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What to watch in UNC's spring football game

UNC quarterback Mitch Trubisky (10) scores on a 10-yard run in the fourth quarter of the Tar Heels’ 50-14 win over Wake Forest on October 17, 2015.
UNC quarterback Mitch Trubisky (10) scores on a 10-yard run in the fourth quarter of the Tar Heels’ 50-14 win over Wake Forest on October 17, 2015. rwillett@newsobserver.com

North Carolina's annual Blue vs. White spring football scrimmage is on Saturday at 3 p.m. at Kenan Stadium. Here are three storylines I'll paying close attention to – and ones that should warrant your interest, too:

1. The Mitch Trubisky era is upon us.

Larry Fedora won't say it. Trubisky won't say it. But regardless of what anyone says, Trubisky is now The Guy at quarterback for the Tar Heels. Trubisky, the rising redshirt junior, has been working this spring to prove what many already assume – that he is indeed the Tar Heels' starting quarterback.

Given Trubisky's experience – 21 games played in two seasons, more than 1,000 passing yards, a 65.6 completion percentage the past two years – it'd be silly to think that anyone else has a chance of starting at quarterback next season. Nonetheless, Fedora, who's preparing for his fifth season as UNC's head coach, has said that Trubisky will have to earn the staring job, and that he hasn't done that. Yet.

The spring game will offer Trubisky his first chance to shine, publicly, since Marquise Williams played his final game at quarterback last December. Trubisky is already something of a known commodity. It's not as if he's never played before.

Now, though, he has a chance to emerge without the pressure of worrying about playing time. Regardless of just about anything that might happen on Saturday, Trubisky will enter the preseason as the Tar Heels' starting quarterback. But he could build some important momentum with a strong, commanding performance on Saturday.

2. What's going on at linebacker?

Fedora will tell you that every position is up for grabs and that nothing has been decided, in terms of starters, anywhere. At some positions that's a lot truer than others. Like linebacker, for instance. Pretty much everything is in flux there. For one, Shakeel Rashad and Jeff Schoettmer were both seniors last season when they were UNC's second- and third-leading tacklers. So they're gone.

Andre Smith, who finished his freshman season with 53 tackles, missed the spring while recovering from an injury. So that means that UNC's top three linebackers from last season, in terms of number of tackles, weren't on the field for the Tar Heels this spring. The departure of Rashad and Schoettmer and the absence of Smith have left a lot of holes. And questions.

Entering the spring game on Saturday Cayson Collins, the rising junior, is really the Tar Heels' only proven healthy player at linebacker. If the season began tomorrow the starters at linebacker might be Collins, Cole Holcomb and Jonathan Smith. Holcomb is a walk-on who joined the team before the start of the 2014 season and Smith enrolled in school in January after graduating high school early.

3. The next men up amid the departure of two longtime starters on offense.

The UNC defense will undoubtedly miss Rashad and Schoettmer, who provided steady, consistent performance on the field and sound if not spectacular leadership off of it. The same could be said on offense for Williams, the departed quarterback, and Landon Turner and Quinshad Davis.

Davis, a four-year starter at receiver, left school as UNC's all-time leader in receptions. And Turner, who had been a constant force in recent seasons on the Tar Heels' offensive line, left school as an All-American at right guard. UNC didn't lose a lot, in terms of numbers, from its record-setting offense. And yet the departures of Williams, Davis and Turner all create significant challenges.

Trubisky might well make the transition an easy one at quarterback. The interior of the offensive line, though, will clearly miss Turner, who was as good of a run-blocker as there was in the country last season.

John Ferranto, a former starter at left tackle, is the likely candidate to replace Turner at right guard. A rising senior Ferranto is big (6-foot-6, 300 pounds) and experienced, though not as much at the position he'll be playing assuming he takes over for Turner.

Davis' void will be filled by a variety of players, meanwhile, and it helps UNC – and Trubisky – that Mack Hollins and Bug Howard and Ryan Switzer are all back at receiver. Still, though, Davis was about as consistent and reliable as it gets for a college receiver and the safety net he provided will be missed.

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