photos courtesy UNC Athletic Communications
The North Carolina football roster is in flux -- that much is clear.
Heading into next season, UNC will need to replace 12 starters from 2016, adjust to a new defensive coordinator and replicate the production of the No. 2 pick in April's NFL draft.
But the Tar Heels aren't without talent. Sure, they have star cornerback M.J. Stewart, versatile offensive lineman Bentley Spain and sure-handed receiver Austin Proehl all returning to the fold as seniors. But some new faces will need to step up to avoid the first losing season under head coach Larry Fedora.
Here are five under-the-radar players to watch once they report Tuesday to UNC's training camp.
1) Myles Dorn, S
While senior safety Donnie Miles is the elder statesmen of the position group, it’s sophomore Myles Dorn whose name has the most preseason buzz.
Dorn saw time in all 13 games last season, but he only amassed 32 tackles playing behind Miles and now-departed Dominquie Green. At 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, Dorn has the ideal size to slide into the spot vacated by Green, and the sophomore was the first name that star cornerback M.J. Stewart’s thought of among players he’s been impressed by during workouts.
“He’s just an animal,” Stewart said at July’s ACC Kickoff in Charlotte. “He’s a savage on the field.”
Last year, the hard-hitting Miles and roving Green played off each other in the secondary. But Fedora sees Dorn as somebody who can excel in both areas.
“Myles should really have a huge year for us …” Fedora said. “He had a great spring, and we really look for him to take off this year.”
2) Thomas Jackson, WR
It’s an open secret that North Carolina’s offense returns only one (Austin Proehl) of its top six pass-catchers from a season ago. Thomas Jackson is the seventh.
The former walk-on was a relative unknown until Week 5, when he took a Mitch Trubisky pass 34 yards down the left sideline against Florida State to take a late lead. It would have been the game-winning score if not for Seminole quarterback Deondre Francois’ red-zone scamper -- and, of course, the Nick Weiler kick.
Jackson only caught eight passes after that Florida State game, but three of them went for touchdowns. He doesn’t have ideal size at 5-foot-11, 200 pounds, but the Charlotte native could be a reliable safety valve for whoever takes snaps for UNC next season.
"He's gonna be huge for us this season. I can't wait to see what he does ..." Proehl said. "Our fans deserve to know who he is."
3) Cole Holcomb, LB
Cole Holcomb is probably overqualified to be on this list, as he led UNC with 115 tackles last season and is a sure starter for the second straight year. But he became the talk of the town over the offseason.
It started when the former walk-on landed at No. 37 on Sports Illustrated’s “Workout Warriors” list in July. Since then, there’s been a flood of hype for the 6-foot-1, 225-pound linebacker heading into his junior season. Stewart says it’s deserved for Holcomb, who last year made the little plays but struggled to fully break through.
“I think this year is his coming-out party,” Stewart said. “I think this year, he’ll make those spectacular plays and get a little bit more notoriety.”
4) Brandon Fritts, TE
If you ask Proehl, tight end Brandon Fritts is one of the country's top tight ends.
It's high praise for a player who only registered six catches for 59 yards and a touchdown last season, as injuries and the emergence of fellow tight end Carl Tucker limited his opportunities. But with Trubisky -- his high school teammate in Mentor, Ohio -- gone to the NFL, the 6-foot-4, 250-pound junior could be a nice security blanket for the Tar Heels’ new quarterback.
"He works his butt off,” Proehl said of Fritts, who's on the Mackey Award preseason watch list. “He runs routes every opportunity he gets, he works out extra, works his butt off in the weight room, works his butt off out here pushing sleds …
“He deserves recognition and credit for everything he's doing."
5) Aaron Crawford, DT
Move over, Jalen Dalton; there’s a new up-and-comer at defensive tackle.
For two seasons, Dalton -- the No. 2 recruit in North Carolina in the Class of 2015 -- has been a prime candidate for a breakout campaign. But in 2016, former three-star recruit Aaron Crawford emerged as the most reliable option in the trenches.
Now, with Nazair Jones gone to the NFL, Crawford could serve as an anchor of the defensive line alongside junior defensive end Malik Carney. Stewart says the 6-foot-1, 310-pound Crawford’s wrestling background makes him an ideal fit inside.
“Aaron reminds me kind of like a fierce bulldog,” Stewart said. “He's a guy who brings it all the time and he's so strong, and … he has that balance and that stability that allows him to make plays.”