UNC, NC State, Duke start football practice: a roundtable discussion

Duke quarterback Thomas Sirk runs through the defense to score in the Blue Devils’ season-opening 52-13 win over Elon University on Aug. 30, 2014.
Duke quarterback Thomas Sirk runs through the defense to score in the Blue Devils’ season-opening 52-13 win over Elon University on Aug. 30, 2014.

The turn of the calendar from July to August signifies the return of college football practice and, equally significant, the return of The News & Observer college sports roundtable.

North Carolina begins preseason practice Monday, N.C. State on Tuesday and Duke on Wednesday. Columnist Luke DeCock and beat reporters Andrew Carter, Joe Giglio and Laura Keeley recently gathered to discuss important questions entering the start of the preseason:

Question: What’s the top priority for Duke, UNC and N.C. State during the next four weeks of preseason practice?

Andrew Carter (UNC beat reporter): The priority at UNC is rebuilding – or building, really, since it was in shambles from the start last season – a defense that was among the worst in school history in 2014. The old defensive coaching staff and the old 4-2-5 scheme are gone, replaced by the celebrated arrival of Gene Chizik and his more traditional (and historically successful) 4-3 scheme.

At the end of spring practice Chizik said he’d installed around 65 percent of his defense. So there’s lots of installation work to be done and not a whole lot of time to fit it all in. Rebuilding confidence is essential, too. Players will say they’re more confident under Chizik, but this unit had minimal success last season. They have to enter the season ready from the start.

Luke DeCock: For both North Carolina and N.C. State, special teams are clearly the biggest area of need, with the Wolfpack grooming an all-new kicking group and the Tar Heels coming off a dismal placekicking season and replacing punter Tommy Hibbard. Duke has settled on Thomas Sirk as its new starting quarterback, but the Blue Devils need to identify and groom a backup.

Joe Giglio (N.C. State beat reporter): As much as it possibly can, N.C. State needs to get its two new tackles on offense and new kicker and punter “game” ready.

Senior Alex Barr should make a relatively easy transition from right guard to right tackle, but redshirt freshman Tyler Jones has never played in a college game. Neither has freshman punter A.J Cole nor either candidate to replace Nik Sade at kicker.

Realistically, there’s only so much you can do to prep new kickers Kyle Bambard and Jackson Maples for the Sept. 5 opener with Troy.

Laura Keeley (Duke beat reporter): Getting Sirk ready. The Blue Devils need to do as good of job as possible of simulating game conditions because Sirk – while he is in his fourth year in the program – has attempted 14 passes in his college career. He needs to have the exchange with center Matt Skura down pat, and he needs to have the timing worked out with a new crop of receivers. And, perhaps most important, he needs to be able to correctly diagnose when to take off and run versus when to hang in the pocket and wait to throw.

Q: Every team is optimistic now. What are some of the best reasons for optimism entering preseason practice in Durham, Chapel Hill and Raleigh?

Carter: The Tar Heels’ offense, which was pretty good a season ago (at least statistically), returns basically intact. Marquise Williams is the most experienced quarterback in the ACC, and UNC’s offensive line, which returns in its entirety, is also the most experienced in the conference. That bodes well.

The Tar Heels don’t lack for talent at the offensive skill positions and if they can just be average defensively – which would represent a significant improvement from last season – a nine- or 10-win season isn’t out of the question.

DeCock: Almost any team in the Coastal Division can look at the competition and say, “Why not us?” and that certainly includes Duke and North Carolina. N.C. State doesn’t have quite as friendly a division, but with Jacoby Brissett at quarterback and an influx of freshman talent, the Wolfpack can certainly expect improvement.

Giglio: The biggest reason for optimism for N.C. State is fifth-year senior quarterback Jacoby Brissett. The Florida transfer was productive last year (2,606 yards, 23 touchdowns, five interceptions ) despite not having been a regular starter since his senior year of high school. Brissett should be more comfortable and polished with a full season of game experience under his belt.

N.C. State also has some of the best running backs in the ACC in senior Shadrach Thornton, junior Matt Dayes and three freshmen who could all help.

Keeley: This is the best group of running backs and defensive backs Duke has had under David Cutcliffe. Running the ball effectively – something Shaquille Powell, Jela Duncan and Shaun Wilson should all be able to do – will take immense pressure off Sirk. And the strong back end of the defense should be able to make plays.

Q: We won’t get real answers about these teams until they start playing games. That said, what has to happen in the preseason to provide proof they’re headed in the right direction?

Carter: The Tar Heels’ defense has to show real signs of “getting it,” for lack of a better phrase, and UNC also has to solve some problems on special teams. Given their lack of a reliable kicker, it was either touchdown or bust for the Tar Heels anywhere outside of the 15-yard line. That was a problem.

Defensively, UNC won’t be able to prove anything until the games start. But how it fares in scrimmages against the offense should tell the coaches about how players are progressing.

DeCock: Given how little practice we see and how endemic coachspeak is at this time of year, about the only thing you can actually monitor in training camp from the outside is injuries. The fewer, the better.

Giglio: Tough question to answer because we don’t get to see scrimmages or practice. The challenge for N.C. State is to build on last year’s finish. That can be easier said than done. Remember, UNC closed 2013 with six wins in seven games only to start 2014 at 2-4.

Momentum is a nebulous concept, especially when trying to apply it from the end of one season to the start of the next, but confidence is real, and N.C. State should be a confident group after winning four of its last five games in 2014.

Keeley: The Blue Devils need to get through camp relatively injury free. Last year, they lost two critical pieces to season-ending ACL injuries in camp – linebacker Kelby Brown and tight end Braxton Deaver. Brown tore his ACL this year, ending his career. A true freshman defensive tackle (Zach Morris) tore one, too, a few weeks ago. Duke can’t afford many more tears, especially to players on the two-deep depth chart.

Q: For the first time since 1994, Duke, UNC and N.C. State went to bowl games last season. All three are hoping to take a next step. Which one is in the best position to do so?

Carter: N.C. State might just be the Triangle’s best team, but its dreadful nonconference schedule will tell us nothing about how good the Wolfpack is, and good luck beating Clemson and Florida State. Of the three teams, UNC has the best chance to take a significant step forward.

The Tar Heels return 17 starters, have a lot of experience where experience really counts – quarterback and the offensive line, particularly – and their schedule isn’t terribly difficult. And, oh yes, the defense can’t possibly be as terrible as it was last season. Right?

DeCock: If North Carolina can get everything moving in the right direction, there’s no reason the Tar Heels can’t win 10 games – but that’s a big “if” on an annual basis. N.C. State has an easy schedule but is probably a year away. Duke has holes to fill, but the Blue Devils have an elite secondary, some playmakers at running back and the best shot of these three teams of ending up in Charlotte for the second time in three seasons.

Giglio: With the changes and personnel turnover at Florida State and Clemson, N.C. State’s chances of catching either in the Atlantic Division are better than at any point in the past four years.

N.C. State still needs to figure out how to win on the road, an annual problem.

Since both Duke and UNC avoid the two best teams in the ACC, their window is wider by default. Either could win the Coastal Division, especially with preseason favorite Georgia Tech having to cross over with both Clemson and FSU.

Keeley: With all respect to the annual sleeping giant tag that the Tar Heels get to wear, I think the easy answer is N.C. State. The Wolfpack has showed steady progress under Dave Doeren and appears to be in position to compete for the Atlantic Division title this year. It always helps to have a great, game-changing quarterback, and N.C. State has one in Jacoby Brissett.

Related stories from Charlotte Observer