The North Carolina football team begins its bounce-back 2018 campaign on Saturday with a trip to California to play the Golden Bears in a rematch of last year’s opener.
UNC hopes to fare better this year following a turbulent 3-9 season. But one thing the 2017 team did have was some breakthrough performers, including wide receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams, who had 10 total touchdowns, and free safety Myles Dorn, who finished with 71 tackles and two interceptions.
With that being said, here are five potential sleeper players for the 2018 season:
Jonathan Smith, middle linebacker
As a sophomore, Smith was thrust into the fray following the season-ending injury of talented linebacker Andre Smith in UNC's second game against Louisville. He handled the increased role well, posting 40 tackles in 11 games while making four starts. And although senior Cole Holcomb is the leader of the linebackers group (93 tackles in 2017), Smith is not far behind him. Fedora did not hold back his praise for the Laurinburg, N.C. native on Aug. 22.
“Well Jon Smith is doing a great job,” Fedora said. “He picked up right where he left off in spring.”
As the inside linebacker in UNC’s 4-3 scheme, Smith will be looked upon as a leader on the field and he won’t shy away from the challenge. A 90-tackle season is within reason.
Dazz Newsome, wide receiver
As a first-year, the Hampton, Va. native showed promise, hauling in 18 catches for 227 yards. His best performance came against Louisville, when he caught three passes for 66 yards. Along with Ratliff-Williams, he possesses good speed and had a 20-yard run out of the backfield against N.C. State. With senior Thomas Jackson returning from injury, Newsome could be relegated to the second slot position, but don’t be fooled. His impact will still be felt. Expect him to catch 40 passes this season.
Nick Polino, left guard
Polino is coming off a second-year season where he was thrust into the fire and handled it well. The 6-foot-4, 310-pound wrecking ball appeared in 12 games and made two starts. His progression throughout the 2017 campaign certainly impressed his head coach.
“He knows everything,” Larry Fedora said on Aug. 22. “He knows every adjustment there is to the offense. He’s not going to make mental mistakes, he’s going to be able to communicate with guys, he’s going to be able to teach younger guys, so that’s nice because Jay-Jay (McCargo) hasn’t had a lot of reps in there, so Polino is able to calm him down, talk him through things, have some good communication up front.”
Along with starting left tackle William Sweet, Polino will be tasked with protecting Nathan Elliott’s blind side, and he should do a good job of keeping the Tar Heel quarterback on his feet.
Antonio Williams, running back
This might seem like an obvious pick here. Williams is, after all, a former four-star recruit who played two seasons at Ohio State before transferring back to his home state as a junior. The NCAA’s decision to grant him immediate eligibility in July was the one silver lining of the summer for the football team and Williams adds to a crowded backfield. At 5-foot-11, 210 pounds, Williams represents an imposing presence, and his size advantage over Jordon Brown and Michael Carter could lead to a bounty of goal line carries. Expect him to have a chip on his shoulder after two quiet seasons in Columbus.
Patrice Rene, cornerback
After starting five games as a first-year, Rene made 11 appearances in 2017, but only three were starts. With a 6-foot-2, 205-pound frame, he too represents an imposing presence for opposing receivers. The only thing holding him back is discipline, something Fedora noted on Aug. 22.
“Patrice has all the physical tools that you need to be an elite corner,” Fedora said. “And so really it’s just making sure that the communication between the safeties and him, everything is locked in and there are no mental mistakes. As he starts eliminating those and processing quicker, he’s going to be able to stay on the field.”
With the help of three upperclassmen starting alongside him in the secondary, Rene should make a big jump forward as a junior in helping an already stout pass defense (223.1 yards per game in 2017).