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North Carolina Football: 2014 Spring Practice Preview

The Tarheels have many starters returning for the 2014 season. Can they finally put together a consistent season and rise to the top of the ACC Coastal?

Jeremy Brevard-US PRESSWIRE

The Hokies’ 5th opponent of 2014 is actually Western Michigan. However, given that the Broncos completely wet themselves with a 1-11 campaign in 2013, I’m realistically focusing my efforts elsewhere. For a legitimate, comprehensive preview of the Broncos heading into 2014, check out this nifty piece by SBNation’s Bill Connelly.

As it is…

We continue our "Behind Enemy Lines" series by taking a look at our sixth opponent—and second ACC opponent—for 2014: the North Carolina Tar Heels.

From the "What Had Happened Was" File:

Overview North Carolina finished the 2013 season at 7-6 with a 4-4 record in the ACC, which was good enough for 5th in the Coastal Division—one game behind the VT/Miami/GT logjam.

vs. the Hokies Logan Thomas put together another strong outing, going 19 of 28 for 293 yards and—for the second straight game—zero interceptions. Willie Byrn became the first Hokie receiver of the season to top the 100 yard mark, finishing with 123 on 4 catches, 83 of which came on a gutsy second quarter deep pass call from Scot Loeffler when the Hokies were in the shadow of their own goal line. Oh, and just for the sake of mentioning it, Cody Journell continued his streak of disaster, having an extra point blocked.

Losses South Carolina (27-10), Georgia Tech (28-20), East Carolina (55-31), Virginia Tech (27-17), Miami (27-23), Duke (27-25)

Signature Win UNC didn’t really have an impressive win in 2013. They beat the ACC’s terrible teams and lost to the mediocre ones. Sadly, the Heels could have easily been 10-3, but they couldn’t get out of their own way.

Postseason The Heels beat Cincinnati 39-17 in the 2013 Belk Bowl.

From the "Rebuilding or Reloading?" File:

The Tarheels return seven offensive starters, three on the offensive line. However, the two vacancies that need to be filled are at the two most critical spots on the offensive line: left tackle and center.

The left tackle spot was previously manned by James Hurst, a 2013 All-ACC first-teamer who unfortunately suffered a broken leg in the Belk Bowl and was unable to compete in the Senior Bowl or the NFL Combine.

The opening at center was certainly unexpected. It was a bit of a headscratcher when Center Russell Bodine declared for the NFL Draft. As SBNation’s Brian Barbour puts it in this nifty article:

"This is a bit of a surprise since there was nothing about Bodine's play this season that screamed high NFL Draft pick. On the season UNC's offensive line gave up 21 sacks while the running game struggled and holding calls were far too frequent. Whatever the case, Bodine clearly feels he is ready and hopefully it works out for him.

Bodine's departure does put some strain on the offensive line depth for 2014 with James Hurst also leaving via graduation. The incoming recruiting class has three linemen with #12 OT Bentley Spain(who is enrolling early), #29 OG Josh Allen and the #38 OT Caleb Samuel."

Of the potential replacements mentioned by Barbour, Bentley Spain (6-6, 275), out of Charlotte, NC’s Providence High is the most highly-regarded. 247Sports rated him a 4* prospect, ranked him the #8 offensive tackle in the country, and listed him as #104 in their national Top247. Josh Allen (6-3, 285), out of Jacksonville, FL’s University Christian was rated a 3* prospect and ranked the #20 offensive guard, and Caleb Samuel (6-5, 260), out of Macon GA’s Presbyterian Day School, another 4* prospect, was ranked the #20 tackle and came in at #220 in the Top247.

Though Spain is certainly expected to seriously contend for the left tackle position, the most likely scenario is that both replacements will come from the ranks of the veterans. Sophomore Tackle Jon Heck (6-6, 300) will be Spain’s primary competition for Hurst’s vacancy. To replace Bodine, sophomore Guard Caleb Peterson (6-5, 300) may slide over to center, or the answer may be a former Hokie recruiting target who committed to UNC under suspiciously coincidental circumstances, Jr. Guard Landon Turner. (You can read all about him and more former VT targets at this previous article of mine.)

From the "Wait, What?" File

With Quarterback Bryn Renner having exhausted his eligibility, one would reasonably assume that the man he was in a rather interesting timeshare with the past couple of seasons, Jr. Marquise Williams (6-2, 215) would finally get the opportunity to settle into the starting role and be "The Man" without having to look over his shoulder.

Apparently not.

With the arrival of a new offensive coordinator (Whoops, just spoiled a Question Mark for you. More to come.), the new guy has apparently decided he wants to size up and weigh all of his options this spring. Sophomore Kanler Coker (6-4, 215) out of Flowery Branch, GA is a contender, as is r-Fr. Mitch Trubisky (6-3, 210) out of Mentor, OH. Trubisky is an interesting option, as he was ranked the #1 dual-threat quarterback (4*) in the class of 2013, and named #79 in the Top247. He chose UNC over offers from Alabama, Cincinnati, Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern, Ohio State, and Tennessee, among others. If he is that much better than Williams, or if the staff has decided Trubisky is the future of the Tarheels, they may bump Williams for him, particularly if Larry Fedora senses he is at all in danger of being axed.

Can’t say I saw that one coming.

Two Biggest Question Marks for 2014

Complete Offensive Makeover in Chapel Hill?

With previous offensive coordinator Blake Anderson having bolted for the top spot at Arkansas State, enter Seth Littrell. Littrell had been the offensive coordinator at Indiana since 2012, and is a proponent of the Air Raid offense, having played at Oklahoma under madman Mike Leach. In 2013, Indiana ranked #9 nationally in offensive yards per game (Indiana!?!?). For comparison’s sake, North Carolina was #49, Virginia Tech #101, the SEC champion Auburn Tigers were #11, and National Champion Florida State was #6. Impressively, the Hoosiers also ranked #16 in scoring in 2013, averaging 38.4 points per game—one slot better than national power and media darling Alabama.

There’s no realistic reason to assume Littrell will completely change his ways in Chapel Hill. Rather, if he can rack up yards in Bloomington, he’s certain to have more success at UNC with better athletes to run his system. Anderson ran a spread offense in Chapel Hill, so the personnel is certainly in place. However, expect a higher percentage of pass in 2014. Assuming he is named the starter, Marquise Williams is certainly capable and the Heels have some nice-looking young receivers in place, notably sophomore speedster Mike Switzer.

Way Too Early Prediction:

If UNC can pull it all together in spring and summer drills, they could break out offensively in 2014. I like VT’s chances playing against the pass; however if there’s one weakness the LPD displayed last season, it was containing mobile quarterbacks (see: Boone, Anthony and Cato, Raheem). Littrell would be a fool to restrict Williams from using his legs, and I don’t believe he will. This could be a fun matchup to watch when the Hokies travel to Kenan Stadium in early October.

Has the UNC Defense Found the Right Meds?

In 2013, the Tarheel defense was quite bipolar. UNC began the season 1-5. The lowest point total they allowed during that time was 20, and that was to Middle Tennessee State. Aside from that game, they gave up 27 to South Carolina, 28 to Georgia Tech, 55 (?!) to East Carolina, 27 to the Hokies, and 27 to Miami, and allowed more than 550 yards of offense twice: to East Carolina and Miami. However, once the Tarheels hit the soft part of their schedule, the narrative changed. For the rest of the season, the most points they allowed in a game was 27, both in a win over Pitt and in their regular season finale loss to Duke. The highest yardage total in a game also came in UNC’s two-point loss to Duke (461).

Was this a case of the schedule influencing the stat line? Perhaps. No doubt, the Heels played their toughest opponents early, but the turnaround may also have something to do with the defense benefitting from the increased playing time given to QB Marquise Williams, and the increased offensive production that resulted. Perhaps the unit is finally settling into the scheme change that happened around the time Butch Davis was dethroned in Chapel Hill. Either way, the unit has certainly shown that it is, at best, inconsistent.

It’s hard to play your best football early in the season, and UNC was asked to do that in 2013. This season, however, is a different story. They open with Liberty and San Diego State, then have a bye week to prepare to go into Dowdy-Ficklen and tackle ECU. Their schedule then gets brutal: at Clemson, the Hokies at home, at South Bend to face Notre Dame, Georgia Tech at home. They then travel to Charlottesville before heading to Miami. If they survive, they then reach their second bye before finishing up by hosting Pitt, visiting Duke on Thursday night, and wrapping up the season by hosting NC State. With that midseason stretch, no doubt that defense will be tested.

Way Too Early Prediction:

I’m not expecting too much different from the Tarheels’ defense. I expect them to play well against bad teams and struggle against good ones. The only question is: which teams on their schedule are actually going to be good in 2014? I see them winning worst scenario: 7 games, best scenario: 10.

The Final Word—Fun Fact Edition

With an early completion in the 2013 game vs. UNC, Logan Thomas moved past his predecessor Tyrod Taylor on Virginia Tech’s career passing list. He finished his Hokie career with 9,003 passing yards—nearly 2,000 ahead of Taylor.