Tuesday, July 24, 2012

UNC football: What we learned about the Tar Heels at ACC Kickoff

CHAPEL HILL -- And we're back from Greensboro, and from the ACC's annual preseason football kickoff. As you know by now, the ACC media picked the Tar Heels to finish third in the Coastal Division, behind Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech. UNC received two first-place votes.

Lots of things came out of the ACC's media days, which were somewhat overshadowed by the NCAA's announcement of debilitating sanctions against Penn State in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child abuse case. I wrote a story you can read here about how the ACC coaches reacted to the news.

As for UNC, lots of things of interest emerged. I'll write about some of those both here and in the paper in the coming days, but first wanted to provide a recap of five things we learned about the Tar Heels during the ACC kickoff. Here goes ...

•First-year coach Larry Fedora is optimistic about how his team has grasped his new offense ...
Obviously, it's early.  We're still more than a week away from the start of preseason practice, and more than a month away from the Tar Heels' season-opener against Elon. But Fedora on Monday spoke glowingly about how the Heels have handled the transition to his up-tempo spread offense, which will utilize a no huddle approach.

Fedora has been a part of installing this offense at Middle Tennessee State, Florida, Oklahoma State and Southern Miss, and now he'll do it at UNC. He said he had the easiest time installing it at Southern Miss, where he became the head coach before the start of the 2008 season. And it was easier installing it there, he said, because he had a quarterback who "got it."

The good news, Fedora believes UNC's Bryn Renner gets it, too. And that makes him confident that the Heels can quickly grasp the new offense.

•... But the team's conditioning will have to improve
One thing was clear after UNC ended spring practice, and both Renner and linebacker Kevin Reddick spoke of it: The Tar Heels had to become better conditioned. The speed of Fedora's offense requires players to be on top shape, as does the aggressive philosophy of UNC's new 4-2-5 defense.

The man charged with improving UNC's physical condition is Lou Hernandez, the team's new strength and conditioning coach. He has his work cut out. Even though it was clear in the spring that the conditioning had to improve, UNC hadn't yet learned how to practice in the spring in Fedora's new system.

In fact, Fedora said the Tar Heels never really came close to practicing with the kind of speed with which they'll normally practice once they grasp the offense and defense. So conditioning is likely to be a never-ending point of concern in this transitory season. 

•Depth is a major concern
Ask Fedora where team depth most concerns him and he'll likely name the following positions: offensive line, receiver, running back, quarterback, defensive line, linebacker, defensive backs. The one area where he's OK with the Tar Heels depth? Tight end. He likes what UNC has there.

Every other position, though, makes Fedora nervous, and that was clear on Monday when he identified all of the above positions - with the exception of tight end - as ones where he's concerned about depth. Of course, he was likely being somewhat facetious about some of the positions. Some likely concern him a lot more than others.

Receiver could be of great concern, especially after the dismissal of Todd Harrelson. He only had made three catches in three seasons, but he would have had a chance to play a larger role had he remained on the team. Without Harrelson, three of UNC's top five receivers are sophomores, and mostly unproven.

•The culture appears to be changing
Fedora won't come out and say this, and can't come out and say this, but it seems there might have been a star system in place under former coach Butch Davis - a system in which some players worked hard and others, well, didn't.

Fedora has worked to change the culture since arriving at UNC, and his clean-slate approach - in which he has only counted what players have done since he arrived in January - has required players to rededicate themselves to the program. So far, Fedora said, he has been pleased with what he has seen. He identified defensive tackle Sylvester Williams as who has turned into a different person since Fedora arrived. Williams, Fedora said, was "fat and overweight" several months ago, and Fedora told him he needed to lose 30 pounds. So Williams did.

Fedora has also instituted some new rules to clean up the image of the team. Among those new rules: No hats indoors and no earrings. Fedora was asked about the no-hat, no-earring rule, and he said he put them in place for no other reason than he wanted to, and felt like it was the right thing to do.

•The postseason ban doesn't seem to matter ... at least for now
Fedora and his players are saying all the right things about the fact that they'll have to sit out the postseason as punishment for the misdeeds in the program that occurred under Davis' watch. UNC can still win the Coastal Division, Fedora likes to say, and the Heels can still have a memorable season.

And those things remain true, at least for now. The postseason ban won't affect motivation entering the season, but it remains to be seen how it might affect the team midway through the season, especially if the Tar Heels find themselves amid some adversity (which would be normal in a head coach's first year).

The postseason ban doesn't matter now, but might it matter if the Tar Heels are 4-4 or 5-3 with a month left to go in the regular season? We shall see ...