When the Atlantic Coast Conference kicks off its media days on Thursday, there are sure to be plenty of smiles on the faces of players and coaches.
That’s because the league is coming off arguably the best season in its 64-year history. It was a year that produced a Heisman Trophy winner and a national championship — a year that was sweetened by late-season dominance vs. the Southeastern Conference.
While ACC officials will jump at the opportunity to celebrate the conference’s recent accomplishments, this week also marks a turning of the page to a new season that offers its own set of questions. Following its most successful two-year stretch in 20 years, North Carolina faces more uncertainty than almost any team in the league.
What are the biggest questions the Tar Heels must answer?
1. What will Brandon Harris bring to the table?
Harris, a graduate transfer from LSU, will presumably enter camp as the clear front-runner to start at quarterback for UNC. Given the team’s lack of experience at the position, his presence is key. But he’ll have giant shoes to fill.
It has been roughly a decade since the Tar Heels failed to put a quality passer on the field. The program’s last four starters included Mitch Trubisky (No. 2 overall pick in April’s NFL draft), Marquise Williams (10,423 career yards of total offense), Bryn Renner (64 career touchdown passes to 25 interceptions) and T.J. Yates (entering his seventh NFL season).
So, yeah, Harris is following in footsteps that made their mark.
The Bossier City, La., product started 15 games for the Tigers before losing his starting job early last season. His arrival in Chapel Hill provides a fresh start, though, and perhaps Larry Fedora’s offense will prove to be the perfect match.
At least, that’s what the UNC faithful will be hoping.
2. What can be expected from a Chizik-less defense?
After taking over an awful UNC defense two years ago and improving it somewhat, defensive coordinator Gene Chizik left the program this offseason to spend more time with his family. Fedora replaced Chizik by promoting linebackers coach John Papuchis.
So what does that mean? Probably not as much as one might think.
While three of North Carolina’s four coaches on defense are new, the guys on the field will be the ones worth watching the most. Proven performers such as linebacker Andre Smith, cornerback M.J. Stewart and safety Donnie Miles are excellent players to build around, and the progress made by others will determine whether the defense can take a step forward. Papuchis won’t make any significant schematic changes, but with enough improvement, his group could be more than just a bend-but-don’t-break unit.
3. Who will get the carries?
In recent seasons, Carolina’s offensive backfield had a simple formula — Elijah Hood brought the power and T.J. Logan the speed. In fact, those two excelled so much at their specialties that they’ll do so on NFL rosters this fall.
That leaves giant holes for the Heels to fill. Sophomore Jordon Brown (20 attempts in 2016) is the only returning back with a carry for UNC. Auburn transfer Stanton Truitt (5-foot-9, 185) brings collegiate experience to the table, but he’s never been an every-down back.
The most intriguing options might just be the team’s two true freshmen. Michael Carter (Navarre, Fla.) drew buzz as a midyear enrollee, and Antwuan Branch (Clarksville, Tenn.) will get his own shot.
Will one of those players be North Carolina’s next NFL-caliber back?
4. How will the school’s NCAA case affect 2018 recruiting?
Ah, the gift that keeps on giving.
UNC’s coaches have had to answer questions regarding NCAA issues dating to the 2010 ACC Kickoff. That’s right — this stuff goes back to when three of the league’s current members were in other conferences.
Over the last couple of years, Fedora has stated that the ongoing NCAA case no longer dominates the staff’s conversations with recruits and their families. But will that soon change?
North Carolina is expected to go before the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions in August, and any possible sanctions will come down in the months that follow. Depending on the outcome — and the timing — the Tar Heels might end up in a whirlwind of drama leading up to Signing Day.
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