CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina on Monday finished up the formal “camp” portion of the preseason. Obviously, there’s still a bit of time – nine days, to be exact – before the Tar Heels begin the season on Aug. 29 at South Carolina. And so there is some preseason remaining.
But the rest of it will be focused on preparing for the Gamecocks. UNC on Monday actually began installing its game plan for South Carolina. Before that practice, on Saturday, the Tar Heels moved out of the hotel they shared during the past three weeks.
Indeed, camp is over. But, good or bad, the work the Tar Heels accomplished in recent weeks is likely to carry on throughout the season. Here’s a look at some things we learned from UNC’s preseason camp …
1. The defense will remain a work in progress. Vic Koenning, the UNC defensive coordinator, might refer to this as a “MOTO” statement. That stands for master of the obvious. Koenning broke that out after a practice one day not long ago, and I found it humorous. But as obvious as it might be that the Tar Heels’ defense will be a work in progress, it’s probably fair to say this was a more difficult-than-expected preseason for the defense.
It was already going to be challenging, trying to replace the production and leadership from departed seniors Sylvester Williams and Kevin Reddick. A rash of injuries throughout the preseason, though, have made things even more difficult. Shakeel Rashad and Sam Smiley, two potential starters, were lost for the season less than a week into camp. Injuries routinely kept other players out of practice.
Even linebacker, where UNC thought it had plenty of depth, hasn’t been immune. The starters or set there, and coach Larry Fedora recently praised the job Travis Hughes did throughout the preseason, but injuries have made depth a concern entering the season. The numbers situation was so dire in recent weeks thatJack Tabb, the tight end, worked at linebacker. And Damien Washington, a former receiver, was moved to safety.
There’s been constant movement on the defense throughout the preseason. Hardly any position has been immune. Questions surrounded this unit entering the preseason, and those questions have only intensified during recent weeks, when injuries piled up at an uncanny pace. The good news is that outside of Williams and Reddick, the defense returned lots of experience.
But the bad news? Who knows how injuries and attrition and the constant movement will affect UNC.
2. Outside of right tackle, the offensive line has come together well. Entering the preseason, no position group on offense faced more uncertainty than the offensive line. It lost three starters from last season, and all three were selected in the NFL draft. Among those draft picks wasJonathan Cooper, the left guard who was perhaps the best lineman in school history.
Amid all the losses, it was fair to wonder how the line would come together. The answer: Nicely – with the exception of one position. Caleb Peterson, a redshirt freshman, has impressed enough throughout the preseason that neither Fedora nor offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic seem all that concerned about him filling the void left by Cooper. At right guard, Landon Turner, a sophomore who started the final four games of last season in place of the injured Brennan Williams, has played well.
Peterson and Turner join senior left tackle James Hurst and junior center Russell Bodine, two All-ACC candidates. From left tackle to right guard, the Tar Heels’ line has the potential to be among the best in the conference. Right tackle, though, remains a concern – as I wrote about in a story here.
The good news for UNC, at least, is that the right tackle position isn’t without talent. Jon Heck, the son of an NFL offensive line coach, is a cerebral, technically-sound player who would start at right tackle if the season started today. Kiaro Holts, whom coaches were hoping would seize control of the position, is a former highly-recruited prospect who has been beset by injuries, but whose talent has never been a question. Nick Appel and John Ferranto have played well enough in the preseason, too, to receive first-team reps at right tackle.
UNC is still seeking clarity at the position, which is important for the sake of the line’s consistency and continuity. Overall, though, the line has made a relatively smooth transition after losing three NFL players.
3. The offense shouldn’t lack for playmakers. Much has been said, and written, about Eric Ebron, the UNC tight end who must catch at least 12 touchdown passes to meet Fedora’s expectations. Ebron, Fedora and his staff believes, has the talent to be a future first-round NFL draft pick, and it’d be difficult to find a more physically-able tight end in the nation. He should have a big year.
The Tar Heels’ offense, though, doesn’t lack for explosiveness and playmaking ability. Among the players that Fedora spoke most often about during the preseason were two freshmen: Ryan Switzer and Jonathan Howard, who is often referred to by his nickname, “Bug.”
Switzer and Howard are both receivers but they couldn’t be much more opposite, physically. Switzer, a Parade All-American from West Virginia, is listed at 5-foot-10 but that might be a slight exaggeration. Howard, from Georgia, is 6-foot-4. Both made various high school All-American teams, and both arrived at UNC in part thanks to the allure of playing in Fedora’s up-tempo, wide-open spread offense.
And both, it seems, will have a chance to contribute immediate. Switzer, in fact, practiced with the first team throughout much of the preseason. He has the makings to be a dangerous slot receiver. Howard, meanwhile, is similar physically to sophomore Quinshad Davis, who caught 61 passes last season.
Depth at receiver was a constant issue last season, but it shouldn’t be this season. Davis, Fedora said, will have a chance to catch 100 passes. The freshmen should contribute. Sean Tapley, a junior receiver, has had a productive preseason, Fedora said.
The numbers are good at running back, too, with returnees Romar Morris and A.J. Blue, and freshmanKhris Francis and T.J. Logan. It’d make sense if one of either Francis or Logan redshirted, but both have played well throughout the preseason, and both stand a good chance to contribute. Plus, Blue has been banged up throughout the preseason, and if those injuries persist UNC might want to use both Francis and Logan.
So those are the three things we learned …
Some things we didn’t learn:
--Who’s the backup quarterback? Marquise Williams and Mitch Trubisky spent the preseason going back and forth. My guess: Williams would replace Bryn Renner in short-term situations, or if an injury happened late in the season. If for some reason Renner can’t play for an extended time early on, though, Trubisky just might be the guy.
--Will the secondary be better? This is a unit that was at times scorched last season. Everybody is back, but we won’t know if that’s really a good thing or not until we get into the season. Tre Boston, the preseason All-ACC safety, said earlier this week he has worked on not gambling as much, and remaining disciplined in his coverage.
--What relative unknown on defense is best-suited to emerge as a key player? We know about Boston, Hughes, Kareem Martin and Tim Jackson. But for this defense to reach its potential, it’s going to take someone coming out of nowhere, relatively, and becoming a really good player. I’d go with Norkeithus Otis, the bandit. Strong preseason.
- Andrew Carter
Read more here: http://blogs.newsobserver.com/uncnow/unc-football-concludes-camp-what-we-learned#storylink=cpy
David Scott has been with the Observer for 28 years and has written about ACC, SEC and other college sports in the Charlotte region. He covers Wake Forest, South Carolina and college soccer for the Observer and (Raleigh) News & Observer.
J.P. Giglio covers the ACC for the News & Observer, where he has worked since 1997, and the Observer.
Andrew Carter covers the North Carolina Tar Heels for the Observer and News & Observer.
Laura Keeley covers the Duke Blue Devils for the Observer and News & Observer. Follow her on Twitter.
Chip Alexander covers the Carolina Hurricanes and college football for the News & Observer, where he has worked since 1979, and the Observer.
Luke DeCock has worked for The News & Observer since 2000. He covered the Carolina Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a sports columnist for the Observer and News & Observer in August 2008.