Carolina's football team is just two weeks away from opening 2017 training camp. When the University of California Bears come to Kenan Stadium on Sept. 2 for a 12:20 kick-off, Coach Larry Fedora's team will have a personality in marked contrast to the template Fedora has established in his five years at Carolina.
For once, Fedora's prolific offense is surrounded by a myriad of questions following wholesale graduation and NFL defection losses off the 2016 team.
It's the defense, anchored by a two-deep roster of veterans along the front line, that will be expected to provide the ballast.
“I've never in all my years, and I think it's around 18 years of running this offense, I've never experienced this,” Fedora says. “It's a little bit unknown for me. We're going to find out. I think our staff has done a good job of recruiting. I think there's a lot of guys, you may recognize their name from recruiting, but you've never seen them on the field. It's time for them to step up. It's time for them. It's their opportunity to become a household name.”
The offense is without a trio of receivers and three O-line starters as well as tailback T.J. Logan, all lost to graduation. Add QB Mitch Trubisky and TB Elijah Hood going pro a year early and you have significant depth problems on offense.
“We've lost quite a bit of production on the offensive side of the ball, so our defense this year, especially early on, with having the most experience, is going to have to carry us while these young guys on offense grow up a little bit,” Fedora says.
The Tar Heels have a handful of veterans on defense, and even though they lost two-year coordinator Gene Chizik to retirement, the elevation of John Papuchis maintains some continuity with the system that has helped stabilize one side of the ball that was woefully inept in 2014-15.
“You can expect a lot of swagger,” senior cornerback M.J. Stewart says. “I think we're a fast defense. We're probably the fastest we've been. We're going to get some hands on the ball and get some interceptions.”
Chizik was purposely somewhat “vanilla” in structuring the defense, for one reason because he felt the offense would score enough points in most games and because his base philosophy was to try to pressure the quarterback with the defensive front. Look to see Papuchis take more chances—for one reason because the defense has more established players.
“We were able to expand the defense,” Fedora says. “We're able to do more. We were more basic with what we did the past two years. Now those guys understand the base. Now it's J.P. being able to expand it to do more so that we have more tackles for loss, more sacks, all of those things. He added things to the package that our defense was able to handle.”
Carolina has four graduate transfers on the roster—QB Brandon Harris from LSU, tailback Stanton Truitt from Auburn, center Cam Dillard from Florida and G/T Khaliel Rodgers from Southern Cal. Their athletic ability and skill is one thing; how they mesh with their new teammates will be another.
“I think the great thing about our O-line is that we're a group of guys that really isn't competitive with each other,” senior tackle Bentley Spain says. “We just want each other to do well and be a successful unit. We've welcomed these guys with open arms and we're excited to have them, and all it does it build more depth on our O-line, which is always a plus.”
Tar Heel Lettermen are invited to get their first look at the squad during a Sunday morning practice and scrimmage on Aug. 13. Start time is 9:15 a.m. in Kenan Stadium. The Tar Heels will be practicing throughout the coming year in the stadium as construction is underway on a new Indoor Practice Facility on the site of Navy Field.