Five questions and answers for UNC football as it heads into spring practice

North Carolina’s Jake Bargas (80), Michael Carter (8), Cole Holcomb (36) and Malik Carney (53) enter Wallace Wade Stadium for their game against Duke on Saturday, November 10, 2018 at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, N.C.
North Carolina’s Jake Bargas (80), Michael Carter (8), Cole Holcomb (36) and Malik Carney (53) enter Wallace Wade Stadium for their game against Duke on Saturday, November 10, 2018 at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, N.C.

A new era for North Carolina football will begin as the Tar Heels open spring practice on Sunday.

After a second straight losing season and 5-18 record over that period, UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham fired head coach Larry Fedora on Nov. 25. Two days after Fedora’s firing, the school announced that it had hired former UNC football coach Mack Brown again.

Brown, who coached at North Carolina from 1988 to 1997, left for Texas where he won a national championship in 2006. He resigned in 2013 and worked as an ESPN analyst for the last five years.

Now he’s back and is trying to turn the program around.

The Tar Heels will hold 14 spring practices from Sunday, March 3 to April 11. Their spring game will be on April 13.

Here are five questions and answers heading into next season:

1. What’s up with the quarterback position?

The Tar Heels gave four different quarterbacks a shot to earn the starting job last year.

But the Tar Heels could not find consistency at the position. Three of their quarterbacks were injured during the season. UNC will have multiple options next season.

They include:

  • Sophomore quarterback Cade Fortin (6-3, 210), who started two games and passed for 388 yards, one TD and one INT.
  • Sophomore quarterback Jace Ruder (6-2, 220), who played in one game before injuring his shoulder. He had 80 yards and one TD.
  • Freshman quarterback Sam Howell (6-0, 225), the No. 2 player in the state and No. 3 dual-threat quarterback in the nation.

After coming off wrist surgery that ended his season last year, redshirt junior quarterback Chazz Surratt has decided to switch positions. The 6-3, 215-pound lefty is moving to linebacker, Brown confirmed earlier this week.

Quarterback Nathan Elliott, who started nine games but struggled last year, decide to leave the program for a graduate assistant position at Arkansas State, Brown said Friday. He passed for 2,169 yards, 11 TDs and nine INTs.

Fortin and Ruder showed flashes of potential in their short playing time. Both young quarterbacks showed an ability to throw the ball downfield, which was missing last year.

Howell, who played for Sun Valley High School in Monroe, started all four years. He averaged 36 passing touchdowns, 15 rushing touchdowns, 3,353 passing yards and 905 rushing yards per season.

During his senior season, he passed for 3,240 yards, threw 36 touchdowns, eight interceptions, ran for 1,392 yards and 17 rushing touchdowns.

Brown and offensive coordinator Phil Longo, who had the fifth-best passing offense in the country at Mississippi, want to air it out next season.

2. Who will replace Anthony Ratliff-Williams as the No. 1 wide receiver?

In order for UNC’s offense to work, its receivers have to be on point.

Ratliff-Williams was UNC’s top target last year. He caught 42 passes for 689 yards and two touchdowns. But Ratliff-Williams announced his intentions to declare for the NFL draft in December, leaving UNC without a No. 1 wide receiver.

That means someone will have to step up.

While Ratliff-Williams was the top target, UNC junior wide receiver Dazz Newsome led the team in catches with 44. Newsome, who is 5-11, 185 pounds, and a dynamic playmaker, also had 506 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Newsome made some big plays for the Tar Heels this season, but he also dropped open passes that likely would have gone for touchdowns.

Newsome came to UNC as a defensive back, and is still trying to learn the position.

Another option is 6-4, 210-pound junior wide receiver Beau Corrales. Corrales, a possession receiver, had 18 catches for 220 yards and two touchdowns.

Sophomore wide receiver Dyami Brown, who caught 17 passes for 173 yards, is also an option. The 6-1, 185-pound receiver played well as a freshman and showed an ability to get yards after the catch.

3. Which position group is the biggest worry?

The defensive line will lose at least four players who played significant minutes last year — defensive ends Malik Carney and Tyler Powell, and defensive tackles Jalen Dalton and Jeremiah Clarke.

Those four players combined for 13 sacks and 144 tackles. Even with those players, the Tar Heels still struggled at times to get pressure on the quarterback, and left their cornerbacks exposed late in the season as injuries began to accumulate.

Aside from the production the Tar Heels will lose on the defensive line, they will also lose depth and may have to rely on younger players .

The Tar Heels will return senior defensive lineman Jason Strowbridge, who had 5.5 sacks last year, and senior defensive tackle Aaron Crawford, who before getting injured was one of the best players in summer camp.

4. Which position group should be the biggest strength?

The running game was probably UNC’s biggest strength last year. The Tar Heels had the 44th-best rushing attack, averaging 193 rushing yards per game. And next season, UNC will return its top three rushers from last year’s team.

Senior Antonio Williams, who transferred from Ohio State last spring, will serve as the power back. He had 504 rushing yards last season and five touchdowns. Junior Michael Carter is the speed back. He rushed for 597 yards and two touchdowns and averaged 7.1 yards per carry.

Senior Jordon Brown could be the third down back as he was last season. He had 347 rushing yards and three touchdowns.

Running back is also UNC’s deepest position. Sophomore Javonte Williams showed flashes of potential. He had three touchdowns in UNC’s game against Western Carolina. He finished with five touchdowns on the year. The coaches on last year’s staff raved about his maturity as a freshman.

5. How soon can UNC win?

It’s a little too early to tell. However, there is more excitement around the program than there was last year.

UNC was close in most of its games last season. Seven of the Tar Heels’ nine losses came by 10 points or less. Better execution in the 22-19 loss to Virginia Tech or the 40-37 overtime loss to Syracuse would have won those games.

The biggest concern is the number of pieces UNC will lose on defense, including graduating seniors Cole Holcomb at linebacker and J.K. Britt at safety, both leaders on last year’s team.

Eleven of the Tar Heels’ 12 opponents next season made it to a bowl game last year. One of UNC’s opponents, Clemson, won the National Championship over Alabama in January, and finished a perfect 15-0.

But players seem optimistic, and fans do too. After securing a top-40 recruiting class on short notice, a bowl game this season would be considered another step in the right direction.

But the Tar Heels have to put everything together.

Jonathan M. Alexander has been covering the North Carolina Tar Heels since May 2018. He previously covered Duke basketball and recruiting in the ACC. He is an alumnus of N.C. Central University.

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