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UNC football faces a number of questions as it enters camp. But here are the top ones

Hundreds attend the Mack and Sally Brown Ladies Football Clinic

Female Tar Heel fans gathered for the clinic to benefit UNC Children's Hospital on Monday, July 29, 2019 in Chapel Hill.
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Female Tar Heel fans gathered for the clinic to benefit UNC Children's Hospital on Monday, July 29, 2019 in Chapel Hill.

North Carolina started its 2018 football season at a significant disadvantage.

UNC’s coach at the time, Larry Fedora, was in national headlines for the wrong reasons. Thirteen of its players had been suspended for their involvement in a shoe-selling scandal. And the Tar Heels were dealing with a number of injuries to key players at important positions, all before the end of fall camp.

All of that is behind them now with new football coach Mack Brown at the helm.

And as fall camp begins for the 2019 season, there is a sense around the program that UNC has a legitimate shot to turn things around.

Brown wants to win now and send UNC’s seniors out on a good note.

Tour UNC's new football facilities including a new artificial turf field in Kenan Stadium.

Camp starts on Friday, and will end on Aug. 25, a week before UNC’s season opener against South Carolina at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.

But there are still some uncertainties as the Tar Heels prepare for their first game.

Here are the five most important questions for the Tar Heels as they head into fall camp:

1. With injuries in the spring, can the Tar Heels’ defense be ready by Aug. 31?

The Tar Heels have a lot of ground to make up in fall camp.

There were a number of potential defensive starters dealing with injuries in the offseason who did not play in the spring game, including safeties Myles Dorn and Myles Wolfolk, and defensive linemen Jason Strowbridge, Tyrone Hopper and Allen Cater.

“So we don’t know who we are yet on defense,” Brown said in June.

Wolfolk was able to practice in the spring but could not go full speed. Dorn could not practice because of a hernia. And Strowbridge, Hopper and Cater did not practice at all.

But on Wednesday, Brown said he expected each of those players to practice on the first day of fall camp.

“Those guys are all behind,” Brown said. “The front guys are more behind than the back-end guys.”

With only a month left before the season, those players have to play catch-up.

The Tar Heels want to be a much better team defensively than they have been in recent years. They were 105th out of 130 FBS teams in total defense or yards allowed per game in 2018.

2. Can wide receiver Dazz Newsome take a big leap?

UNC currently lacks a true No. 1 wide receiver. Although he struggled last season, Anthony Ratliff-Williams, who left for the NFL Draft in December, was UNC’s No. 1.

Newsome, who started in six games and played in 11, showed promise in 2018. Although he’s not a traditional No. 1, he’s a playmaker and is dangerous in the open field. He had a team-high 44 catches for 506 yards and two receiving touchdowns.

UNCDUKE-SP-111018-RTW01.jpg
North Carolina’s Dazz Newsome (19) rushes 84 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter against Duke on Saturday, November 10, 2018 at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, N.C. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

He also had a punt return touchdown, a rushing touchdown and 96 yards on seven carries.

But at times he struggled catching the ball and had a number of drops. When Newsome got to UNC in 2017, he made the switch from cornerback to wide receiver. Last season, he was still learning the position. He showed improvement throughout the season but still had room to get better.

With Ratliff-Williams gone, UNC will likely rely on him more.

3. Who will emerge at quarterback?

Quarterback was among UNC’s weakest positions in 2018 and that is expected to improve this season with three quality players vying to be the starter.

After spring practice, redshirt freshmen Jace Ruder and Cade Fortin and true freshman Sam Howell were all even in the quarterback battle.

None of the quarterbacks had separated themselves from the others. But all were good in their own respects.

Fortin is known for his arm, Ruder is known for his athleticism, and Howell is a mix of both, coaches and players say.

Brown said the quarterback who leads the team, moves the ball the best and scores the most points will play.

Brown said he doesn’t have a time line for when he wants to name a quarterback. He hasn’t ruled out using multiple quarterbacks if a clear favorite has not emerged.

“I just want to win,” Brown said. “We do need to have two ready to play, obviously, because you’re one snap away from losing your quarterback at all times, and your whole team is dependent on how your quarterback plays.”

In camp, Brown said the three quarterbacks will have equal repetitions.

4. How will Phil Longo’s offense look?

With a new coaching staff comes a new playbook. The Tar Heels will run the Air Raid offense. But that doesn’t mean they will throw 70 passes a game. In April, offensive coordinator Phil Longo said there would be a power-run element to the offense.

That works well for UNC because its strongest unit is its running backs. Junior Michael Carter and senior Antonio Williams are expected to have another big season this year, and sophomore Javonte Williams showed in UNC’s spring game that he will be a factor, as well.

Longo said UNC’s offense will resemble Oklahoma’s offense.

The wide receivers and tight ends won’t be confined to one route. They can make a decision based on how the defense is defending them. And the quarterback throws it to the receiver in open space.

“The philosophy is to stay simple, spread teams out, horizontally pre-snap, vertically post-snap and really displace 11 defenders throughout the field as much as we possibly can and not have to go coach athletes,” Longo said in April.

As the offensive coordinator at Ole Miss in 2018, Longo’s team ranked No. 9 in the country in total offense (510.5 yards per game). It had the fifth-best passing offense (346.4 yards per game) and the 72nd-best rushing offense (164.1 yards per game).

“It’s not just our goal to throw for 500 hundred and flip it 70 times a game,” Longo said. “If that’s what they give us, that’s what we’ll do, and we have that capability. [But] I think the best thing about it, the whole system, it’s flexible enough, that if your strength lies in one area one year, you emphasize that part of the offense more.”

5. How will Jay Bateman’s defense look?

Jay Bateman, who was previously the defensive coordinator at Army, is not a fan of using one particular defense. So it would be inaccurate to say UNC is going to run solely a 4-3 or solely a 3-4 defense.

“I think that’s really overrated nowadays because everybody does a little bit of both anyway,” Bateman said in April. “If you line up the same way every time, they know where you are, and they know what coverage you’re going to be in. I think it is very easy to attack you.”

So expect the Tar Heels defense to look different from week-to-week.

As defensive coordinator at Army, Bateman was considered one of the top assistant coaches in college football. In 2018, Army was ranked eighth in the country in total defense (295.5 yards per game).

Bateman likes his defenses to create havoc and disguise blitzes so you don’t know where they’re coming from.

“If I can rush four guys and make you not know where the fourth one is coming from, then I have a way better chance of getting a better pass rush,” Bateman said. “So a lot of time when people say we’re blitzing, we’re only rushing four guys.”

With the new defense, some players will switch positions. For instance, junior Tomon Fox, who is 6-3 and 260 pounds, has switched from defensive lineman to linebacker. He will rush the passer from an upright position, instead of having his hand on the ground.

Chris Collins, a 6-4, 240-pound sophomore, will do the same on the opposite side.

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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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