Five storylines to know after Tar Heels' first football practice
With the season opener against California now only 30 days away, the North Carolina football team opened up fall practice on Wednesday at Kenan Stadium, charging into its season cluttered with question marks.
The Tar Heels are starting anew offensively, as they’re tasked with replacing Mitchell Trubisky under center, Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan in the backfield and a trio of prolific wide receivers in Bug Howard, Mack Hollins and Ryan Switzer. On defense, there are many more familiar faces that remain from a group that ranked No. 43 nationally in scoring defense a year ago. That said, former linebackers coach John Papuchis will take over as defensive coordinator for the Tar Heels after Gene Chizik’s unexpected departure after last season.
Without a doubt, personnel changes and schematic adjustments will all contribute to North Carolina’s story throughout the 2017 season. Below are five takeaways from UNC’s first practice.
As his players will have you know, head coach Larry Fedora leaves it up to each of his players to compete for their respective spots — including the quarterback.
Right now, though, Brandon Harris is expected to take the first snap of the season for the Tar Heels. With one year of eligibility remaining in his college football career, the 6-foot-3 graduate transfer from LSU has garnered significant attention from the ACC media, as he is listed as a candidate for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award Watch List this season.
At LSU, Harris started 15 total games, including all 12 as a sophomore. He went 10-5 as a starter, finishing his career 187 for 347 with 2,756 yards, 20 TDs and 10 interceptions. Harris also proved he is a viable rushing threat, notching seven rushing touchdowns during his tenure as a Tiger.
He left LSU for a reason, however. By the end of the second game of his junior season, the once-highly touted high school quarterback had lost the starting job to Danny Etling. A lot of the team seems to think Harris’ assimilation into Fedora’s offense is going to be seamless, even amidst questions over his accuracy and decision-making as a passer.
“Since he’s been here, I have not seen a problem with his accuracy,” Proehl said. “And I give him a lot of credit because learning on the run is hard.”
Right now, Harris is competing for his spot against Nathan Elliott, Chazz Surratt and Logan Byrd — a positional battle Fedora plans to strongly consider. After all, you only need to think back two seasons to recall a time where North Carolina quarterbacks split game-time duties.
Tasked with the challenge of reshaping his team’s offense after the loss of several playmakers from last season, Fedora is relying on four graduate transfers to help bridge the gap between youth and experience offensively. Harris, who many expect to win the quarterback job, attracts the most attention, because of his past as a starter at LSU and the importance of his position.
But up front, ex-Florida Gator Cam Dillard is expected to become UNC’s starting center, while USC transfer Khaliel Rodgers is vying for a starting spot along the offensive line. Collectively, the pair brings in 30 starts, which should give a boost to a Tar Heel offensive line that is replacing right tackle Jon Heck and left guard Caleb Peterson.
At the running back position, Stanton Truitt, who enters the season with two years of eligibility remaining after graduating from Auburn in three, can help solidify UNC’s running game, which has little experience.
Truitt, a converted wide receiver, ran for 187 yards a year ago for the Tigers, averaging six yards per carry, with three total touchdowns. Fedora said each of those guys have gelled with the rest of the team while learning what is expected of them as members of the program.
“I think they’ve done a really good job this summer of making sure they’ve become a part of this football team,” he said. “They’re not mercenaries. They’re not just coming here for a year and getting out of here. They’re Tar Heels.”
Austin Proehl, one of two returning seniors at wide receiver for North Carolina, said that he has “been a leader since last August,” even with Hollins, Howard and Switzer ahead of him on the depth chart.
Last season, the Charlotte native totaled 43 catches for 597 yards and three touchdowns, notching seven starts in the 13-game season. Naturally, Proehl’s transition as a first option through the air will give him more opportunities to catch more balls, but beyond an expected bump in on-field production, his responsibility of leading his crew of wide receivers is “not something new” to him, he said.
“I’ve been around this game for 21 years,” Proehl said, alluding to his father Ricky, a 17-year NFL veteran as wide receiver. “I’ve been to Super Bowls, I’ve been to NFC Championships, I’ve been in locker rooms my whole life.”
Tight end Brandon Fritts thinks the Tar Heel receiving corps is in good hands with Proehl as a leader.
“I think he’s really just a natural-grown leader,” Fritts said. “His route running is way beyond everything I’ve ever seen before… I love watching him on tape and watching him on the field because he does so many good things that a lot of people can’t do.”
Seniors Jordan Cunningham, who transferred from Vanderbilt a season ago, and Thomas Jackson add to the experienced hands on North Carolina’s receiving corps.
Young guys on defense
UNC’s defense enters the season with much more experience and depth than its offensive counterparts, but there’s still a chance for some relatively younger players to make an impact on the defensive side of the ball.
That’s especially true in the secondary, where UNC returns seniors M.J. Stewart and safety Donnie Miles, but must replace cornerback Des Lawrence and safety Dominquie Green.
Miles said he’s been encouraged by what he’s seen from a younger group of guys that includes sophomores Myles Dorn, K.J. Sails and Patrice Rene and first-year Tre Shaw, an early enrollee. Of those players, cornerback Rene has the most experience after starting five times a season ago.
At the safety position, Dorn could help offset the loss of Green. He'll likely play an expanded role a year after recording 32 tackles and one pass breakup as a first-year.
"I think Myles Dorn is going to be a great player at Carolina, no doubt about it,” Miles said.
Junior linebacker Andre Smith also has high hopes for Sails, who has established himself as a fierce competitor.
“K.J., he’s a little bit of a knucklehead, but I promise that kid will compete his behind off,” he said. “I don’t know what it is, but he really goes hard. I mean, we were playing dodgeball – summer challenge – he was dead serious in there.”
One of the key concerns UNC must address before the start of the season is deciding on a replacement to Nick Weiler at the kicker position.
Everybody remembers Weiler’s 54-yard game-winning kick in Tallahassee last October, but the former Tar Heel was consistently reliable from start to finish last season, making 15 of 21 field goal attempts and earning an All-ACC honorable mention.
However, none of the four kickers listed on UNC’s roster – juniors Freeman Jones and Tolson Jeffrey and first-years Noah Ruggles and Cooper Graham – have attempted a field goal at the college level.
Jones, however, made the lone point-after try he’s attempted in his career (against Duke in 2015) and performed the two onside kicks UNC had against Clemson in the 2015 ACC Championship game. UNC sophomore punter Tom Sheldon said he expects Jones to be able to handle the job well if he wins it.
"Freeman’s looking really, really solid,” he said. “So I expect him to fill the shoes that Nick’s left, and Freeman will do a great job with it.”