CHAPEL HILL This offseason has already gotten off to a better start than last season for North Carolina coach Larry Fedora. What’s the biggest difference? “I know their names,” the second-year coach joked Wednesday, the first day of spring practice.
Prior to the 2012 season, Fedora faced the tough task of convincing a talented corps of football players to remain at the school despite a bowl ban and probation.
Now he is faced with the arduous task of replacing them.
The most notable player is last year’s leading rusher Giovani Bernard, who finished with 1,981 all-purpose yards en route to being named ACC Offensive Player of the Year.
Rising senior A.J. Blue said he is ready to step into Bernard’s place during spring practice.
“I’ve got a lot of pressure that I put on myself,” Blue said. “But that actually kind of gives me my groove. It gives you some type of swag to perform better and make your teammates confident that you’re back there.”
While Bernard was torching the ACC with his ground game, the man who paved the way for him was offensive guard Jonathan Cooper.
The loss of Cooper, who according to the UNC athletic department, will have his jersey honored at Kenan Stadium soon, means the Heels are losing not only a lead blocker, but a leader.
Fedora believes this team will have to find a way to separate itself from last year’s squad.
“We don’t get any credit for what we did last year,” he said. “We’ve got to come up with an identity for this team. We know what our brand is – playing smart, playing fast and playing physical – but we’ve got to find that identity of this football team.”
Those departures, paired with the graduation of Kevin Reddick and Sylvester Williams on the defensive side, mean several position battles are wide open coming into spring practices.
While there are positions on the offensive line and at wide receiver that are open, there is also the task of replacing Bernard as a punt returner. With multiple players, including Romar Morris, Tim Scott and Tre Boston looking to take over the helm on special teams, it will be a battle throughout the spring.
“Guys realize what Gio was able to accomplish and how that helped his career,” Fedora said. “So now guys are saying, ‘Hey, I want to be in there.’ ”
The most intriguing defensive battle is the linebacking corps, which seems to be wide open.
Two sophomores, Nathan Staub and Dan Mastromatteo, were paired with Travis Hughes for most of the first-team reps Wednesday, but Fedora said the position is up for grabs.
“We’ve got a lot of competition at that position,” he said. “Hopefully we’ve got competition throughout the entire squad. We’re trying to build as much depth in these 15 days because we know 11 guys aren’t going to play the entire season.”
Expectations are high for Carolina heading into Fedora’s second season, and talk of a Coastal Division championship are already stirring, but with several positions up for grabs, Fedora has his hands full.