And welcome to the fifth season of Larry Fedora’s head coaching tenure at North Carolina. The season begins in a little less than a month, when the Tar Heels play against Georgia in Atlanta on Sept. 3.
But it might as well have started Friday – UNC’s first day of preseason practice. A quick look at the Tar Heels’ top priorities during the next few weeks before they play in the Georgia Dome in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff:
1. Prepare for Georgia.
We start with the obvious: getting ready for as formidable an opening-game challenge as any team will face during the first week of the season. Opening up against Georgia would be difficult enough in ordinary circumstances.
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These aren’t ordinary circumstances, though. This is Georgia’s first game under a new coaching staff, for one, and undoubtedly the Bulldogs will derive some energy from that. Second, as Fedora has pointed out, it’s a “neutral site” game at the friendly confines of the Georgia Dome.
If the crowd is comprised of anything less than 80 percent Georgia fans, consider it a small victory for UNC. The circumstances will be difficult but the Tar Heels couldn’t ask for a better opportunity, opening the season against a marquee opponent on a grand stage.
It’s certainly the most important season-opener UNC has played in Fedora’s tenure, and it’s probably one among the most important season-openers the Tar Heels have played, ever. Preparing for this game will be a theme that dominates UNC’s preseason.
2. Become accustomed to a more complex defense.
No one knew what to expect out of the Tar Heels’ defense a season ago, during the first year in a new system under a new staff and coordinator, Gene Chizik. UNC was so bad defensively in 2014 that even moderate improvement last year would have created cause for celebration.
As it turned out, though, the Tar Heels exceeded expectations and improved tremendously – at least until the final two games, against Clemson and Baylor (two of the best offenses in the country) exposed some weaknesses.
It’s important to remember that UNC’s defensive success last year came while the Tar Heels were still mastering the basics. Chizik and his staff didn’t often challenge players to execute the more complicated elements of the defense. UNC kept it vanilla.
That will change this season. At least, that’s the expectation. After keeping things basic in the first season under Chizik, expect the Tar Heels to open up their defensive playbook and become more creative.
3. Establish Mitch Trubisky as a definitive team leader.
This has been an ongoing process and one that began, in some ways, even while Trubisky was serving as Marquise Williams’ backup last season. After waiting for three years, Trubisky is now the starting quarterback, and the most difficult part of the transition into that role might not be anything related to reading defenses or making decisions.
It might be the process of developing into the face of a program and becoming the guy that others look toward in moments of crisis. Williams during the past two seasons led with his voice. And even when he didn’t play particularly well, he had no problem standing in front of his teammates and accepting responsibility.
Trubisky is less vocal, less rah-rah. He’s not one for the fiery locker room speech. The coaching staff, he said, has emphasized how important it is for him to become more vocal, and for him to set an example.
“Just everything you do, you handle your business on and off the field,” Trubisky said. “So when I’m in the classroom, I’m taking notes. Because if I’m in class with one of my teammates and see me messing around, they’re going to think that’s OK, and it’s not. So when I’m in class, I’m handling my business.
“When I’m in meetings I’m taking better notes than anybody in the meeting room so that when they look at me, they know they have to take better notes. When it’s on the field, it’s being encouraging, being vocal, always being locked in.”
4. Answer unknowns amid various position battles.
UNC doesn’t have a lot of unknowns when it comes to starters but the questions that do exist are important: Who starts at right guard now that John Ferranto has been lost for the season with a torn bicep? How does the situation at linebacker, where the Tar Heels lost their top two players from last season, shake out? Who winds up starting in the middle of the defensive line, where several defensive tackles will be competing for starting jobs?
Outside of the right guard position, the offense is settled. Four of five starters return up front on the offensive line. There’s no debate about who will be starting at quarterback, running back and receiver. The defense is more fluid outside of the secondary, where Des Lawrence and M.J. Stewart comprise perhaps the best cornerback duo in the country.