by Lee Pace
Five years of Tar Heel football under Larry Fedora has bestowed Tar Heel Nation with Gio’s burst, Elijah’s power, Ryan’s dances, T.J.’s bolts, Quise’s heart and Mitch’s arm. We’ve regaled Bug for stretching for another grab and Quinshad for his gluey hands. We’ve gasped as Coop laid to rest some poor 3-technique and—blink—was that Mack just flashing at the speed of sound? Truer words? Certainly those from Fedora the day he was hired in 2011 when he warned you to venture to the concession stand at your own entertainment peril.
Meanwhile off in the hinterlands were rumors of defense, with the obvious talents of Sly Williams and Kevin Reddick in the early days hardly enough to plug the leaky dike of 68 points by Georgia Tech and 55 by East Carolina. An intervention under the steady and confident hand of coordinator Gene Chizik staunched the bleeding the last two years, but still, Tar Heel football was clearly labeled as a perfectly coiffed A-student on offense and a snot-nosed truant on defense.
Someone wondered after the Tar Heels’ Blue-White spring game Saturday if that refrain had gotten old, and linebacker Andre Smith was answering before the question was barely done.
“Absolutely,” he said. “We’ve got to go out there and essentially be Alabama, where our defense is scoring touchdowns and making big plays.”
And for the first time in Fedora’s half-decade tenure in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels as they set up for the next season are clearly ahead on defense. They are talented, experienced and deep on the defensive line. Two of those adjectives apply to the linebacking corps, though quality numbers there are still lacking. Half of the secondary must be replaced, but there some terrific neophytes ready to stake their claim to playing time.
All of this as the offense must replace three blockers, three receivers, one quarterback and three running backs. All of this as the Tar Heels dressed out one scholarship player at running back Saturday—and that was a freshman who’d just enrolled in January—and literally last Wednesday night had a lineman who’d never played center snapping balls in the hallway of Kenan Football Center so that he could run with the second-team line in the next day’s practice.
“The offense lost a lot of great players,” Smith continues from the defensive perspective. “We’re an experienced defense. We’ve played a lot of ball together. We’re cohesive and we’re moving together, we’re playing aggressive defense. Really, that’s how a team should be. The defense should be the No. 1 force. Scoring is great, don’t get me wrong. But if the opposing offense doesn’t score points, it doesn’t matter. That’s the mentality we’re taking.”
Senior end Dajaun Drennon agrees and, at long last with healthy feet and hamstrings, hopes to do his part his final lap to establish some tradition at Carolina of stopping points rather than scoring them. He notes the frequent intra-squad competitions during spring when the losing unit, offense or defense, has to lug the winners’ helmets and shoulder pads the quarter mile from Navy Field back to the locker room.
“We’ve seen a lot more of the offense carrying our gear this spring,” Drennon says. “It feels good. We’ve been known as an offensive team, that the defense is the weak link. Now the defense is actually playing good, and teams will have to watch out for us.”
Fedora believes the defensive front could be the Tar Heels’ strong suit in ‘17. Redshirt freshman Jason Strowbridge has moved inside to tackle and got extensive playing time this spring given injury recoveries by veterans Jeremiah Clarke and Aaron Crawford. The Tar Heels will enter August training camp with Clarke, Crawford, Strowbridge, Jalen Dalton and Marlon Dunlap forming a formidable nucleus, and that doesn’t include two impressive January enrollees in Jordon Riley and Xach Gill.
Malik Carney has gained 15 pounds and can set one edge with more authority now, and by consensus the lineman with the most impressive spring was Tyler Powell, who like Drennon is a senior with a career pock-marked by injury. Tomon Fox received a medical redshirt last fall after a September knee injury, and he’s now available to provide some speed at the edge the Tar Heels have so sorely lacked.
Carolina now needs one of the big hosses in the middle to gobble up double-teams and give speedy linebackers like Smith and Cole Holcomb room to operate. They’ll also ratchet up their proclivity to play press-man coverage at cornerback and free up safeties Donnie Miles and Myles Dorn to cheat against the run. The staff, now with John Papuchis as the boss, is driven to improve on all the rushing yards Carolina has yielded of late—more than 230 yards per game over the last three years, near the worst in FBS rankings.
“We want to be aggressive, deny the ball and not give up a lot of easy throws,” says secondary coach Terry Joseph, who comes to Carolina from Texas A&M. “That’s a big point of emphasis, forcing guys go out on an island and win 1-on-1 battles. There’s no secret we have to get better stopping the run. To do that, we have to get guys who can cover 1-on-1 and make a safety or two available to help (vs. the run). Want to press when we get off the plane. Want to be in their face, make them make competitive catches.”
Of course, everyone wants to know who the new quarterback will be now that Mitch Trubisky bounded for the NFL after one year as starter. Carolina has a commitment from a former starting QB from LSU to transfer as a graduate, and that should become official next month. Meanwhile, three scholarship players ebbed and flowed throughout the spring with sophomore Nathan Elliott and freshmen Chazz Surratt and Logan Byrd each showing flashes of brilliance and moments of slow decisions and errant throws as well.
It was not until the Saturday scrimmage on April 1 that one quarterback began to nudge in front. The offensive coaches suggested to Fedora that they have the quarterbacks “go live” for the last full scrimmage before the spring game—that is, not wear a green jersey and be protected from the defense per standard protocol to keep the quarterback from constant pounding. Fedora agreed and over the course of that scrimmage, Surratt’s athleticism and ability to make plays with his feet and turn busted protections into positive yards began to manifest itself.
The first-team offensive line features three new starters and one important adjustment. Tommy Hatton was running first-team center through the halfway point until an injury sidelined him. Line coach Chris Kapilovic moved Nick Polino from guard to center and then slid senior Bentley Spain, a three-year starter at left tackle, to left guard. Sophomore William Sweet then became the starter at left tackle with freshman Charlie Heck moving into the right-tackle slot vacated by his older brother, departed veteran Jon Heck.
That mixture will be further stirred in August with the arrival of two graduate transfers—center Cam Dillard from Florida and guard Khaliel Rodgers from USC. The coaching staff will not make a habit of depending on transfers, but the loss of three seniors (four if you include Jon Ferranto), the medical hardships of two other players and the defection of a key recruit two years ago left the coaches eyeing a projected second team and knowing one injury to a starter would force a player into action clearly before they were ready.
This backdrop manifested itself in the spring game on Saturday, held at Fetzer Field because of construction work in Kenan Stadium (the extremities of the playing field are being replaced with Field Turf to allow the team to practice there for a year as a new Indoor Practice Facility is built on the site of Navy Field and Henry Stadium). The defense prevailed in a scoring system designed to reward explosive plays, move the chains and protect the ball—or limit all the above, if you’re on defense. Elliott and freshman receiver Juval Mollette had the big days, Elliott hitting 8-of-12 passes for three TDs and 213 yards and Mollette catching three TDs and 100 yards receiving total.
Fedora applauded the offense afterward for not having many turnovers and penalties. He said no one is close to taking the starting quarterbacking job and that there is much roster posturing to come given that up to 19 players were wearing red shirts during spring ball, signifying their injured status.
“Overall, I’d say it was a good spring,” Fedora said. “We’ve got a long way to go. You got a chance to see some of the new faces out there on the field that are going to have to make plays for us this year, and we’ve still got a long way to go.”
No question about that. And for a change around Tar Heel football, it’s the offense with the steeper hill to climb.
Lee Pace (UNC ’79) writes “Extra Points” throughout the year and is the author of “Football in a Forest,” an illustrated history of Kenan Memorial Stadium. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @LeePaceTweet.