First impression: UNC football already ahead of last year’s pace

Editor's note: Watch video of UNC's football practice at the bottom of this article.

acarter@newsobserver.comAugust 1, 2013 

— North Carolina on Thursday formally began its preseason under coach Larry Fedora with a better sense of familiarity, and a bit of a faster pace, too. The Tar Heels this time a year ago were still learning to adapt to Fedora’s style.

And now?

“You see guys moving around a whole lot faster,” Fedora said after UNC’s first practice. “There’s a lot less thinking. The older guys, there’s no thinking involved. They know exactly what they’re doing and they’re able to do it fast.”

It wouldn’t be accurate to describe a first preseason practice as a light workout. But the intensity isn’t exactly where it will be in a week, either, after an NCAA-mandated acclimation period allows teams to shed shorts for shoulder pads.

Few surprises greeted Fedora and his staff Thursday. The 105 players on the preseason roster reported as expected. UNC is a ways from attempting to accomplish its most important work before its Aug. 29 opener at South Carolina, but there was some value amid the basics the Tar Heels went through Thursday.

“(You’re) really looking for recall from where we left off during spring ball,” Fedora said. “You start looking to see how much work a kid really put in over the summer as far as how much did he really study it, how much does he know at this point? So you’re really looking for recall in these first days.

“They’re moving around. They’re going to move around great in shorts. And it’s the day one, so I don’t put a whole lot of stock in that. The energy level’s good but it’s always going to be good on day one.”

Thorpe, Lipford return

Fedora is entering his second season but he has yet to see much of T.J. Thorpe, the sophomore receiver who led the league in kickoff returns in 2011. Thorpe suffered a broken foot early in preseason practice last year, missed the entire 2012 season and then suffered a similar injury at the start of spring practice.

But he returned to practice, at last, Thursday. Thorpe is one of two potential starters who returned after missing last season because of injury. The other was Darius Lipford, a junior linebacker who suffered a knee injury.

“I kept asking Thorpe how he felt,” Fedora said. “He said he felt good. Darius looked like he was moving around pretty good. So it’ll be fun to see what they’re going to bring to the football team.”

Thorpe was one of three players – the others were freshman running back T.J. Logan and freshman receiver Ryan Switzer – who returned punts during UNC’s first practice. Lipford, who likely would have entered last season as a starter, had he been healthy, didn’t start the preseason on UNC’s two-deep depth chart.

Conditioning much better

It’s a given that the Tar Heels would be more familiar with Fedora’s up-tempo offense and their 4-2-5 defense. Perhaps overlooked, though, are the benefits of going through a second season of summer conditioning with Lou Hernandez, the strength coach.

At the start of preseason practice a year ago, it took awhile for UNC to work itself in good enough shape to practice as fast as Fedora desired. That’s not an issue this year, though.

“These guys have been through a full year and a month or two with Lou,” Fedora said. “That pays off tremendously. … The strength levels from the summer and where those guys are now compared to last year, we compared everything, it’s not even close. Their levels of commitment aren’t even close. I mean, all the different things as we compared to see where we are – we’re a lot farther ahead.”

Etc.

Roy Smith, a walk-on WR who is UNC’s most experienced returning punt returner, isn’t a member of the 105-man training camp roster. He is expected to rejoin the team when school begins later this month. Smith averaged nearly 14 yards on his 12 punt returns last season. … During the first 30 minutes of practice that were open to media members, S Clint Heaven, S Darien Rankin and CB Malik Simmons all worked off to side with the training staff.

Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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