North Carolina spent the past two seasons under an NCAA cloud, and the Tar Heels underachieved both seasons, not surprising considering the circumstances.
There's a new coaching staff in place this season and also a sense that the sky is clearing a bit even if the Tar Heels are banned from postseason play this fall because of NCAA transgressions.
New coach Larry Fedora arrives from Southern Miss and brings with him an offensive scheme that has proven successful at numerous stops. Under previous coach Butch Davis, UNC was known for its defense. While the defense should be OK this season, the offense has a chance to be better than it has been in a long time.
Last season: 7-6 overall, 3-5 in ACC (tied for fourth in ACC Coastal)
Coach: Larry Fedora (first season at UNC; 33-19, fifth season overall)
Returning starters (minimum seven starts last season): Offense (7)– TB Gio Bernard, G Travis Bond, G Jonathan Cooper, WR Erik Highsmith, T James Hurst, QB Bryn Renner, T Brennan Williams. Defense (5) – FS/CB Tre Boston, E Kareem Martin, LB Kevin Reddick, CB Tim Scott, T Sylvester Williams. Special teams (2) – P Thomas Hibbard, K Thomas Moore.
Fast fact: For a 31-season stretch from 1967-97, UNC had just three coaches. New coach Larry Fedora is the fourth since then.
TB Gio Bernard proved worth the wait last season as a redshirt freshman, rushing for 1,253 yards and 14 touchdowns and also catching 45 passes for 362 yards and another score. Bernard, who played his high school ball at powerhouse Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas and shared carries with Wisconsin's James White, tore his ACL in summer camp in 2010 and had to redshirt. He had seven 100-yard games last fall and appears poised for even better numbers this season in Fedora's high-powered attack.
Junior QB Bryn Renner also should benefit from the new offense. Renner played well last season, his first as the starter; he threw for 3,086 yards and 26 touchdowns. But he also threw 13 interceptions, and that number has to bother Fedora. Austin Davis, Fedora's quarterback at Southern Miss, threw 50 TD passes and 17 picks in 2010-11.
Still, Renner is mobile, and his running ability should make him even more dangerous this season.
The hope is that senior Erik Highsmith can make the jump from No. 2 receiver to go-to guy in the wake of Dwight Jones' graduation. Highsmith set career-highs with 51 catches and five TDs last fall, and conceivably could be a 70-catch, 10-TD guy this fall. The problem: No other wide receiver caught more than 14 passes last season, so some heretofore lesser lights need to turn it on this fall or the offense will bog down.
With four returning starters, the line should be one of the best in the ACC. Senior G Jonathan Cooper has All-America potential, and junior James Hurst began living up to his five-star recruiting ranking last season. Travis Bond, a 6-foot-7, 345-pounder, is the other starting guard, and befitting a guy his size, he is a road-grading mauler.
UNC has changed defensive schemes, moving to a 4-2-5 set from a 4-3. There also will be some 3-3-5 looks.
Senior T Sylvester Williams, a former junior college transfer, toyed with the idea of turning pro but decided to remain in school. He is stout against the run and also can provide a bull bush up the middle on passingdowns. Junior Kareem Martin is the latest end off UNC's assembly line, and he flashed some pass-rush ability at times last season. He has to become a more consistent player this season.
It's vital that UNC get production from the "bandit" position, a hybrid end/outside linebacker. Former LB Dion Guy gets first crack. A senior, Guy has made just 21 tackles in his career, with no sacks or tackles for loss.
Senior Kevin Reddick might be the best linebacker in the ACC. He is a big, physical guy who should have more opportunities for big plays in the new scheme. Reddick is heading into his fourth season as a starter and was second on the team with 71 tackles last season. But he is the Heels' only proven 'backer.
The secondary has potential. Junior Tre Boston, who seems likely to settle in at safety after also playing cornerback, is a big guy (6-1/190) who runs well. CB Tim Scott, who had two picks and six pass breakups, is the only other returning starter in the secondary. There are high hopes for redshirt freshman Sam Smiley, who can play corner or safety, and junior CB Jabari Price. Senior Gene Robinson is likely to be the starting "ram," or nickelback. He has talent but has lacked consistency.
Senior K Casey Barth should contend for all-league honors. He missed all but three games last season with a groin injury and received a redshirt. He should become UNC's leading career scorer this fall, surpassing his brother Conner, and has range to 50 yards.
P Tommy Hibbard gets good hang time but needs to work on his distance; he averaged 39.2 yards per attempt last season.
Backup WR T.J. Thorpe is a dangerous kick returner and should add punt-return duties this season.
UNC's coverage teams were excellent last fall, and there's no reason for that to change.
Four of the first six games are at home, and the road contests are against Wake Forest (Week 2 in an early ACC game) and Louisville (Week 3 against the preseason Big East favorite).
Clemson and Florida State are not on the schedule, making the Oct. 27 home game against rival North Carolina State the toughest divisional crossover game. Tough conference matchups against Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech also are at home.
It's not that difficult a schedule.
Attitude is going to be important: How motivated are these guys going to be knowing there is no bowl at the end of the season?
Bernard, Highsmith and Renner should be excited about the potential of the offense, and players such as Cooper and Reddick know there is NFL money to be made as seniors.
The talent is on hand for a nine-win season. But there are questions about the receivers and the linebackers, especially, and given the postseason ban, the Tar Heels seem more likely to win seven or eight than nine.
The recruiting side
Average recruiting ranking for past five years: 26th nationally
The buzz: Despite all the NCAA questions surrounding the program, new coach Larry Fedora and his staff closed strong. While the class was in the middle of the pack in the ACC and a bit down from previous years, Fedora was able to steal away difference-maker James Summers from North Carolina State and won a battle for prolific WR Quinshad Davis from South Carolina. Summers can play quarterback or wide receiver and was the only top-10 player in North Carolina to remain in-state. Davis caught 109 passes for 2,009 yards and 25 scores as a senior and should hit the field right away. Fedora did a solid job considering the circumstances. – Mike Farrell, Rivals.com
TE Eric Ebron Ebron played as a true freshman in 2011 and caught 10 passes for 207 yards and one touchdown. With the Tar Heels now looking to replace former starting TE Nelson Hurst, who took a medical hardship during the spring and isn't playing anymore, Ebron has a chance to really step up this season. With Ebron's ability to line up in traditional tight end sets as well as out wide as a receiver, he undoubtedly will get plenty of balls thrown his way. Ebron averaged more than 20 yards per reception last season and can be a deep threat. But his biggest use to the Tar Heels this season will be catching short passes over the middle in traffic. Ebron has a chance to emerge this fall as one of the more versatile tight ends in the ACC. – Adam Powell, TarHeelIllustrated.com
For more on North Carolina throughout the season, check out TarHeelIllustrated.com.
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