CHAPEL HILL — About this time a year ago, everything was new for North Carolina football: the ever-present cans of Red Bull that Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora carried everywhere; the promises of an up-tempo, relentless offense; the hope that UNC could put the past in the past and emerge a better program.
Given that the Tar Heels began last season with their fate already decided they were ineligible to compete in the postseason due to NCAA sanctions Year One under Fedora couldnt have gone much better. UNC won eight games, ended a five-game losing streak against N.C. State and, based on tiebreakers, technically won the ACCs Coastal Division.
Because of the postseason ineligibility, it could have been easy to view last season as one long exhibition. Not so, though, Fedora said recently.
I dont want to discredit what happened last year because it was really good for our football team, Fedora said. You go back and you really dig deep and figure out, Why am I playing the game of football? Why do I love putting on the uniform? Why do I love the grind of the season, the summers? All those things.
The question now, though, is what UNC does for its encore in Fedoras second season. The Tar Heels, who begin preseason practice Thursday, enter the season with aspirations of winning the Coastal again and this time playing for an ACC championship. Theres no shortage of questions to answer before that goal can become reality.
Heres a look at the four primary issues that will carry UNC through preseason practice, to its season opener at South Carolina on Aug. 29:
Can UNC fix its defense?
On the surface, the numbers might not appear as dreadful as they should have been given the Tar Heels defensive inadequacies last season. UNC ranked 56th nationally in total defense, and a respectable 40th against the run.
Against the best offenses, though, UNC had few answers. The Tar Heels surrendered at least 33 points in half of their games last season, and they allowed game-winning touchdown drives late in the fourth quarter in losses against Wake Forest and Duke.
During one particularly poor stretch, UNC gave up at least 510 yards in three consecutive games.
Fixing the problems with UNCs 4-2-5 defense wont be easy. The teams two best defensive players last season defensive tackle Sylvester Williams and linebacker Kevin Reddick are gone. Seven starters are back, though, including the entire secondary, led by Tim Scott and Tre Boston.
That may or may not be good news, given UNC ranked 81st in pass defense. Fedora, though, is hopeful improvement comes as a result of increased familiarity with a scheme that was new last season.
Its not even close, knowledge-wise, Fedora said of the defense. They understand the scheme now. They understand whats expected.
How do the Tar Heels go about filling the void left by Gio Bernard?
Bernard, who left UNC with two seasons of eligibility remaining, will be remembered as one of the best running backs in school history. But he was much more than just a running back.
In addition to his 1,228 yards rushing a season ago, he also caught 47 passes for 490 yards and averaged 16.4 yards on 16 punt returns. He returned two of those for touchdowns, including one that provided the winning margin in the final seconds against N.C. State.
It will be impossible for one player to fill Bernards void. Good thing for the Tar Heels, then, that they have a stable of capable backs. A.J. Blue, a senior who ran for 433 yards last season, is likely to start the season atop the depth chart. Romar Morris, a sophomore, should see plenty of time, as well, after he averaged 5.6 yards per carry last season.
The freshman class features two promising backs in T.J. Logan and Khris Francis, an early enrollee who played well in the spring. Among the four, Morris might be the most versatile given his pass-catching ability.
The job at punt returner, though, is unsettled. It was the only position on the preseason depth chart for which UNC listed a TBD. T.J. Thorpe, if healed from his foot injury, will compete for the job, as will Morris.
Whats the next step for senior quarterback Bryn Renner?
Statistically speaking, Renner had a great year in the first season of Fedoras offense. He passed for 3,356 yards and threw 28 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. He positively answered questions about whether he could fit into Fedoras offense, which is optimal for more mobile quarterbacks.
After all that success, though, more will be expected this season. For one, Fedora wants Renner to make better decisions. Renner forced some throws in 2012, and Fedora spoke with hope recently about Renner learning to throw the ball away instead of risking an interception.
Renner enters his final season with a career pass efficiency rating of 154.59, which would be the best career mark in ACC history if hes able to maintain it.
Now, its about managing our offense, about managing our football team, Fedora said. Its understanding when do I need to thread that needle? When do I need to force that throw? And when is it OK to punt? You know, theres times in the game when it is OK to punt.
How does the offensive line regroup after losing three NFL draft picks?
The good news for UNC is that left tackle James Hurst and center Russell Bodine are back. Those two positions are arguably the most important for any offensive line. The bad news? Every other starter from last season is gone.
Three-fifths of the Tar Heels offensive line became NFL draft picks none higher than Jonathan Cooper, the All-American left guard whom the Arizona Cardinals selected with the seventh overall pick. Collectively, the three linemen UNC lost had 102 starts.
The Tar Heels arent without talent up front. But outside of Hurst and Bodine, inexperience reigns. Left guard Caleb Peterson, right guard Landon Turner and right tackle Kiaro Holts are all in their second seasons in the program. Combined, those three players, who are projected to start, have five starts among them.
I lose sleep at night, Fedora said when asked about how concerned he was about the offensive line. Yeah, I do. Im worried about both sides our o-line and our d-line, and how theyre going to play this year.
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter