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4 key themes to follow as UNC opens practice

By Andrew Carter
acarter@newsobserver.com
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/07/31/22/06/1eTddh.Em.138.jpeg|234
    Chris Seward - cseward@newsobserver.com
    Ryan Switzer returned five punts for touchdowns last year – all in the final five games. He can change games in an instant. He is perhaps UNC’s best offensive player in the open field, so allowing him opportunities to make plays will be paramount.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/07/31/22/06/G4Bql.Em.138.jpeg|426
    Robert Willett - rwillett@newsobserver.com
    Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora says his third season in Chapel Hill is time for the program to take a step forward.

CHAPEL HILL Not long ago, with his third season at North Carolina quickly approaching, coach Larry Fedora said “it’s time” – time for his program to take a step forward and realize the potential that attracted him to Chapel Hill nearly three years ago.

UNC will start practice Friday. The Tar Heels are young – younger than any team Fedora has coached, he said. That fact, he admitted, is frightening.

“It scares the heck out of me,” he said, knowing only four seniors enter the preseason atop the depth chart at their positions. “Yeah. It scares the heck out of me. But at the same time, it’s also exciting, you know. Because we’re talented. … And sometimes, you don’t know what they’re going to do. And how they’re going to react.”

The Tar Heels had modest success in Fedora’s first two seasons, but they have been building, he hopes, toward this season. And toward a breakout a season.

UNC finished the past six years with winning records – though NCAA penalties vacated victories in 2008 and 2009 – but the Tar Heels haven’t won more than eight games since 1997. They’ve also have never represented the ACC’s Coastal Division in the conference championship game.

UNC resurrected the 2013 season after a 1-5 start and victories in six of its final seven games brought momentum into the offseason. An array of returning talent, especially at the offensive skill positions, has raised expectations, and UNC will start the season ranked No. 23 in the coaches’ poll – the first time since 2010 it will enter the season ranked.

If there’s ever a time for UNC to step forward, Fedora believes it’s now, in a Coastal Division in which there is, seemingly, no dominant team. Six of the seven teams in the division received at least one first-place vote in the preseason media poll.

“I think we do need to take advantage of the opportunity this year of this thing being wide open,” Fedora said. “I don’t feel like it’s more pressure, but I just (feel) it’s time. We need to get it done. There are pieces of the puzzle that are in place.”

While there are pieces in place, there are plenty of questions, too. Here are the stories that will surround the Tar Heels throughout the preseason:

Quarterback competition

Marquise Williams, a fourth-year junior, led UNC to victories in five of its final six games last season, but he enters preseason practice competing with Mitch Trubisky, a redshirt freshman, for the starting job. Both are mobile, and Williams has an advantage in experience while Trubisky is considered the more capable passer.

It’s possible, Fedora said, that he would consider using a two-quarterback system.

“I do believe both kids could win, and I believe we can win with both kids,” he said. “So that is a viable option. We’ll have to wait and see.”

Development of the offensive line

Fedora answered quickly when asked recently what would define the success, or failure, of his team.

“I think for us it’s probably going to be how quickly the offensive line gels,” he said.

The line was inconsistent a season ago and its two most reliable players – left tackle James Hurst and center Russell Bodine – have moved on. Lucas Crowley, a sophomore, will take over at center, but left tackle is a primary concern.

“That’s where really all the talk ought to be,” Fedora said of the line. “Because that’s going to determine whether we’re going to be successful or not. Those five guys.”

Development of the defensive line

UNC has questions up front on both sides. The loss of defensive end Kareem Martin, who had 11 sacks last season, is a significant one, and depth in the middle of the line took a hit with the recent dismissals of defensive tackles Shawn Underwood, a senior who would have competed for a starting position, and redshirt freshman Greg Webb.

This is the first time in a long time, too, that UNC will open the season without a sure-thing high-round NFL draft pick on the defensive line. There is no Martin, or Sylvester Williams, or Quinton Coples, though Norkeithus Otis, the bandit who had 8.5 sacks last year, is back.

He’ll have to increase his production and other players will have to emerge.

“He’s the guy who makes them tick over there,” Fedora said of Otis.

Switzer’s place in the offense

Ryan Switzer proved what he could do as a punt returner last season, when he returned five for touchdowns – all in the final five games. He can change games in an instant.

Now, though, he wants to – and will be expected to – play a greater role in the passing game. He caught 32 passes last season – with nearly half coming in the final four games – but he could be one of the most important parts of the offense.

Look for UNC to use Switzer in a variety of ways. He will play his normal position in the slot, but could also catch passes out of the backfield. He is perhaps UNC’s best offensive player in the open field, so allowing him opportunities to make plays will be paramount.

“He’s got that little man syndrome – ‘I’ll just show you, watch,’ ” Fedora said of Switzer, who is 5-foot-10. “He can be from point A to B, he can be at full speed in a matter of two steps. … We’re looking at a lot of different opportunities to put the ball in his hands and get the touches that we need to from the slot, from the running back, being able to move him quite a bit.”

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter
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