After an 8-5 record, the graduation of some record-setting players, and a few early departures to the NFL draft, the North Carolina football team heads into training camp this week with some uncertainty.
While the defense remains fairly intact -- nine of 11 starters returning -- the offense has a slew of position battles ahead.
“In all my years -- I think it's around 18 years of running this offense -- I've never experienced this,” head coach Larry Fedora said at July’s ACC Kickoff in Charlotte.
With all the ambiguity leading into the season, here are five training camp questions that UNC hopes to answer between today and Sept. 2, when the Tar Heels host California in their season opener.
1) Who’s at quarterback?
Over the last decade, UNC has had the privilege of walking on stable ground at the quarterback position. It started with T.J. Yates in 2007, then to Bryn Renner, who groomed Marquise Williams, who in turn showed Mitchell Trubisky the ropes.
While the occasional position battle came up between eventual starter and understudy (think Williams/Trubisky in 2015), the Tar Heels have yet to find themselves with a question mark under center.
Until now. This season, Fedora and his staff are tasked with finding their guy -- and getting him up to speed with the offense in a matter of weeks.
The only returning player with game action is sophomore Nathan Elliott. He completed 8-of-9 passes a year ago, and he’ll be given a long look as UNC heads into training camp this August.
Redshirt freshman Logan Byrd has a chance to earn the spot, as well. He’s a pro-style quarterback with physical skills that can’t be taught. Byrd is listed a 6-foot-3, 230 pounds with arm strength that helped him climb to the tenth ranked pocket passer in his class. He’ll be in the thick of the QB battle in August with Elliott.
Fellow redshirt freshman Chazz Surratt will also get a crack at the starting spot. Surratt is one of the most decorated athletes in North Carolina high school history, but how his game will translate to the next level remains to be seen.
The last option, and perhaps the most likely, is graduate transfer Brandon Harris. The former LSU signal caller was highly touted out of high school and received offers from a slew of the nation's top football programs, UNC included. After a decent 2014 season and a serviceable 2015 performance -- 12 games, 2,165 yards and 13 touchdowns -- Harris’ production fell off in 2016.
After underperforming in the first two games of the season against Wisconsin and Jacksonville State, Harris didn’t see the field again for LSU. So he transferred to UNC this offseason, where he wasn’t eligible to participate in practices with the offense until August because of transfer rules.
Now, he hits the practice field for UNC as a career 53.9 percent passer, a number that’s dogged him all offseason. While he’s the most likely candidate, he’s certainly no lock for the job.
2) What's left at the skill positions?
Along with quarterback, the offensive skill positions are also depleted. UNC lost its top two rushers (Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan) and its top three receivers (Ryan Switzer, Bug Howard and Mack Hollins) from a season ago.
To put the loss in perspective, look back at the James Madison game in 2016. Trubisky had seven completions over 20 yards (75, 71, 46, 31, 23, 23 and 21) to five different receivers. Only one of them -- senior Austin Proehl -- is still with the team.
In total, only 12.7 percent of the offense returns from 2016, and replacing it will be no easy task. But Fedora does have options.
Jordon Brown is the likely candidate to spearhead the rushing attack, flanked by freshman phenom Michael Carter, who rushed for 331 yards and seven touchdowns in a single game for Navarre high school last fall. On the receiving end, Proehl and Thomas Jackson are the only players returning with at least 17 receptions in 2016. Two other returnees, tight ends Brandon Fritts and Carl Tucker, figure to be in the mix.
Both senior Jordan Cunningham and sophomore Anthony Ratliff-Williams were serviceable in limited time a year ago, but Fedora spoke highly of sophomore receiver Juval Mollette at ACC Kickoff.
In the spring game, Mollette had seven catches for 100 yards and three scores. He has the size (6-foot-4, 200 pounds) that UNC lacks in its other options, and Fedora hinted at using some of the big guys on the outside.
3) Can the offensive line carry the weight?
While the offensive skill positions may be depleted, the offensive line should be the backbone for the Tar Heels as they attempt to find their offensive identity. But can they hold up all the weight?
They’re off to a good start with returning starters Bentley Spain and R.J. Prince. The duo combined to miss just one game in 2016, and they helped bolster an offensive line that allowed only 20 sacks on the season.
Also returning is Tommy Hatton, a high-upside blocker who really showed what he could do early on last season. His breakout game came against Virginia, when he earned ACC Offensive Lineman and Rookie of the Week. He has potential to be a key piece on the UNC line.
Still, if the Tar Heels’ offensive line hopes to improve from a year ago, it’ll be up to newcomers Cam Dillard of Florida and Khaliel Rodgers of USC to step up.
“We just want each other to do well and be a successful unit,” Spain said. “We've welcomed these guys with open arms, and we're excited to have them.”
The transfers will help bolster a line that looks to improve on an already impressive 20 sacks allowed in 2016. With all the new personnel on offense, any extra time the offensive line can provide will be welcomed.
4) Who's the new guy on defense?
Following Gene Chizik’s decision to step down as the defensive coordinator, UNC finds itself with a bit of a question mark on its strongest side of the ball.
The defensive personnel projects to be a strength for the 2017 Tar Heels. With nine of 11 starters returning, it shouldn’t be difficult for UNC to improve on a defense that ranked 63rd nationally with 408.1 yards allowed per game.
“Our defense this year is going to … have to carry us while these young guys on offense grow up a little bit,” Fedora said.
However, it won’t be as easy for the returning starters to learn and get behind a new system.
Luckily for the Tar Heel defense, new defensive coordinator John Papuchis isn’t new to Chapel Hill. He has been the linebackers coach since 2015, and now he’ll get a chance to show what he is capable of as the defensive coordinator.
“It's been a really smooth transition,” senior cornerback M.J. Stewart said. “Coach J.P. was there last year, so all the guys respect him.”
This is Papuchis’ second stint as a defensive coordinator after manning the position for Nebraska from 2012-14. Papuchis was the youngest solo defensive coordinator in the country at the time, which came with its fair share of lumps. He was solid in those two years, but he has no doubt benefited from two years under Chizik.
In his inaugural season in Chapel Hill, Papuchis helped turn UNC’s suspect pass defense into a solid one, which has always been a speciality of his. In 2015, UNC led the ACC in interceptions, turnovers gained and turnover margin. Last season, the Tar Heels led the ACC in passing yards allowed and ranked 12th nationally.
The Tar Heel defense will be a strong spot with nine of 11 starters returning, but it will be up to Papuchis to get the team to buy into his system by the Tar Heels’ opener on Sept. 2.
5) Who will replace “The Chop”?
While the quarterback position gets the attention, a big question mark for UNC this season is at kicker. Nick Weiler was a part of the program for five years, from walking on in 2012 to his dominant 2016. In those years, he showed arguably the most development of any player at UNC.
After struggling in 2014, Weiler found his footing in 2015. He was named to the Lou Groza award semifinalist list by nailing 20 of his 23 field goals attempted and booting 55 of his 103 kickoffs for touchbacks. He continued his rise in 2016, reaching the crown of his wave by nailing his first 50-yard field goal -- a 54 yarder to take down No. 9 Florida State in Tallahassee.
Weiler will be severely missed this season, especially on special teams. He sent 47 of 81 kickoffs for touchbacks, and only 12 kickers had a longer average distance on kickoffs than Weiler. Pinning teams deep in their own territory is a pivotal piece of defense. The battle of field position has been a huge asset to the Tar Heels with Weiler, but now some uncertainty looms.
Freeman Jones will be the first option to fill the role. A redshirt in 2014, Freeman has had the luxury of working with Weiler and learning from him the past three years.
Jones actually possesses a skill that is already better than Weiler’s -- the onside kick. Jones attempted both onside kicks against Clemson in the 2015 ACC championship, the first of which was recovered by UNC while the second was negated by an offside penalty. The onside kick is a nice little ace for Fedora to keep in his back pocket when behind, and he’ll surely use it.
Still, Jones must become more reliable on of field goals and PATs, and only time will tell if he can carry the load.
Other players competing for the job are true freshman Noah Ruggles and walk-ons Cooper Graham and Tolson Jeffrey. But given Jones’ experience, he will surely get a long leash to prove his worth.