What to know from North Carolina football's practice today
North Carolina conducted its eighth practice of training camp Thursday. Here’s a recap of what’s new with the Tar Heels, who are now only 23 days away from their season opener against California on Sep. 2.
Still no leader in quarterback competition
Fedora said earlier in the week that the quarterback competition was a four-man battle between LSU graduate transfer Brandon Harris, redshirt sophomore Nathan Elliott and redshirt first-years Chazz Surratt and Logan Byrd, with each player getting the same amount of reps. That’s still the case, it appears.
“No,” Fedora replied when asked if there was any separation between one quarterback and the rest after UNC scrimmaged for the first time on Tuesday.
Harris, who decided to transfer to UNC in March, started 15 games in three seasons at LSU, while Elliott completed eight of nine passes a year ago as Mitchell Trubisky’s backup. Surratt and Byrd have yet to appear in a game at the college level.
Fedora pleased with first scrimmage
In a typical practice, Fedora and the rest of coaches can watch players go through drills and plays from just a few feet away, while offering feedback in live-time.
But when UNC scrimmaged for the first time on Tuesday, the Tar Heel coaching staff had an opportunity to observe how their guys would react to game-like situations without a coach hovering right over them for the first time this fall. Fedora said the scrimmage was “good overall.”
“It’s the first time we get to see them in a live situation where we’re not helping them out,” he said. “You get to see what they know. When we start grading missed assignments, you start seeing who’s missing assignments so you start to get an understanding of who really isn’t — even though they may be answering it in the meeting, they may not be able to transfer it over to the field at this time.”
First-years stepping up
One of the bright spots from Tuesday’s scrimmage was the good play of several first-year Tar Heels.
Fedora lauded the performance of Kayne Roberts, who recently converted from linebacker to running back because of the Tar Heels’ linebacker depth, while also mentioning 6-foot-6, 330-pound offensive tackle Marcus McKethan “is doing a really good job.”
On the defensive side of the ball, linebacker Malik Robinson, cornerback Tre Shaw and defensive tackle Jordon Riley were all mentioned by name by Fedora.
Transition for new DC Papuchis going smoothly
At ACC Media Day and throughout training camp, UNC defensive players have maintained that not much has changed schematically since John Papuchis was promoted from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator after Gene Chizik resigned.
On Thursday, Papuchis said as much.
“A lot of the core concepts are very similar,” he said. “But I think that’s why Coach Chiz wanted me on the staff in the first place was that philosophically and schematically, we had a lot of common beliefs.”
Still, Fedora has mentioned recently the idea of UNC’s defense being able to “expand” and do more this season, even though the base defense is largely the same with Papuchis.
Part of the reason the Tar Heels might be able to do so is the personnel returning up front. Papuchis said the Tar Heel defensive line is the deepest it's been since he joined UNC’s staff in 2015, and there’s also the luxury of starting linebackers Andre Smith, Cayson Collins and Cole Holcomb all returning. There’s definitely a sense of continuity that could help.
“We’re so much further along than we were two years ago,” Papuchis said.
Offensive line still figuring things out
Senior left tackle Bentley Spain and graduate transfer Cam Dillard are the two players who seem locked into starting roles along UNC’s offensive line. Meanwhile, the other three spots seem to be up for grabs.
Redshirt senior R.J. Prince started 12 games at right guard a season ago, so there’s a strong chance he could earn a starting job, but that remains to be seen.
The same could be said about redshirt sophomore Tommy Hatton, who started the final seven games of the season at left guard a year ago, but he was absent from practice on Thursday. Fedora did not give a reason for Hatton’s absence, but said he expects him to return.
In Wednesday’s practice, the three others primarily working with Spain and Dillard’s group were redshirt sophomore Nick Polino at left guard, Prince at right guard and redshirt sophomore William Sweet at right tackle. Fedora has been pleased with the offensive line’s “recall” from last season.
“I think the install has been good for those guys,” he said. “I think there’s been times where they’ve done a really good job. The thing that concerns me always is you got to be consistent.”