The whistle blows, practice begins and at first nothing seems out of the ordinary for the first day of North Carolina 2016 football season.
It’s hot and muggy. Players are nearly swimming rather than running through drills in the humidity. Coaches harp on basic fundamentals like getting off on the right foot — in your stance and for the season. There’s a frenetic urgency as players jog from station to station around UNC’s two practice fields.
But following a breakthrough 11-3 season and ACC title game appearance, there’s a little more pressure. For as great as the Tar Heels’ 2015 season was, losses in the final two games against Clemson and Baylor left a sour taste.
“It just showed us we’re not exactly where we want to be,” junior running back Elijah Hood said. “We made strides, but there’s so much more we can do.”
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Now UNC faces the challenge of achieving sustained success that’s proven elusive in the program’s 125-year history. But it’s a problem every player and coach welcomes.
A year ago, the starting quarterback position remained unsettled and the defense was coming off one of the worst years in program history.
They’ve had a bad taste in their mouth for 220 days now. And they know they’re about 28 days from the possibility of getting that bad taste out of their mouth.
UNC coach Larry Fedora
This year, junior Mitch Trubisky steps in as the unquestioned leader of a UNC offense returning most of a unit that ranked 18th in the nation in total offense a season ago. Though Marquise Williams is gone, Hood and senior wide receivers Mack Hollins and Ryan Switzer will make life easier for Trubisky.
“He knows he’s got some very talented players around him, so he doesn’t have to do anything special,” Fedora said. “Take care of the football, distribute the ball where it’s supposed to go, and he’ll be okay.”
The defense outperformed expectations last year under former Auburn head coach Gene Chizik, jumping from 104 to 18 nationally in pass defense. Expecting more improvement on that side of the ball seems realistic.
But defense is also where UNC needs to improve the most. In the final two games last season, the Tar Heels allowed nearly 1,000 yards rushing combined to Clemson and Baylor. UNC was still fairly competitive, losing to Clemson by 8 and Baylor by 11, but in order to make the leap from a good team to a great one, those are the kinds of teams it needs to beat.
“We did a lot of good things last year, but really just learning how to finish in the big games is really what we’re trying to improve on,” senior defensive end Mikey Bart said. “We know we can win every game, but sometimes we let it slip out, or we’re one or two plays away. We just have to finish.”
UNC doesn’t have to wait long to prove itself. The season opener against Georgia in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game is just under a month away. A primetime game against an SEC team featuring a dangerous rusher in Nick Chubb will be an immediate test to see just how far the Tar Heels have come. It won’t make or break the season, but it’s a big opportunity for a team eager to make a statement.
“They’ve had a bad taste in their mouth for 220 days now,” Fedora said. “And they know they’re about 28 days from the possibility of getting that bad taste out of their mouth.”