The ceiling is the roof. At least, that will be the war cry of North Carolina this fall.
The Tar Heels will be sporting the Jumpman logo for the first time as they kick off their season against California on Saturday. Fittingly, as the team opens its 2017 campaign with a new look, many fresh faces will also take the field in Kenan Stadium for what is arguably the most unpredictable year of head coach Larry Fedora’s six-year tenure.
With uncertainty looming, Saturday will provide a clearer outlook for UNC’s season. Here are three storylines to watch:
1. The welcoming of the New Guard
Offense, offense, offense.
That’s what North Carolina has been known for under Fedora, and it’s not hard to figure out why. Loads of talented offensive players have starred over the last five years, from Giovani Bernard to Eric Ebron to Marquise Williams to Mitch Trubisky.
So who will be next?
The most prominent names of a year ago are gone, and the staff will now count on new contributors to step up. Wide receiver Austin Proehl (43 catches, 597 yards, three touchdowns in 2016) is the most proven of the skill players, while tackle Bentley Spain, guard R.J. Prince and Florida graduate transfer center Cam Dillard will be among the players looking to hold it down in the trenches. Saturday will reveal who else deserves to be part of the conversation.
2. Life after Gene Chizik
Chizik was viewed as a savior of sorts in Tar Heels circles after transforming UNC’s defense from unmitigated disaster to a respectable unit in his first season as coordinator. In 2016 — his second year — the defense showed more improvement and looked like a group one year from turning a corner.
But then Chizik left. In fact, three of North Carolina’s four defensive coaches found new homes.
New defensive coordinator John Papuchis, promoted from linebackers coach, is now leading the way. He won’t be starting from scratch, either; UNC welcomes back all-Atlantic Coast Conference-caliber players in cornerback M.J. Stewart, linebacker Andre Smith and safety Donnie Miles, to name a few.
Against an inexperienced Cal offense, they’ll get a chance to make an early statement.
3. Who is UNC’s starting QB, and is the competition settled?
When the Tar Heels released their depth chart on Monday, the quarterback position had a pair of “OR” tags. LSU transfer Brandon Harris, redshirt freshman Chazz Surratt and sophomore Nathan Elliott each showed up as possible starters, serving as a clear indication that Fedora doesn’t want to tip his hand going into Saturday.
That lack of an official starter leaves plenty of questions. Does that mean North Carolina has three solid options? Are there no quality quarterbacks? Will there be a QB rotation?
Some of those answers could come this weekend, but even that’s not guaranteed. Whoever takes the first snap against Cal on Saturday will have to gain separation from the pack if he wants to keep the No. 1 job.
Fortunately for UNC’s signal-callers, the Bears defense ranked No. 122 last fall in yards per play allowed (6.71).