Nearly four weeks after the start of practice, here are five things we have learned about North Carolina:
• Depth at receiver is even more of a concern than originally thought.
The Tar Heels have depth concerns at just about every position, but nowhere are those concerns as great as they are at receiver. UNC dismissed Todd Harrleson, a senior who had been a projected starter, before the start of practice. Since then T.J. Thorpe and Reggie Wilkins, both sophomores who would have been counted on, have barely practiced. Thorpe suffered a broken foot early in the preseason while Wilkins has missed time due to an unspecified injury. UNC will rely heavily on seniors Erik Highsmith and Jheranie Boyd. Freshman Quinshad Davis will have a lot of chances to contribute as well.
• Senior linebacker Kevin Reddick should thrive in the new 4-2-5 defense.
One of the advantages of the 4-2-5 is that it allows playmakers more of chances to make plays, according to defensive assistants Dan Disch and Vic Koenning. Reddick should have a chance to make plenty of them this season. He enters the season as an All-American candidate and has earned raves from teammates and coaches for how he has transitioned into the middle of the 4-2-5.
• The spread should bolster Giovani Bernards ability to make plays.
One of the questions surrounding UNCs new spread offense is how Bernard would fit into it. He set a UNC freshman record last season with 1,253 yards rushing, but those all came in the Heels pro-style offense. The spread, though, should allow Bernard more chances to create plays in space. He will be utilized in the running game, but also is likely to play a large role in the passing game, where he could be a dangerous receiving target out of the backfield.
• Quarterback depth is uncertain behind Bryn Renner.
By all accounts, Renner has done an admirable job leading the offenses transition to the spread. He put in plenty of work in the film room, and was a leader in the summer when he organized passing sessions with his teammates. Renner will enter the season as the unquestioned starter but the quarterback position becomes more difficult to decipher behind him. Marquise Williams, a redshirt freshman who thrived in a spread offense in high school, was supposed to challenge Renner for the starting job, but that competition never developed. Incoming freshman Kanler Coker, meanwhile, has impressed Fedora early on.
• Maintaining the preferred tempo will be an ongoing challenge.
For all talk of increased tempo and a faster pace, it will likely be a while before UNC plays and practices with the speed that Fedora desires. The Heels have made significant strides, but the tempo still isnt close to where Fedora wants it to be. Playing and practicing at a faster pace is likely to be a consistent point of emphasis throughout the season.
Duke looks to offensive depth, adjustments to end bowl drought
With Duke fully immersed in preparation for its Sept. 1 opener against Florida International, here are a few notable developments over the month that was preseason camp:
• Brandon Connettes position switch should pay dividends
After three weeks worth of practices and three scrimmages, Connettes transition from red zone quarterback to running back/tight end/wildcat quarterback hybrid by his own admission, he doesnt know what to call his role appears to be a win-win for him and the offense as a whole.
The redshirt sophomore will play more snaps, a development that outweighs any misgivings about giving up his role under center. Duke already knew he could run the ball (he set the mark for most rushing touchdowns by a freshman with eight in 2010), and he displayed nice pass-catching ability with a touchdown grab in traffic in Dukes second scrimmage. The Blue Devils need a legitimate No. 2 receiving threat to take some attention away from Conner Vernon and they need a tight end, where no healthy body on the roster has any experience at the position. It wouldnt be shocking to see Connette fill both needs.
Also significant, starting quarterback Sean Renfree will be able to stay on the field in red zone situations. Typically, during the past three seasons, when Renfree would lead the team down the field, he would then trot to the sideline and watch either Connette or Anthony Boone attempt to run the ball into the end zone. But with Connette already on the field, all Renfree has to do is go in motion to a receiver spot if offensive coordinator Kurt Roper wants Connette to take the snap. That is what Duke did during its preseason scrimmages.
• The Blue Devils are well equipped to run the ball
Duke has its greatest depth at running back and along the offensive line. It stands to reason that Renfree may hand the ball off more often.
While other areas of the team were either lacking depth coming into camp or have suffered a rash of injuries since practice commenced, the running back corps is still strong in numbers. And that is even with Desmond Scott, who has the most career rushing yards on the roster, at wide receiver.
Juwan Thompson, who rushed for 457 yards last season, will open the season as the starter, and Josh Snead, a redshirt sophomore who missed last season, will be his backup. Freshmen Shaquille Powell and Jela Duncan, along with redshirt senior Patrick Kurunwune, are expected to contribute as well.
The offensive line, a patchwork unit all last season, returns four of five starters.
Though it might be inevitable if the number of carries increases, the backs themselves arent necessarily aiming to improve on the 1,129 rushing yards the team posted last season, an average of 94 per game (last in the ACC). In their mind, Theres a more important task at hand.
Were going to contribute both ways: run or pass, Thompson said (Dukes pass offense ranked second in the ACC last season). The win column is our focus. If that means we have to run the ball more, then well run the ball more. But the primary focus is to put wins in that win column.
• Injuries arent visibly affecting the teams psyche
Before camp even started, the Blue Devils were missing four starters: wide receiver Blair Holliday, tight end Braxton Deaver, nose guard Jamal Bruce and linebacker Kelby Brown. Another starter, safety Jordon Byas, and key backups, guard Lucas Patrick, cornerback Jared Boyd and defensive end Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo have since taken spots on the injury list as well.
This isnt a new phenomenon at Duke. In each of the past few seasons, the Blue Devils have lost major contributors for extended periods of time, including defensive end Kenny Anunike, defensive back Lee Butler, running back Josh Snead, Connette and Renfree.
Injuries are part of the game, starting corner back Ross Cockrell said. Its a physical game, so theyre going to happen.
Only once did coach David Cutcliffe spend time this preseason talking about all the talent that could be on the field. Instead, the focus was geared toward those still on it. Its a subtle point, but if Duke is going to get to its first bowl since 1995, its going to take lots of little changes to add up to something big.
Some offensive questions remain for N.C. State as it breaks camp
N.C. State got running back Mustafa Greene back during a relatively uneventful training camp but lost receiver Bryan Underwood, at least temporarily, to a knee injury.
The status quo ruled training camp for the Wolfpack, which is coming off of an 8-5 season.
Quarterback Mike Glennon and a host of blockers return for an offense that hopes it can make strides in the running game.
Who the feature back will be remains an unanswered question with Greene, who missed all of 2011 with a foot injury, joining James Washington and Tony Creecy in a camp position battle.
Who Glennon will throw to, other than receiver Tobais Palmer, also remains an unknown. Underwood had a minor knee surgery and his status is unknown for the Aug. 31 opener against Tennessee.
Freshman Charlie Hegedus, junior Rashard Smith and senior Quintin Payton will all get a chance to help Glennon in the passing game.
On defense, Sterling Lucas, Rickey Dowdy and Rodman Noel appear to be the answer at the three linebacker spots, where all are new starters that need to be broken in. Junior Dontae Johnson has replaced senior C.J. Wilson at the boundary corner, opposite of All-American David Amerson.