CHAPEL HILL Erik Highsmith knows Larry Fedora won't be in Shreveport, La., on Monday. He's not quite sure where the new North Carolina coach might be, exactly. But Highsmith, a junior receiver, is certain of one thing: Fedora will be watching his future players when they play Missouri in the Independence Bowl.
North Carolina gathered Wednesday to practice for the final time before departing today for Shreveport, where the Tar Heels will begin on-site preparations for their final game of the season. They want nothing more than to send interim coach Everett Withers out with a victory.
But there is added motivation, because of what the Independence Bowl represents: an audition for their new coach. Fedora, who has spent the past four seasons at Southern Mississippi, will coach the Golden Eagles in the Hawaii Bowl on Sunday before taking over at North Carolina.
"The past couple, two weeks, we've been practicing hard, you know - (Fedora is) going to come in and watch, and see who's who and what they can do," Highsmith said. "Of course, this bowl game is really our audition for him."
'Acquiring a lot of talent'
Highsmith is one of eight offensive starters who will be eligible to return next season for the Tar Heels. On defense, North Carolina could return as many as six starters.
Experience isn't the only thing that will await Fedora. The Tar Heels expect to return a wealth of production, too: players responsible for 81.2 percent of their rushing yards are expected to suit up again. North Carolina loses senior receiver Dwight Jones, who has 1,119 receiving yards, but players responsible for 55.7 percent of the Tar Heels' receiving yards could return. On defense, North Carolina loses senior linebacker Zach Brown, who leads the team with 91 tackles, but six of the next nine leading tacklers from this season are still eligible.
Four of the Tar Heels' five offensive lineman who are expected to start in the bowl are expected to be back, as are six defensive linemen listed on the two-deep depth chart for the game.
"He's acquiring a lot of talent," sophomore defensive end Kareem Jackson said of Fedora. "Especially on the offensive side of the ball, you know. We're bringing back our whole offensive line, quarterback and a big bulk of our receivers. So that'll help, especially with him coming in with the spread attack."
Withers, who took over as coach after North Carolina fired Butch Davis before the season, smiled Wednesday when asked about the health of the program going forward. Withers has accepted a position on the defensive coaching staff at Ohio State, but he said he'd be leaving behind plenty to work with at North Carolina.
"I think the program is in good shape," Withers said. "I think it's just a matter of the new staff coming in here. There's a lot of talent here, both offensively and defensively, so I think this program is looking up ... this program should be one of the top teams in the ACC."
Still, questions remain about how the pieces will fit into what Fedora wants to do. Known for his up-tempo, attacking offenses, Fedora's teams spread defenses out and pass often. In Fedora's four seasons with the Golden Eagles, his defenses never ranked better than 31st nationally, which is where it sits entering the Hawaii Bowl.
Ryan Houston, a senior running back at North Carolina said "it's hard to tell" where the program stands.
"I don't know, with the (new) coaches coming in, or who's staying or who's going," he said. "But I feel like it's on the rise. I feel like Fedora is a great coach. I've heard about his coaching before ... that great, dynamic offense. I feel like Carolina as a whole, football-wise, is going up."
Houston, who played at Butler High, and his fellow seniors have emphasized the importance of winning the Independence Bowl for Withers, and because a victory would represent a positive ending to a tumultuous stretch of time that included an NCAA investigation into the firing of Davis.
They will play for Withers, but also for their future coach, and for first impressions.