To complement my “Better Know an Opponent” series, I’ve enlisted the help of some knowledgeable beat writers around the country who can help give a little more perspective about the teams the Hokies will be playing in 2013.
For North Carolina, I once again asked Andrew Carter of The News & Observer in Raleigh and Charlotte Observer to help me out. Follow him on Twitter here, read his coverage of the Tar Heels here and read his blog here.
If you missed the first part of my look at North Carolina, you can get to it here.
Now to the questions …
AB: Quarterback Bryn Renner really excelled in Larry Fedora’s offense last year, throwing for 3,356 yards and 28 touchdowns. Can he continue that upward trend in his final season? What is this passing game’s ceiling?
AC: I think Renner will have an even more impressive season, at least statistically, because I’d expect UNC to be a little more reliant on the passing game than it was last year in Fedora’s first season. Giovani Bernard, the departed running back, will be remembered as one of the best in school history. He played a large role in the passing game, too, but Bernard’s presence undoubtedly relieved some of the burden on Renner.
UNC has some capable replacements in line for Bernard. Even so, the offense is likely to be more passing oriented this season. Quinshad Davis, a rising sophomore, was among the most productive receivers in the conference during the second half of last season, and he figures to be better. Eric Ebron, the junior tight end, is probably a future first-round NFL draft pick.
If UNC can get healthy at receiver – injuries limited several guys in the spring, including T.J. Thorpe, who suffered another broken foot – then everything will be in place for Renner to put up some big numbers. Plus, this will be his second season in Fedora’s offense, and that has to make a difference. He was still learning a lot of things in the early part of last season. He should be a lot more adept at running the offense at the proper pace this time around.
AB: The Heels lost a ton on offense, including All-ACC back Giovani Bernard, who gave the Hokies fits last year, and multiple NFL-caliber offensive linemen. Are there capable replacements coming through the program or is it going to take Fedora some time to find them?
AC: As good as Bernard was, the losses on the offensive line are even more concerning. Jonathan Cooper, one of the best offensive lineman in school history, is gone. So, too, is Brennan Williams, who was a third-round draft pick, and Travis Bond, who went in the seventh round. It’s amazing that three-fifths of UNC’s offensive line last year went in the NFL draft.
The good news is that there are some capable replacements up front. More good news: James Hurst is back. He has first-round potential at tackle, and he’ll be tested early on when he’s responsible for blocking South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney in UNC’s season opener. There are some questions to be answered before then about who emerges up front.
I’d imagine a couple of those spots on the line will be open throughout the preseason. But there are some young guys with good experience: Russell Bodine, the center, has a chance to be one of the top interior lineman in the ACC. Landon Turner, who’s a pretty massive guard, played a decent amount as a freshman – especially later in the season. The line is rebuilding but the coaching staff doesn’t expect it to be a weakness.
As for the running backs, Romar Morris (pictured), a redshirt sophomore, and A.J. Blue, a junior, will combine to fill Bernard’s void. UNC is also bringing in a freshman named T.J. Logan, from Greensboro. He went crazy during the state championship game, and ran for 510 yards and eight touchdowns. Khris Francis, another freshman, enrolled early and played well in the spring. None of them are Bernard, but there’s some good depth there.
AB: Bigger loss on defense: defensive tackle Sylvester Williams or linebacker Kevin Reddick? Who are the Heels in better shape to replace?
AC: Both of those guys are huge losses. Think about it this way: UNC’s defense wasn’t all that good with them last year, and both Williams and Reddick were very good players. And now they’re gone. It’s difficult to imagine how much worse UNC could have been defensively last season, but things definitely would have been worse without Williams and Reddick.
Williams was a space-eater up front, and equally adept at stuffing runs up the middle as he was breaking through the line to generate pressure on quarterbacks. Reddick, meanwhile, was everywhere. I was shocked when he went undrafted. In terms of intangibles like leadership and that sort of thing, both players will be missed. Reddick and Williams commanded the attention of their teammates.
Williams was the more talented player, but I think losing Reddick hurts this defense more. Like UNC’s offense, the philosophy behind its defense is built on the principles of speed and interchangeability. This is a coaching staff that wants players who can play a variety of positions and do a little bit of everything well. Reddick was that kind of player.
Overall, UNC is probably in better shape to replace Reddick. The Tar Heels are hoping that Travis Hughes will become the team’s next big thing at linebacker. Up front, it’s going to a crapshoot trying to figure out who fills Williams’ void. A lot of young guys will be vying for that position, and no clear candidate came forward in the spring.
AB: The defense took its lumps last year, giving up 30 or more points in league play five times (including 68 in a loss to Georgia Tech). Is there hope that this can be an improved unit this season or will the Heels have to simply beat teams in a shootout every week?
AC: There’s not a lot of reason for optimism for this defense entering this season. The one positive is that returning players have now had more than a year with this coaching staff, and more than a year to learn the dynamics of the 4-2-5. But the bad thing, obviously, is that that Tar Heels were at times awful defensively a season ago, and they lost their two best players off of that defense.
For these guys to have any chance, Hughes and Kareem Martin, a senior defensive end, are going to have be really, really good. That’s not out of the question that happens, but both would have to improve significantly from last season. The secondary was a mess last season and that position group probably has more to prove than any other entering the season. Teams passed at will against UNC last year.
The best hope for this defense is that it’s average, or even slightly below average. An average defense would probably give the Tar Heels a great chance of winning the Coastal Division. But there’s reason to doubt whether UNC can even be average defensively. Now that these coaches have been around for a while, I think they have to hope that the team better understands how to play the defense correctly.
Even so, there’s only so much the coaching staff can do. It will likely take a couple more strong recruiting cycles, at least, before UNC’s defense is where the coaches want it.
AB: North Carolina advertised itself as Coastal Division champs last year despite not being able to play in the ACC title game because of NCAA sanctions. Is this team capable of getting there this year? And how close is this team to the identity that Fedora is trying to forge in Chapel Hill?
AC: I wouldn’t be surprised to see UNC win the Coastal. Had the Tar Heels been eligible, they would have represented the Coastal Division in the ACC championship game last December. That’s an impressive first season for Larry Fedora, who successfully implemented the spread offense and then taught it well enough so that UNC (mostly) overcame its defensive struggles.
Even without Bernard, UNC should still be very good offensively. The Tar Heels spent the first half of last season adapting to the spread, and improved as the the season progressed. Now it should be fully operational from game one. Yes, there are some holes to fill on the offensive line, and those are concerning. But the team still has a dominant left tackle in Hurst and a very good center in Bodine.
If UNC is just average defensively it can win the Coastal, which is wide open. I’m not convinced yet that the Tar Heels will be even average defensively, but what they went through last year, in what was basically a learning year, has to help, I’d imagine.
As for how close this team is to creating the identity Fedora wants – I think it’s pretty close. Fedora still wants the offense to play faster. And, obviously, he wants a lot more out of the defense. But I think he’s mostly happy with the identity the Tar Heels created during his first season. In his first year, Fedora and his staff completely changed the identity and the culture of the team.