The wait is over. North Carolina’s football team is just a month away from its first game of the 2018 football season.
Preseason training camp begins this week, and UNC hopes that the lessons learned from last year can help it compete in the ACC Coastal Division this year.
UNC finished 3-9 last season, after going a combined 19-8 in the 2015 and 2016 seasons. Some of last season’s struggles can be attributed to injuries, as multiple players had their seasons cut short. And some of the struggles can be attributed to inexperience, particularly on the offensive side of the ball.
Training camp is supposed to mark a new beginning, a chance to forget what happened last year. But for UNC, the offseason also has been rocky.
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UNC coach Larry Fedora was criticized for comments on football and its relationship to CTE that he made during the ACC Football Kickoff. The school then announced that “a number” of players had been selling school-issued athletic shoes, a NCAA violation. It is unclear how many players are involved, but those players could face disciplinary action.
There are undoubtedly a number of questions heading into camp. Players report Thursday and first practice is Friday. Here are three things to watch.
1. Can UNC stay healthy this season?
The Tar Heels suffered from a large number of injuries last year, keeping them from achieving any potential the team may have had. UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham called the injuries an anomaly. Its coach said he had never seen anything like it in his years of coaching.
The school conducted a study in the offseason to learn the causes for those injuries, in hopes of preventing them moving forward.
It’s unclear what that study has shown; UNC is keeping the results a secret. But it’s clear that in order for UNC to compete, health is a top priority, as UNC has a lot of pieces coming back.
2. Who will win the quarterback battle?
This is perhaps the biggest thing to watch.
Chazz Surratt and Nathan Elliott are once again competing for a chance to start at quarterback, just as they did last year. Surratt started out last season ahead of Elliott on the depth chart. But by season’s end, Elliott was the starter and had earned the respect of his teammates after going 2-1 in the final three games, with wins over Pitt and Western Carolina.
But Elliott didn’t completely separate himself from Surratt. Hence the competition and the uncertainty over who will start on Sept. 1 in the season-opener against Cal. Fedora said he is looking for one of the quarterbacks to emerge as a leader.
“That’s the No. 1 thing,” Fedora said. “Somebody takes over the team and then the team becomes theirs. They’ve got to be able to do it not only on the field but off the field.
“They’ve got to be able to run the plays, run the offense, take command of the offense, have a presence out there that all the guys relate to.”
Fedora said once someone does that, the coaching staff will make the call.
In nine games, Surratt passed for 1,342 yards, throwing for eight touchdowns and three interceptions. In six games, Elliott passed for 925 yards, had 10 touchdowns to five interceptions. Both players showed a tendency to be inaccurate.
Surratt had a completion percentage of 58 percent; Elliott’s was 51 percent.
3. How good will the defensive line be?
Perhaps UNC’s most experienced group will be its defensive line, which has the potential to be the team’s anchor. Fedora said he’s most excited about that group because of its returning players.
UNC will return junior defensive tackle Aaron Crawford, who had three sacks last season; senior tackle Jalen Dalton, who had four sacks; sophomore defensive end Tomon Fox, who had four sacks, and senior defensive end Malik Carney, who had 5.5 sacks and 12 tackles for loss.
The defensive line’s production will be crucial to UNC’s defense taking a much needed step forward. Getting to the quarterback will be important, especially when trying to prevent the big plays UNC has given up in the past.
“As a D-line as a whole, I feel like we have some of the best depth in the country,” Crawford said in July. “We have eight guys (with no) drop off. So with that being said, I’m excited to see how these guys prepare for the season and looking forward to getting after it.”