5 questions as UNC opens spring football practice

acarter@newsobserver.comMarch 5, 2013 

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UNC head coach Larry Fedora leads his team into Kenan Stadium for their season opener against Elon on Saturday September 1, 2012 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C.

ROBERT WILLETT — rwillett@newsobserver.com

North Carolina has branded itself the ACC’s defending Coastal Division champions and if the Tar Heels indeed would have played last season for the conference championship had they not been serving a postseason ban. The start of spring practice, then, represents the official start of coach Larry Fedora’s quest for championships.

The Tar Heels’ first spring practice begins Wednesday at 3:50 p.m. Here are questions that await them:

Who emerges to replace running back Giovani Bernard?

This question is likely to hang over the team through the start of fall practice and into the early part of the season. Answers will start to come now. UNC returns both Romar Morris and A.J. Blue, so the backfield isn’t barren. Morris is fast enough to become a consistent playmaker, while Blue is capable of running through defenders.

And ... who emerges to replace punt returner Giovani Bernard?

Bernard wasn’t just a running back for UNC. He was a proven receiver out of the backfield and, perhaps even more important than that, a dangerous punt returner. Just ask N.C. State, which allowed Bernard’s last-second, game-winning punt return last fall. T.J. Thorpe would have likely handled the punt returning duties last year, before he suffered a broken foot in preseason practice. He’s back and healthy now.

Where will the Tar Heels begin when it comes to fixing the defense?

UNC’s defense was abysmal at times last season, especially during the second half of the season. At one point, the Tar Heels gave up 500 yards in three consecutive games. It will take a lot more than 15 spring practices to address all of UNC’s problems on defense. To make matters more challenging, UNC lost its best two defensive players – the departed senior tackle Sylvester Williams, and the departed senior linebacker Kevin Reddick.

Who begins to fill the big voids on the offensive line?

Before injuries took their toll late in the season, the Tar Heels’ offensive line a season was as good as any in the country. But three seniors who started last season – Jonathan Cooper, Travis Bond and Brennan Williams – are gone. The loss of Cooper, one of the best linemen in school history, is the most glaring. UNC returns some players with experience, but a lot of it is raw and unproven.

Which younger players start to establish themselves?

After redshirting during his first season on campus, Morris, the running back, started to show what he could do last spring. He followed that with a productive offseason. Spring practice provides redshirt freshmen with their first real opportunity to prove themselves and move up the depth chart. Kanler Coker, a quarterback who redshirted last season, is one to watch. With a strong spring he could cement himself as the backup to Bryn Renner.

Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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