North Carolina ended last football season with a humbling defeat against Baylor in the Russell Athletic Bowl and the Tar Heels will begin next season against Georgia in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff in Atlanta.
How much the Tar Heels progress between now and then, and how much they improve, will be decided in part by what happens during their spring practices, which began Sunday and will conclude April 16 with their annual spring game.
The Tar Heels won 11 games last season, which was their best in nearly 20 years. The question now: What do they do for an encore? As coach Larry Fedora recently said during an appearance at the Raleigh Sports Club, though, the 2016 Tar Heels have yet to take shape.
They’ll start to do so during spring practice. Here are the most important story lines to follow at UNC this spring:
1. Mitch Trubisky takes over as starting quarterback.
Or does he? Fedora has tried to play coy about the quarterback situation. He has tried to suggest that Trubisky has not won the job and that he isn’t yet the starter. And while that might be true in a technical sense, there’s little chance – barring an injury or some other unforeseen trouble – that UNC enters the season with anyone other than Trubisky at quarterback. He’ll be taking over for Marquise Williams, who had more ups than downs during his time at UNC and sometimes struggled to find consistency. How much different will the offense look with Trubisky? He’s thought to be a more accurate passer than Williams, and Fedora recently said Trubisky is a faster runner, too. That means UNC’s record-setting offense could become more potent.
2. The replacement of senior production, and leadership, on offense.
The Tar Heels have to replace only three starters on offense, but the losses are significant. There’s Williams, the quarterback. Then there’s also Landon Turner, who perhaps was the ACC’s best interior offensive lineman, and Quinshad Davis, a steady, reliable receiver who leaves UNC with more receptions than any player in the program’s history. Brad Henson, a sophomore, served as Turner’s backup a season ago and could be in line for a starting spot. UNC is not without depth and talent at receiver, but Davis will be missed for more than just what he did on the field.
3. Tar Heels adjust to role changes on the offensive staff.
UNC’s up-tempo spread offense isn’t changing. The concepts and basic strategy remain the same as it has been since Fedora arrived in 2012. After all, he created this offense during his days as an offensive coordinator at Middle Tennessee State. But there will be some differences with a new offensive coordinator and some changes in responsibility on the offensive coaching staff. Seth Littrell, who was UNC’s offensive coordinator the past two seasons, left to become the head coach at North Texas. Fedora promoted Chris Kapilovic, the offensive line coach, to offensive coordinator, but it’s unclear how involved Kapilovic will be when it comes to play-calling. Keith Heckendorf, the quarterbacks coach, also is now the passing game coordinator, which is a new role for him. Fedora has said, too, that he’ll be more involved in play-calling than he has been. The Tar Heels have some logistical questions to answer about which coaches will be most responsible for play-calling. Those questions could start to be answered in the spring.
4. How does the defense continue to develop?
When we last saw UNC, its defense was surrendering long run after long run against Baylor. The Tar Heels ended the season by allowing 645 rushing yards – more than any team had gained in any bowl game in history. The loss against Baylor and the one that preceded it against Clemson in the ACC Championship game exposed UNC’s defensive weaknesses – particularly on the line. Second-year defensive coordinator Gene Chizik, who otherwise successfully led a defensive turnaround last season, has his first chance to rebuild the defense after those two difficult games to end last season.
5. The emergence of new leaders on defense.
After the defensive debacle that was the 2014 season UNC needed to rebuild its confidence and belief. The arrival of Chizik helped the Tar Heels do that. But they also received strong leadership from Jeff Schoettmer and Shakeel Rashad, senior linebackers who have played their final college games. Schoettmer, in particular, was a strong, vocal leader who commanded his teammates’ respect, and one who served as a conduit between the coaching staff and the rest of the team. Schoettmer’s production will be missed – he was third on the team with 97 tackles – but his intangibles will be missed more. Rashad finished last season with 126 tackles. The Tar Heels will return virtually everyone else of significance on defense, but they need new leaders to emerge with Schoettmer and Rashad no longer around.