CHAPEL HILL — In the moments after North Carolinas final game, a 45-38 victory against Maryland that gave the Tar Heels eight victories, first-year UNC coach Larry Fedora reflected on a season of more highs than lows that ended with a divisional championship.
The Tar Heels served an NCAA-mandated one-season postseason ban, so the ACC record book wont officially recognize the 2012 Tar Heels as Coastal Division champions. Yet that was of little consequence to Fedora, whose team would have played in the ACC championship game had it been eligible.
I think it shows that were definitely headed in the right direction, Fedora said of the foundation UNC built during his first season. I think weve created a lot of excitement in the program, in the state, in the surrounding area.
I think the people understand that the Tar Heels are for real, and that were going to be back and that were going to be something thats going to be reckoned with.
The Tar Heels season featured its share of disappointments: a humbling loss at Wake Forest, a disastrous first half at Louisville that led to another loss, a heartbreaking defeat at Duke. But there was plenty of good for UNC, too.
For one, the Tar Heels excelled in Fedoras up-tempo spread offense, and finished 15th nationally in total offense and 10th in scoring. For another, they ended an excruciating five-game losing streak against N.C. State. UNCs victory against the Wolfpack came in the most dramatic of fashions, with running back Giovani Bernard returning a punt 74 yards for a touchdown in the final seconds.
Bernards play will live on in history, and in memory, even while he has moved on to a professional career. His departure is but one of many questions that surround the Tar Heels going forward.
Bernards departure has created the most important question surrounding the Heels: Who replaces the one player who was, by far, more important than any other to UNCs offensive success?
Bernard averaged nearly 200 all-purpose yards per game, and he was as potent a receiving and punt-returning threat as he was taking handoffs or pitches out of the backfield. UNC returns the bruising A.J. Blue (433 rushing yards) and the elusive Romar Morris (386), but neither of them can match Bernards versatility. Then again, can anyone?
Another important question facing UNC involves how to fix its defense, which was abysmal at times. The best offensive teams UNC faced Louisville, Duke, N.C. State, Georgia Tech routinely exposed the Heels, who faltered against the run and pass during Fedoras first season.
Signing day prognosis
After arriving in Chapel Hill about one month before national signing day, Fedora and his staff salvaged a decent recruiting class last year. UNCs recruiting has only improved since then.
Rivals.com ranks the Heels class the 18th-best in the nation, and the third-best behind Florida State and Virginia Tech in the ACC. Fedora has placed an emphasis on recruiting well in-state, and UNC has commitments from three of the top 10 prospects in North Carolina.
If the Tar Heels can land Charlotte wide receiver Marquez North, who is considered the top prospect in the state, UNCs class could go from good to great. UNC has placed an emphasis on recruiting offensive and defensive skill players and some, like touted running back T.J. Logan and defensive back Brian Walker, are likely to have a chance to contribute early.
Spring practice priorities
As much as the Tar Heels will miss Bernard, their primary emphasis during the spring will likely be to address their defensive shortcomings. UNC scored at least 27 points in all four of its losses and scored 50 against Georgia Tech but still lost in part because the Heels allowed 380 yards rushing.
Recruiting is likely to solve some of UNCs defensive woes, but the Tar Heels must take steps to improve with the players they have available. At times they were equally bad against the pass (Louisville, N.C. State) as they were against the run (Georgia Tech).
Offensively, figuring the best way to fill Bernards void will take precedence. Morris should emerge as the primary ball carrier, but the loss of Bernard also affects UNCs passing game and special teams. UNCs receiving corps was short-handed all season, but in the spring it will welcome the return of T.J. Thorpe, who missed the season with a foot injury.