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UNC football begins preseason practice: What to watch

North Carolina opens preseason training camp today, exactly 31 days before the Tar Heels open their season against South Carolina in a nationally-televised Thursday night game against South Carolina in Charlotte. So as they say: so much to do, so little time to do it.

(Quick sidenote: I'm in New York City, about to begin a drive back from a quick weekend trip involving some baseball. Sidenote II: The New York Mets awoke this morning to find themselves in a tie for first place in the N.L. East. I'll miss this practice but we'll have a full opening-of-camp report.)

That said, here's a quick primer of things to follow during the next several weeks of the preseason:

1. The progression of the defense.

While some UNC fans might debate it – and even tell me otherwise on Twitter and in emails – I'm no dummy. I know, as should anyone, that we're not going to have real answers about UNC's defensive potential until after the South Carolina game, and maybe not even until after that.

Still, there should be some indications about how the defense is progressing throughout the preseason. For one thing, the scrimmages between the offense and defense should provide some signs. We don't get to cover those, but reliable information should emerge.

Most of all, the players have to grasp Gene Chizik's 4-3 scheme. From all accounts, Chizik's defense seems to be making more sense to players than the 4-2-5 they ran a season ago with little success under the departed Vic Koenning.

Measuring the progress of the defense, which was among the worst in school history last season, is going to be difficult until UNC starts playing games. That's obvious enough. But the Tar Heels have to get it, and quickly, during the next four weeks. Chizik said at the end of the spring that he'd installed between 60 and 65 percent of his scheme. So there's much yet to be done.

2. How is the offensive line coming together?

Again, like everything that happens during the four weeks, this is going to be difficult to quantify until the season starts. After the preseason last year, though, we knew that the offensive line was likely going to struggle for a while. And it did.

This year, the unit is expected to be among the best on the team. Everyone is back from last season, including Landon Turner, who is an All-American candidate at right guard. The Tar Heels have, by far, the most experienced offensive line in ACC, though one of its most inexperienced players will be as important as any.

Bentley Spain, who arrived last year as one of UNC's most heralded incoming freshman, could well start the season at left tackle, which was a problem point last season. Outside of Turner, though, there were several problem points on the line in 2014.

UNC struggled to run block effectively last year and pass protection was an issue, too. The line enters the preseason with some high expectations, but more because everyone is back than because of its previous success. Will experience translate into much-improved performance? The preseason should provide some answers.

3. The return of Marquise Williams, Quinshad Davis, etc., to the offense.

Williams, the fifth-year senior quarterback, missed all of spring practice while recovering from surgery to repair a hip injury. Davis, the senior receiver, missed the spring after suffering a broken leg during UNC's defeat against Rutgers in the Quick Lane Bowl (he also recently had an appendectomy).

Other players who missed part of the spring: Mack Hollins and Ryan Switzer.

So if you're counting, that's the starting quarterback and basically his favorite targets who either all missed spring practice in its entirety or missed parts of it. The focus of the off-season has been on the defense, and rightfully so, but the Tar Heels' offense also had its share of problems last season – especially late in the year.

Williams, Davis, Hollins and Switzer are all veteran players who understand coach Larry Fedora's offense. Even so, they just didn't get much of a chance to work together in the spring and rebuild some of what was lost offensively during the final two games a season ago. So will they be able to (quickly) reestablish their mojo early on in preseason camp?

You'd think so, at least. Or maybe it takes them a while to get back into the flow.

Williams' recovery from his chronic hip injury, by the way, could be one of the more overlooked aspects of this team entering the preseason. Williams says he is as healthy as he has been since his sophomore year of high school. He clearly played through significant pain in some games in 2014.

How much of a difference will being healthy make for him? We should begin to find out during the next few weeks.

4. The development of special teams.

The Tar Heels enter preseason camp with a lot of questions about the kicking game, and though those won't be answered in the preseason the next several weeks should provide an indication of whether UNC might be able to count on making field goals of longer than 30 yards this season.

The Tar Heels pretty much didn't have that luxury last season, and though it never really hurt them – none of their defeats came down to a late missed field goal – UNC's inability to consistently make field goals of even a short-to-medium length was a real problem for the offense.

Nick Weiler (who is an outstanding kickoff man) enters the preseason as the leading candidate to earn placekicking duties. The Tar Heels will have a new punter, too, in Corbin Daly. The kicking game is often overlooked during the preseason but it'll be important for the Tar Heels, especially, to find some confidence that they can make a field goal.

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