Story by Sam Doughton
Photos by Smith Hardy
The North Carolina football team opened up fall camp on Wednesday inside Kenan Stadium. Coming off a 8-5 season in 2016 and the loss of several standouts all across the field, the 2017 Tar Heels have a plethora of storylines to follow heading into the season opener against Cal on September 2.
Here are three of the top storylines that emerged from media availability at the start of training camp.
1. The Quarterback Shuffle
With Mitch Trubisky gone to the NFL, UNC has no heir apparent among the six quarterbacks on the roster. During media availability in the first 30 minutes of practice, as many as five of them, Brandon Harris, Nathan Elliot, Logan Byrd, Chazz Surratt and Manny Miles, were getting a chance to show what they could do with top returning players.
"I don't even really know who's in, sometimes," junior tight end Brandon Fritts said.
Head coach Larry Fedora said that huge competition came from each of them being prepared to compete for the job.
"They knew that this was their opportunity to lead this team," Fedora said. "You could watch it in the spring and then the summer how they all made improvements in leadership and their presence, and the way that they carry themselves around the football field."
Senior wide receiver Austin Proehl said the competition is intense at times, but each one of them is competing hard, and he gives each of them credit for the work they've put in.
"Any competition like that is cutthroat, because there’s only one job on the field," Proehl said.
While there is no formal depth chart this early in the season, Harris, the graduate transfer from LSU and Elliot, the only returning quarterback with game experience in a Tar Heel uniform, took the majority of the snaps with returning offensive players during media availability.
Harris in particular drew a lot of attention early, as it was the first chance to see him in a UNC uniform. He has impressed Fedora with his ability to learn the playbook coming in fresh this year, and impressed Proehl with his athletic ability.
That being said, Fedora noted that no player had separated themselves from the others by making the offense better when he was on the field that it is when he is off it. A starter won't be named, Fedora said, until that separation happens.
"If they don’t separate themselves, it’ll go until five minutes before the game," Fedora said.
2. Practice where you play
With the construction projects needed for the creation of a new indoor practice facility underway on the team's usual practice area, Navy Fields, the team will be practicing inside Kenan Stadium. That made for a tight quarters on the field at times, with drills going on right on top of each other. Fedora said a walkthrough of the practice for coaches and staff on Tuesday helped get everyone acclimated to the environment.
"You’re squeezed for space, so you have to be really conscious of where you are on the field and who’s around you and what they’re doing," he said.
Players seemed to enjoy the stature of the practice environment now, with the stands rising over them as they went through drills, instead of the pine trees over at Navy.
"I think it’s pretty cool," Proehl said. "I feel like we’re in an arena or something."
Fritts agreed. "You can’t ask for any more, practicing right outside our locker room, walking on the game field," he said. "You’ve just to get the hang of it, with all the lines and stuff like that, it’s a little confusing.”
Despite the challenges that may arise from having less space to spread out, Fedora isn't making any excuses, and says that the team's still able to do all the drills it needs to to be ready to play.
"The reward of what we’ll have at the end of it will be well worth what we’re doing now," he said.
3. Defensive Changes
With the retirement of Gene Chizik this off season, John Papuchis has taken over as defensive coordinator after serving as linebackers coach for the past two seasons. Fedora says that carry-over had led to a smooth transition between staffs on that side of the ball.
"The transition was as smooth as it possibly could be," he said. "All of those guys already knew the terminology and knew the defense and knew what we were doing, so there was no learning process."
With the same scheme installed and very little turnover on that side of the ball, junior linebacker Andre Smith said observers will see some new wrinkles to the defense, mostly in the form of more aggressive play. Smith said that with most of the players being more experienced than in the past two years, the unit is looking to apply pressure, forcing other teams into takeaway opportunities for UNC and also giving them a chance to rack up tackles for a loss.
The Tar Heels had but one interception in 2016, a number that Smith said had to improve. He said defensive players did some wide receiver drills to help with catching the ball when it comes their way.
"Me personally, I dropped three clean interceptions, all my fault," Smith said of his performance last season. "Can’t blame it on anyone else. So you've just got to catch it."
Odds and Ends
Jumpman Makes its debut
While it'll be some time before anyone sees the game day uniforms in action, practice attendees caught a glimpse of the Jordan Brand logo on the team's mesh practice uniforms. Here's a good glimpse of Brandon Harris rocking the new look for the Tar Heels.
Training Camp Tunes
During the 30 minutes of media availability, Argyle Report compiled the songs that were playing over the Kenan stadium speakers. It's a good mix of hip hop, jock rock, and other fun pump-up songs. If you want to work out like the Tar Heels, now's your chance.