North Carolina lost nearly every offensive contributor from 2016 but they do welcome a slew of immediate-impact transfers and have a defense laced with playmakers that could allow them to contend for the division title in the wide-open Coastal Division.
This season will be a huge test for sixth-year head coach Larry Fedora.
North Carolina followed up their 11-win 2015 season with eight more wins in 2016, giving them their highest two-year total since 1996-97.
However, the season was more about what didn't happen. A oft-stagnant run game, poor rush defense and four close losses kept them from reaching 10 victories again. They lost to Georgia, Duke, North Carolina State and Stanford by a combined 19 points.
Head Coach: Larry Fedora (6th year, 40-25 overall)
Larry Fedora is the first Tar Heels' coach to win at least six games in five-straight seasons since Mack Brown did so in eight-straight seasons (1990-97). Unlike Brown after going 11-1 in 1997, Fedora remained in Chapel Hill after his own 11-win mark in 2015.
Clearly his win total will be closely watched this year and in 2018 but a huge storyline is his recruiting. They've never ranked worse than 33rd nationally and fifth in the ACC under Fedora and are chasing a potentially historic class — particularly in-state recruits — in 2018.
Key Returning Offensive Players
WR Austin Proehl, OT Bentley Spain, G R.J. Prince, G Tommy Hatton
North Carolina returns 12.7 percent of their offensive yards from last year, according to Phil Steele. That's nearly 10 percent lower than the next closest team and only above UAB, who didn't play football in 2016. They lost a staggering 99 percent of their rushing yards and 98.3 percent of their passing yards.
The usually high-flying, efficient offense looked good, not great most of the spring as they replace Mitchell Trubisky at quarterback. Austin Proehl — the son of former NFL receiver and current Carolina Panthers' assistant coach Ricky Proehl — leads a receiving group that lost Ryan Switzer and Bug Howard — who combined 149 catches for 1,939 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Proehl, a 5-foot-10, 175-pounder, earned the praise of the staff during the spring and appears to be locked in as their No. 1 target.
Senior tackle Bentley Spain, a three-year starter, anchors an offensive line that returns two other starters, including sophomore Tommy Hatton, who played well as a freshman in 2016.
Key Returning Defensive Players
DT Aaron Crawford, DE Malik Carney, DE Dajaun Drennon, LB Andre Smith, LB Cole Holcomb, CB M.J. Stewart, S Donnie Miles
Linebackers coach John Papuchis took over for Gene Chizik at defensive coordinator when Chizik resigned abruptly over the winter. The schemes and terminology will remain the same but with a back seven laced with veterans, you can expect Papuchis to take more chances in 2017.
“I like to learn and see what other defensive coaches are doing, but (I believe in) in certain core beliefs on defense, and they will not change,” he said of 3-4 and 3-3-5 schemes that are becoming increasingly popular in college football. “There might be certain concepts we experiment with, but as to the core of the defense, that will not change.”
Their three top tacklers return in linebackers Cole Holcomb and Andre Smith and safety Donnie Miles all of whom had more than 100 takedowns. They'll lead a unit focused on better gang tackling and harder hitting.
“If you draw it up on paper, someone’s always designed to make the tackle,” Smith said after a spring game that featured multiple huge hits. “But as a defense, we all have to get off our blocks and get to the ball . . . We shouldn’t have just one man making the tackle.”
Sophomore Aaron Crawford will man the inside for a line looking to improve against the rush after yielding 227 yards per game, worst in the ACC and 109th in the FBS. He'll be flanked by senior ends Malik Carney (below) — their sack leader in 2016 — and Dajaun Drennon.
“It’s not like we’re running anything new,” Drennon said. “Everything’s still the same — it’s just under a new name. Everybody feels comfortable right now.”
In addition to Donnie Miles, the secondary features a stud corner in senior M.J. Stewart. Don't let his interception numbers (zero) fool you — or the team's for that matter (one total) — the 5-foot-11, 200-pounder is one of the best cover corners in the game.
Notable Player Losses
QB Mitchell Trubisky, RB Elijah Hood, RB T.J. Logan, WR Ryan Switzer, WR Bug Howard, WR Mack Hollins, OT Jon Heck, C Lucas Crowley, DT Nazair Jones, CB Desmond Lawrence, S Dominique Green
Their offensive losses cannot be overstated. They had five offensive players selected in the 2017 NFL Draft, led by No. 2 pick Mitchell Trubisky, who dazzled in his one season as a starter.
Three of their top four receivers are also gone, as are their top two running backs. Ryan Switzer's departure will be the most talked-about at receiver but losing huge (6-foot-4, 221 pounds), explosive target Mack Hollins is also going to hurt. He averaged 20.6 yards per reception in his career. All-ACC linemen Lucas Crowley and Jon Heck also graduated.
Defensively, defensive tackle Nazair Jones left early for the NFL after a disruptive career that included 22 tackles for loss, and two defensive backs are gone in corner Desmond Lawrence and safety Dominique Green.
Notable Player Additions
QB Brandon Harris, RB Stanton Truitt, RB Michael Carter, C Cam Dillard, G Khaliel Rodgers,
North Carolina's roster was infused with a ton of former SEC player, including LSU grad transfer quarterback Brandon Harris, who is excited about increased volume.
“[Fedora] has got a number of quarterbacks who have been successful over a career. He made me feel wanted. I couldn’t pass it up,” Harris told The Advocate. “He assured me I was going to throw it more than 16 times a game and maybe even during the first quarter.”
Auburn transfer Stanton Truitt and three-star true freshman Michael Carter will take over for Logan and Hood, and two more transfer, center Cam Dillard (Florida) and guard Khaliel Rodgers (USC) will also play big roles.
North Carolina opens the season at home against Cal and their new head coach Justin Wilcox on Sept. 2, which is followed by a home date with reigning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson and Louisville.
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