How will UNC's Larry Fedora choose his new starting quarterback?
At one point on Wednesday after North Carolina’s first preseason practice, Larry Fedora began answering a question about where a player fit on the offensive depth chart when he stopped himself with a question of his own: “There really were no 1’s – where were the 1’s?” he asked, referencing the first-team offense.
And so perhaps that’s an appropriate starting point after practice No. 1, which came exactly one month before the Tar Heels begin the season against California on Sept. 2. Things to know after UNC’s first practice:
1. There really is no set offensive depth chart.
There are players who are certain to start, and the offensive line seems mostly set with tackle Bentley Spain, guards R.J. Prince and Tommy Hatton and graduate transfers Cam Dillard and Khaliel Rodgers. Austin Proehl will start at receiver. Brandon Fritts at tight end. And then? Who knows.
Quarterback is wide open. Running back. Receiver, after Proehl. Which is why, perhaps, Fedora seemed a little bit amused by a question referencing the depth chart on the very first day of preseason practice.
Coaches normally downplay depth charts this early in the season, anyway, even when it’s not justified. At UNC, though, it is justified. Fedora and his staff can’t yet be certain who will start at the majority of the skill positions on offense. Said Fedora: “We really don’t have an established depth chart right now.”
It was one of those times, however rare it might be, when coachspeak meets reality.
2. It’s likely to be a while before the quarterback situation is sorted out.
It’s the question everybody is curious about, and the one that’s likely to take the longest to answer: Who’s going to start at quarterback? UNC’s first practice offered little insight there, not that it should have.
Nathan Elliott, who backed up Mitch Trubisky last season, appeared to be the first-team quarterback through most of the portion of practice that was open to the media. Brandon Harris, the graduate transfer from LSU, appeared to be second team.
That leaves Chazz Surratt and Logan Byrd, a pair of redshirt freshmen who arrived last season as highly-regarded prospects, behind both Elliott and Harris. But, really, who knows. It’s early yet. The quarterback questions are likely to continue ... and continue ... for weeks to come.
How long will the competition go?
“Until somebody separates themselves,” Fedora said. “If they don’t separate themselves it will go until five minutes before the game, I guess. But if somebody separates themselves, it will be at that point. So we just need somebody to separate themselves and show that they want to lead this team, and that the offense is better when they’re on the field.”
3. Brandon Harris showed up ready.
At least Fedora said so. His expectation, if you remember, was that Harris would immerse himself in the playbook and be prepared to compete from the get-go for the starting job. Harris is behind UNC’s other three quarterbacks, because they’ve all spent at least one season growing accustomed to the offense.
Harris, meanwhile, hasn’t had long to learn the plays, and new terminology.
“He looked pretty good today,” Fedora said. “He was able to execute everything we did today, so that’s day one install. So he’s prepared himself for that, and I’m sure he’s prepared himself for day two, day three, day four, so we’ll see as it goes as he starts putting more in how he’ll react.”
Part of what Fedora said could have been expected. And yet if he hadn’t been particularly pleased with Harris’ command of the playbook, Fedora likely would have found a way to communicate it. That he didn’t indicates that Harris, indeed, has put himself in position to succeed in the coming weeks.
4. Practicing in Kenan Stadium takes some getting used to.
The Tar Heels are practicing inside of their stadium this season while their indoor practice facility is under construction. The relocation from the normal practice fields to the stadium field comes with its unique set of challenges.
For one, the turf will have to be replaced before every home game. The grounds crew will come in on Thursdays, after the final practice before a home game, and re-sod the field. And during practices, meanwhile, UNC has less space to work with than before, making practices more confined.
The challenge there is that there is less space for players to maneuver at full speed between drills, which is something that Fedora cares about because, well, that’s how he approaches practices, and football: “We’re not going to slow down,” he said at one point on Wednesday.
There’s nothing the Tar Heels’ can’t do while practicing in Kenan that they’ve always done.
“It’s just that you’re squeezed for space,” Fedora said. “So you have to be really conscious of where you are on the field, and who’s around you and what you’re doing. Finishing drills sometimes makes it tough in the way we really want to finish them because you don’t have the space to really do it.”
5. The defensive word of the day: aggression
Or a variation thereof: Aggressive. Aggressiveness. You get the idea.
Andre Smith, the linebacker, used one of those words. So did Donnie Miles, a safety. They were both talking about how the defensive scheme, and approach, will change in the first season under a largely new defensive coaching staff.
You get the sense, in talking to some of these guys, that they felt a bit … confined under former coordinator Gene Chizik, who employed a more conservative philosophy (and with good reason, perhaps, given what he inherited).
But now, three years removed from the defensive debacle that was the entire 2014 season, and three years into a scheme that won’t change all that much from Chizik to J.P. Papuchis, the linebackers-coach-turned-coordinator, UNC’s defensive players welcome the chance to play more aggressively.
They think they’re going to get it this season. Said Smith, the linebacker: “I am so excited. I’m – oh, I can’t wait. I’m not going to tell you what we’re doing. You’re just going to have to wait and see.”