Last season, the Tar Heels followed up an ACC Championship Game appearance with an 8-5 year filled with its share of impressive wins and confusing losses. The team was not without talent. The NFL Draft confirmed that — six players heard their names called in April, including quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, the No. 2 overall pick.
Head coach Larry Fedora has proven he can win games, put up gaudy offensive numbers and produce professional-level talent. But, in 2017, can he do it again with a mostly new supporting cast?
The search for Trubisky’s replacement will draw the most attention, as most quarterback battles do. The two front-runners are Nathan Elliott, who won the backup job last year and is entering his third year in UNC’s offense, and Brandon Harris, a graduate transfer from Louisiana State with 15 starts to his name. Harris is the more mobile of the two, but Elliott, who was North Carolina’s best quarterback during the spring game by a mile, isn’t too far behind him.
Senior wide receiver Austin Proehl (43 catches, 597 yards) is Ryan Switzer’s heir at slot receiver and may play on the outside, too. He’ll get help from fellow senior Thomas Jackson, a former walk-on who always seemed to be in the right place at the right time in limited action last year. Redshirt first-year Juval Mollette stands at 6-foot-4 and will get his share of targets after a three-touchdown spring game.
North Carolina’s one-two punch of Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan is gone. Sophomore Jordon Brown scored on a short run in UNC’s Sun Bowl loss to Stanford and enters this season as the only running back who carried the ball last year for the Tar Heels. Stanton Truitt, another graduate transfer, is an intriguing option after two years at Auburn.
The defense retains a few more key players than its counterpart. UNC allowed just 11 passing touchdowns in 13 games last year. But in one of college football’s strangest storylines, North Carolina intercepted just one pass all season.
An experienced secondary must force more turnovers for UNC this year. Senior safety Donnie Miles is a hard hitter who was third on the team last year with 102 tackles. Cornerback M.J. Stewart is also a senior and headlines a group of defensive backs who love to jaw with opposing wide receivers. Four-star recruit Tre Shaw and sophomores K.J. Sails and Myles Dorn are worth keeping an eye on.
The only significant loss from UNC’s front seven was defensive tackle Nazair Jones, who entered the NFL Draft a year early. North Carolina’s top two tacklers from last season, juniors Cole Holcomb and Andre Smith, have a more daunting task than the secondary. They’ll be expected to shore up a group that allowed almost 230 rushing yards per game a year ago. Smith is a punishing hitter, and Holcomb is fluid in pass coverage. Both will start.
After missing seven games with injuries, senior defensive end Dajaun Drennon will be a premier pass rusher. Junior end Malik Carney had 5.5 sacks last year, and sophomore tackle Aaron Crawford had 47 tackles. Perhaps the most underrated member of the Tar Heels’ defensive line is Jeremiah Clarke. He’s a massive man up front at 6-foot-5 and 315 pounds. He has incredibly active hands, which are a great compliment to his height — he recovered two fumbles, broke up two passes and blocked a field goal last season.
In the past, UNC’s high-flying offense could make up for defensive lapses. But this year, a group effort will be needed to produce a winning season. The offense and defense have potential — to both fail and succeed.
Their play will answer the question looming over Chapel Hill, for better or for worse.