We’re back to the beat writer Q&A’s, circling back to hit North Carolina. If you missed the first part of the blog’s look at the Tar Heels, you can read it here.
To the questions …
AB: North Carolina has plenty back on offense, including quarterback Bryn Renner and running back Giovani Bernard. How do they fit into what Larry Fedora wants to do with his offense? How radical of a departure is it from the old scheme?
AC: “To answer the second question first, the new offense is vastly different than the old. North Carolina ran a pretty basic, pro-style offense under Butch Davis and John Shoop, the former offensive coordinator. Fedora, of course, runs an up-tempo spread that uses a variety of formations and special packages.
“The biggest difference, though, will be with the tempo. Fedora doesn’t want to waste any time between plays, and there will be a big emphasis on moving quickly from the end of one play into the beginning of another. UNC will be a no-huddle team most of the time, and the idea is to wear out defenses and/or attack them while they’re still trying to figure things before the snap.
“As to how players like Renner and Bernard fit in, that remains to be seen. I’m not even sure the coaching staff has figured that out yet. Renner is built in the mold of a more traditional drop-back passer, but he ran a spread offense in high school and excelled at it, so he has welcomed the change. Usually, though, Fedora has preferred more versatile quarterbacks who also pose a threat to run.”
AB: Fedora likes to spread things out and use multiple receivers. Does North Carolina have enough wideouts for his liking? And who is going to fill the void left by Dwight Jones?
AC: “Good question. Fedora has been concerned by the depth at receiver since he arrived, and the Tar Heels signed only two receivers in February. So it’s an issue. Erik Highsmith was productive a season ago, when he had 51 receptions (second-most on the team, behind Jones), but behind him no other receiver caught more than 14 passes in 2011.
“Part of the relative lack of overall production from the receiving corps was the result of the scheme UNC ran, and part of it was because the Heels were so reliant on Jones. Bernard was actually UNC’s third-leading receiver last season, and he’ll likely again play a large role in the passing game.
“UNC does possess some tight ends who can be playmakers, particularly Eric Ebron, a rising sophomore who caught 10 passes last season. He’s likely to play a much larger role this season. Quinshad Davis, an incoming recruit whom Rivals ranked as a four-star prospect, is also likely to have plenty of chances to produce early.”
AB: The Tar Heels lost a lot from the defense to the NFL (Quinton Coples, Zach Brown, Tydreke Powell), but they always seemed to be loaded with talent on that side of the ball. Who are some emerging stars this year?
AC: “The defensive transformation as a whole will be interesting to watch. UNC is going to a 4-2-5 scheme, which will allow some players to step into different roles. In terms of names, senior linebacker Kevin Reddick is the most proven returning defensive player. He was second on the team with 71 tackles.
“Tre Boston is another guy to watch in the defensive backfield. He could play a variety of positions back there. He led the team with three interceptions last season, and also had 70 tackles. Tim Scott, a rising sophomore cornerback, is another guy who could have a big season. He had a nice debut as a freshman, with 43 tackles and one interception.
“For this defense to be really good, though, defensive tackle Sylvester Williams will have to live up to the large expectations that surround him. He was UNC’s second-best guy up front last season, behind Coples. And Reddick will have to be an overall leader for a unit that lost a lot from a season ago.”
AB: Fedora is aggressive on both sides of the ball and is implementing a 4-2-5 defensive scheme. How have things worked so far under new defensive coordinator Dan Disch and associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning? Is it a good fit?
AC: “Seems to be. Disch and Koenning have slightly different titles but the best way to describe them would be as co-defensive coordinators. Disch, of course, worked with Fedora at Southern Miss, while Koenning has come down from Illinois, where he ran the defense there. Both have similar approaches and philosophies and the early indications are that they’re working quite well together.
“But yes, as big of a change as the offense is making – going to an up-tempo spread – the defensive changes have been massive, too. The defense that UNC will run takes the same approach as Fedora’s spread: The goal is to be fast and to provide a lot of different looks and a lot of different points of attack.
“Though the 4-2-5 is the base defense, the Heels will be able to easily transition into a 3-4 or a 4-3. It has become a major coaching cliché, this idea of being “multiple,” but that’s what this defense will allow UNC to be. There will be multiple looks, formations and points of attack, and the idea is to keep the offense guessing.”
AB: North Carolina is ineligible for the postseason this year because of NCAA sanctions. That ban also takes the Tar Heels out of the running for the ACC championship game. Is that going to be a big detriment to this team or will it be offset by the new start the program has gotten by putting the tainted Butch Davis era behind it?
AC: “I don’t think it will be much of a detriment. Obviously, the players and the coaching staff were disappointed. I think it came as a surprise to them, and especially to Fedora and his staff. But UNC likely wasn’t going to be a favorite to win the Coastal this season, anyway, or compete in a high-level bowl game.
“Certainly, there’s enough talent here to finish with a winning record, and if the Tar Heels do indeed finish with seven or eight wins – or more – and then have to sit at home during bowl season, it will be a disappointment. But on the positive side, it could allow UNC to focus more on making the strides a team needs to make in the first year with a new coaching staff and new offensive and defensive system.
“It’s rare that a team enters a season knowing what its postseason outcome will be, and UNC has that advantage this season. The Heels know there won’t be a bowl game, but Fedora is selling the idea of finishing first in the division. He can’t come out and say this, exactly, but I suspect he also believes that with the postseason ban, UNC can focus solely this season on laying a good foundation for the future.”
Big thanks to Andrew for the help.
I’m on record as saying this game might be one that might be tougher than at first glance. There was a black cloud over the program last year, one that hovered over everything that the Tar Heels did. Interim coach Everett Withers, quite honestly, didn’t have much of a chance, even with all that talent.
With Fedora in place and a fresh start coming now that the NCAA sanctions are finally out, the Tar Heels can finally start moving forward again. Sure, they aren’t postseason eligible, but they know the NCAA hammer isn’t going to drop (UPDATE: on second thought … maybe not). I feel like that relative positivity and the hope a new coach brings — not to mention his up-tempo, spread offense — means North Carolina could be a dangerous team this year.
This could be overstating the case — UNC was 3-5 in ACC play last year, after all, and lost a ton from that defense — but it seems like some opponent always comes out of nowhere every season.
The Tar Heels won’t play in a bowl, are ineligible for the ACC championship and don’t play either Florida State or Clemson. Other than trying to end a five-game losing streak to state-rival N.C. State, the Virginia Tech game is the be the biggest on their schedule. The Hokies should take note.