Tar Heels facing major offensive turnover for 2017 season
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina’s stay atop the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Coastal Division proved short. The Tar Heels face quite a climb to get back there this fall, too.
The offense that has driven UNC during Larry Fedora’s tenure will have to find some playmakers and a new quarterback after losing No. 2 overall NFL draft pick Mitch Trubisky along with its three best receivers and two best tailbacks. And that could put more pressure on a defense that has been little more than adequate, even as the Tar Heels won the Coastal in 2015.
“Nothing changes in what we do,” said Fedora, who is entering his sixth season. “And that’s why it’s so important to have a sound philosophy. So as guys move in and out of your offense or your defense and your special teams, the philosophy doesn’t change.”
So while Fedora promises the Tar Heels will still run that go-go-go spread offense, it’s unclear who will be in the leading role. LSU graduate transfer Brandon Harris offers experience at quarterback, while the Tar Heels have taken a long look since spring at last year’s No. 2 Nathan Elliott, along with redshirt freshmen Chazz Surratt and Logan Byrd.
Austin Proehl (597 yards, three touchdowns) is back as the top receiving threat, while UNC is looking at young backs alongside Auburn graduate transfer Stanton Truitt for the backfield.
The defense will be more experienced with seven returning starters, including safety Donnie Miles (32 career starts) and cornerback M.J. Stewart (25 starts). It’s a unit that has long taken a backseat to the high-scoring offense during Fedora’s tenure, but it will have to be solid as the offense takes shape.
“My expectation will not change for the offense because of personnel,” Fedora said. ’It’s going to be the same as what it has been. They’ll either meet it, surpass it, or they won’t.”
Here are things to know about North Carolina for the 2017 season:
DEFENSIVE CHANGES? Gene Chizik guided a needed defensive turnaround for UNC the past two seasons, but he is gone. The Tar Heels promoted linebackers coach John Papuchis — Nebraska’s former defensive coordinator — to coordinator and hired Mike Ekeler as linebackers coach. The unit could play more aggressively, but considering Papuchis arrived with Chizik before the 2015 season, don’t expect a completely new look.
“We’ve changed a few things, not too much,” linebacker Cayson Collins said. “There’s tweaks. But nothing that makes you kind of rethink everything or it makes it complicated to understand things.”
GRAD HELP: The offensive defections caused UNC to look for immediate help on the graduate transfer market. UNC brought in four: Harris (LSU), Truitt (Auburn), projected starting center Cam Dillard (Florida) and offensive lineman Khaliel Rodgers (USC).
Rodgers, however, announced last week he was quitting football in a statement posted on his Facebook page.
“He was well-liked on our football team and had already found a place within the team,” Fedora said. “So we hated to see him go.”
SEASON OPENER: After two straight neutral-site openers against Southeastern Conference opponents, North Carolina will host California on Sept. 2. The Bears were picked to finish last in the Pac-12′s North Division and have one winning season in the past five years.
KEY GAMES: The Tar Heels will get an immediate challenge with a Sept. 9 visit from cross-divisional opponent Louisville — and Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson. The rivalry game with Duke comes early this year (Sept. 23) and there are home dates with Notre Dame (Oct. 7) and Miami (Oct 28), though division games against Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh all come on the road.
PREDICTION: The Tar Heels enter 2017 on shakier ground than a year earlier, when they were preseason Coastal favorites. While they could improve steadily each week with more experience, the Tar Heels are going to have to battle just to get to six wins and secure a fifth straight bowl trip.
Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap