A year of transition—that’s certainly the story line of the Tar Heel football program going from two years of 19 wins and an ACC Coastal Division title to one looking at significant personnel losses to gradation and NFL defections.
The first week of spring practice in early March was noted with the contrast of the Tar Heels watching from afar as seven of their 2016 teammates participated in the NFL Combine in Indianapolis while the coaching staff began rebuilding a team facing the loss of 12 starters plus kicking specialist Nick Weiler.
“Having all those guys at the Combine gives the younger guys inspiration of where we want to get to next year and years after that,” said senior cornerback M.J. Stewart.
“It’s great for recruiting for kids to see all of our guys getting that opportunity,” offensive coordinator and line coach Chris Kapilovic added. “We’ve had a lot of fun with Twitter and those kind of things, getting our name out there and building our brand.”
Then it was back to work, serious work.
“We’re going to be a very young football team this year,” Larry Fedora says. “But we’ve got a lot of talented young guys. We’ve challenged them in the off-season and during the spring that they’ve got to grow up. Their time is now.”
The sixth Carolina team that Fedora will field will certainly be different in one major respect from his first five—the defense is ahead of the offense coming out of spring.
Carolina lost dependable and durable defensive end Mikey Bart and defensive backs Dominquie Green and Des Lawrence, and junior Nazair Jones opted for an early departure to the NFL. But still, three years of good recruiting has restocked the defensive line to standards closer to what the program was accustomed to during periods of acquiring the “D-Line U” moniker 20 years ago.
“I think the D-line could be the strength of our team,” Fedora says. “We’ve been very young there as long as I’ve been here. But I have very high expectations for that group this year.”
Tackles Aaron Crawford and Jeremiah Clarke missed spring ball with surgery recoveries, but that allowed Jalen Dalton and converted end Jason Strowbridge to play extensively. Marlon Dunlap, who played as a freshman last year, missed some time with an injury but participated in the spring game. The second team was manned by a pair of impressive January enrollees—Jordon Riley and Xach Gill.
Tyler Powell and Malik Carney are the first-team ends, with senior Dajaun Drennon, who’s been injury-plagued throughout his career, waiting in the wings. One key element to the puzzle will be freshman Tomon Fox, who played briefly early in 2016 before suffering a season-ending injury. Fox brings a level of speed to the edge Carolina hasn’t had recently.
“I think we’re going to have excellent depth inside when Crawford and Clarke come back,” says Deke Adams, the defensive line coach. “Our first team has done a nice job putting pressure on the quarterback. As a group, we’ve worked hard on technique and we’ve worked hard on developing the proper mindset. I want our guys to be aggressive in shedding blocks and making plays. Don’t just fit your gap. Destroy the block and go find the ball.”
The offense could benefit from the addition of four graduate transfers, three of them official as of the first week in April. Stanton Truitt comes from Auburn and is a key addition at tailback given the departures of T.J. Logan, Elijah Hood and Khris Francis. Two more will join the offensive line—Cam Dillard played three years at Florida and will play center, and Khaliel Rodgers comes from USC and will play guard.
A quarterback from LSU has announced his intentions to come but cannot be official until he signs his scholarship agreement in May.
Three young scholarship quarterbacks and one walk-on competed for the No. 1 job following the unexpected departure of Mitch Trubisky to the NFL. Sophomore Nathan Elliott and freshmen Chazz Surratt and Logan Byrd each showed sparks at various points during spring. Surratt opened some eyes with his running ability and knack for turning potential sacks into busted-play gains in one scrimmage, but Elliott showed a nice throwing touch in the Blue-White Game by connecting on 8-of-12 throws for 213 yards and three touchdowns.
“Nobody has separated themselves,” Fedora says. “We’ve got four guys that are competing for the job right now. I think all four have made good progress. I don’t think that any one of them is ready to go for us at this point. But, through all of the work over the summer and work through fall camp, we’ll have somebody ready to play and to lead this team.”
January enrollee Michael Carter was impressive this spring. He’ll be joined by Truitt, who missed the spring game with an injury, and by incoming freshman Antwuan Branch, a big back at 215 pounds who’ll give the offense some girth up the middle.