Things we think we know days into UNC practice

UNC coach Larry Fedora isn’t about to give away any secrets during the Tar Heels’ preseason camp.
UNC coach Larry Fedora isn’t about to give away any secrets during the Tar Heels’ preseason camp. Robert Willett - rwillett@newsobserver.com

Keep in mind it’s difficult to really know much of anything about North Carolina’s preseason practices. Or about any team that conducts the vast majority of its practices in a closed setting.

Twice a week during the preseason at UNC, media members are allowed to watch the first 30 minutes of practice. And during those 30 minutes, the team goes through some very light drills, some stretches, some workouts that don’t even create much perspiration.

In other words: there just isn’t a whole heck of a lot to see here. There would be something to see, say, in a scrimmage. The Tar Heels happen to be scrimmaging on Wednesday. It is closed.

This isn’t the NFL, where reporters are treated to no shortage of preseason camp and, therefore, can share endless observations about the most mundane details of a practice. (What a catch by the third-string receiver, who pulled in a pass deflected by a fourth-string linebacker who has no chance of actually making the roster!)

No, preseason camp at UNC – and at many (the great majority) of other schools – are exercises in secrecy. It’s understandable. If UNC held an open practice or scrimmage, for instance, then we (the media) would share things that would, undoubtedly, result in catastrophic defeat on Sept. 3 against Georgia. There is no debating or denying this.

In the event of an open practice, the Georgia coaching staff would, without hesitation, abandon all other game preparation – film study, in particular – and immediately begin following the tweets of select media members covering the Tar Heels’ open practice. From those tweets, Kirby Smart, living up to his name, would then construct an infallible game plan. It’d be bad, indeed, for the Tar Heels.

So the first 30 minutes, once or twice a week, is what we have. And from those 30 minutes we can deduce, with great certainty, that the Tar Heels are in fact moving well, that they have mastered their early-practice drills and that they do, without fail, know how to maneuver from drill to drill – usually through the act of running, in nearly every case observed – during that first half-hour.

Beyond that, not much outside of a depth chart revelation here or there.

So without further delay, some things we think we know days into UNC’s preseason practice:

▪ The right guard situation continues to be in flux. John Ferranto, a veteran lineman, would have entered the preseason atop the depth chart there but he has been lost for the season with an injury. Brad Henson could start there, and is probably the favorite. Someone can move from tackle to guard, perhaps R.J. Prince.

UNC coach Larry Fedora was asked on Tuesday about whether there was clarity at right guard.

“Nope,” he said. “No clarity yet. That may take a while.”

Before moving on, it must be noted that Prince’s nickname, according to the UNC media guide, is “D.D. Blaze.” It’s right there in the personal section of Prince’s bio: “His nickname is D.D. Blaze.” Also: “People say he looks like a big grizzly bear.”

▪ The starters at linebacker seem set. That has been a question, what with the departure of Jeff Schoettmer and Shakeel Rashad, but Fedora tipped his hand on Tuesday when he praised the leadership qualities among linebackers Andre Smith, Cayson Collins and Cole Holcomb.

“Not to say they’re going to be the ones that line up against Georgia, I don’t know,” Fedora said, “we’ve still got the rest of the month to go. But those guys right now I think are going to be able to produce.”

In other words: I can’t praise these guys too much quite yet, what with camp and all, but yes – they’re our three starters at linebacker.

▪ Naz Jones and Jalen Dalton appear certain to start alongside each other on the defensive line. They’re UNC’s two best interior linemen, and so this is a move that makes sense, and one that’s possible in part because of Jones’ versatility.

Said UNC defensive coordinator Gene Chizik:

“We’re trying to put our best, biggest, most physical players out there. So right now that’s where we feel like we’re at. Naz is an extremely intelligent player. He can play nose and three technique. So that’s always a luxury.”

▪ No clarity yet on who UNC’s punter will be.

▪ Finally, it’d be fun to see what actually is going on during these closed practices and scrimmages. Which is why they’re closed. But it makes you wonder what sort of stuff UNC is doing back there. It’s like that scene in the movie Wedding Crashers when Will Ferrell’s character orders his mom to make some meatloaf and goes, “I never know what she’s doing back there.”

We never know what they’re doing back there. Trick plays? Weird formations? I’m just going to go ahead and assume UNC’s first play against Georgia will be a double-reverse halfback pass lateral, if such a thing exists, and that the team has been practicing it non-stop.

You’ve been warned, Kirby Smart.