The following is an article from November 28, just after the 2017 football season ended. It has been updated to reflect the early National Signing Day Class from December 20, when 14 new Tar Heels joined the fold. Updates are in italics.
There is playing time available. That’s what Larry Fedora and his staff have to sell as they hit the recruiting trail to put together the Class of 2018. After a 3-9 season, of course, nothing is certain on the depth chart, but with the graduations of 14 players on the offense/defense two-deep, there are spots aplenty.
Obviously, Fedora and co. will bring in players who are eager to see the field, and some true freshmen could very well fill these spots. For now, however, we don’t really know who they’ll be. Let’s take a look at some particular areas of need.
Carolina used three seniors and two graduate students in the rotation on the offensive line this season. The biggest loss is left tackle Bentley Spain, who has been entrenched here since his sophomore season. With 11 career starts under his belt, including two this season at left tackle, Charlie Heck would appear to be the natural candidate to slide in here. However, he’ll be pushed, however, by William Sweet, who missed much of 2017 due to injury and started at right tackle when Heck stepped in for Spain. It may indeed be Sweet at left tackle and Heck at right after all is said and done.
At center, Jay-Jay McCargo did a nice job stepping in for Cam Dillard on occasion this season. And Nick Polino started at left guard early in the season, as Khaliel Rodgers missed time after walking away from football for a time. R.J. Prince will be tough to replace at right guard. There’s real opportunity there for someone to step forward.
Carolina added just one offensive lineman on early signing day, 6'4 Avery Jones out of Havelock. Considered among the top linemen in the country, Jones played left tackle and defensive tackle for the Rams. Coach Chris Kapilovic likes to give young players an opportunity to grow up a little on the offensive line, so a redshirt isn't out of the question, but if Jones can prove his mettle in camp, he could push Mason Veal at right tackle.
Austin Proehl, Jordan Cunningham, Josh Cabrera, Thomas Jackson* and Devin Perry all depart. That’s a raft of wideout production, but the Tar Heels also lost a lot last year, and Perry, Cabrera and Cunningham were among the players who stepped in to produce. Anthony Ratliff-Williams returns, and he’s got to be Preseason All-ACC next year. And postseason, if he makes another leap like he did from 2016 to 17. Beau Corrales came through in the clutch for the Heels, Dazz Newsome could be dynamic if he’s as good catching the ball as he is carrying, Roscoe Johnson showed flashes of potential, and, if he’s healthy, Rontavious Groves could be a star.
*Word as of late December is that Jackson will likely return after receiving a medical redshirt. This is huge news for the veteran leadership both on the team as a whole, in that wide receivers meeting room, and on the field.
Incoming freshman Jordyn Adams could be the breakout player here, however. The son of Carolina defensive line coach Deke Adams, Jordyn was the subject of an intense recruiting battle and figures to see the field right away.
Adams is in, as is Charlotte's Dyami Brown. Both are 6'1, 180 pounds, both prized at their position. Brown is comfortable out wide, in the slot and running from the backfield. He too could break out, having an impact similar to Newsome's. Adams will be a star, period.
Cayson Collins was the best young player on a bad defense in his freshman season in 2014, took time to adjust to a new defense in 2015, made the play of the season in 2016 and was a solid leader in 2017. Carolina will miss his leadership even more than his production. Andre Smith will be a senior leader who can produce for the Heels from the middle. He may finally be able to play alongside Jonathan Smith next season, which would be nice. Cole Holcomb is a solid player as well and he should only be better as a senior.
There’s playing time available on the weak side, however. Maybe that’s where Jonathan Smith goes. Smith himself is high on Malik Robinson, and redshirt freshman Kayne Roberts drew raves in training camp prior to the season.
Carolina adds Kyle Wright, a 6'1, 220-pound LB from South Carolina. He was top ten in that state, so getting him to Chapel Hill is a coup. He'll be young next season, but Mike Ekeler wants impact players. If Wright can tackle in the open field, he'll find a way onto the depth chart.
The youth has played well at defensive back of late, though the Tar Heels must replace M.J. Stewart and Donnie Miles, two leaders who played throughout their careers. Myles Dorn and J.K. Britt are solid at safety, Maybe Myles Wolfolk, who had a nice redshirt freshman year, becomes a full-timer at corner and nickelback.
Cornerback Trey Morrison and safeties Bryson Richardson and Javon Terry join the DBs room for coach Terry Joseph. Perhaps one or three of them can push K.J. Sails, who certainly got excited about some plays he made in 2017. The incoming trio will get plenty of reps in practice and perhaps make waves on special teams as well, even if they don't see the field too often on defense early in their careers.
In our original article, we didn't talk about defensive line, quarterback and running back, as those position groups return more experience than the ones listed above. But let's run them down quickly.
Quarterback: Logan Byrd has transferred out, as it's clear that this is a two-man battle between Nathan Elliott and Chazz Surratt. Both showed periods of good game management, but by the end of the season, it was Elliott in charge. This seems to be a case of flash vs. substance, and Elliott was the less volatile, low-risk candidate late last fall. Surratt seems to have the higher ceiling, but also the higher potential for turnovers. So this is a battle to watch, particularly if both are on campus next fall. (I don't expect one of them to transfer, but I also wouldn't be shocked. If the coaching staff appears to be leaning one way and the other guy believes he should be a starter somewhere). Carolina adds Cade Fortin and Jace Ruder to the QB room. Fortin is a pro-style QB and Ruder more of a dual-threat guy. So, how do you want to play? It's worth watching to see which direction the Tar Heels go next fall to get a sense of which of these two might be primed for success.
Running back: Devon Lawrence is a stud out of Wake Forest. Just looking at film, I'd say he's more like a Michael Carter, with a ton of potential, particularly if he can add some upper-body strength. Javonte Williams is a four-year state champion at Wallace-Rose Hill and the 2017 state title game MVP. Each of these guys could be impactful, though I wouldn't expect both of them get a ton of carries as freshmen. Maybe one guy comes in on special packages, but it'll be tough to crack the Carter/Jordon Brown tandem for regular touches.
Defensive line: Three more join the folks, with Jahlil Taylor, Chris Collins and Lancine Turay coming to Chapel Hill. This is a position group that does have depth and experience, and I expect these guys will have plenty of practice reps to get stronger and faster for the years beyond 2018.
There’s playing time available, and the spring and next summer will feature several position battles, including at quarterback, which we’ll get to later. But high school players considering the Tar Heels ought to know that if they’re good enough, they can see the field early in their careers. The 2017 season was not a good one in the win-loss column, but there’s plenty to build on.