggie Wilkins, Southern Mississippi, Sylvester Williams, T.J. Thorpe, Tim Scott, Travis Bond, Tre Boston, Vic Koenning
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