ACC Kickoff: North Carolina offense faces questions entering season

Sara D. Davis,
Let 'em know

Daniel Lacy, Correspondent

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Last season, the UNC Tar Heels offense was so stacked with playmakers that it almost seemed like there wasn’t room for all of them.

Fast-forward to this year and the Tar Heels have the opposite problem after losing several starters and role players — including their starting quarterback, top-three running backs, top-three wide receivers and two starting offensive linemen.

Head coach Larry Fedora is used to dealing with player turnover, but admits that it was at an all-time high this year.

“I’ve never — in all my years, I think it’s around 18 years of running this offense — I’ve never experienced this,” Fedora said at the 2017 ACC Kickoff on Friday.

“It’s a little bit unknown for me. We’re going to find out. I think our staff has done a good job of recruiting. I think there’s a lot of guys that — you may recognize their name from recruiting, but you’ve never seen them on the field. It’s time for them to step up. It’s time for them. It’s their opportunity to become a household name.”

During the offseason, the Heels brought in quarterback Brandon Harris, running back Stanton Tuitt, wide receiver Jordan Cunningham, and offensive linemen Cameron Dillard and Khaliel Rodgers – graduate transfers who bring valuable experience while providing depth and competition to the team.

While players are sometimes threatened by increased competition, senior Bentley Spain is looking forward to improving the state of the team.

“We’ve welcomed them with open arms,” Spain said.

“We’re glad to have them. They add depth and experience to our team. We’re excited… they’ve all gelled really well with the culture of our team.”

Spain added that top-notch play from the offensive line is vital to a fully functioning offense.

“I like to think the O-line is the backbone no matter what,” Spain said.

“I think that we definitely have a challenge to carry this team and I’m really confident in our guys who have stepped up after getting reps in practice… If we’re not doing well, the skill guys aren’t going to be able to do well.”

Spain mentioned a few things the offensive linemen can do to help the new quarterbacks who are less familiar with the system compared to previous quarterbacks Mitchell Trubisky and Marquise Williams.

“Before the play, while there’s not much time in up-tempo offenses, when they’re looking at coverage, we can identify blitzes, look at safeties and warn them about different things that are happening,” Spain said.

“Also making calls to alert them to things to make their life easier so they don’t have to worry about all that and then snap the ball and make the decision.”

In addition to Harris, three other quarterbacks are in the running for the starting quarterback gig: sophomore Nathan Elliott and redshirt freshmen Logan Byrd and Chazz Surratt.

Fedora offered insight on the strengths of the three young signal callers.

“Nathan, a lefty that throws the ball well, has made good decisions in practice, and he’s the only one of them with any actual experience on our football team right now,” Fedora said.

“Logan can run, has a really strong arm but he’s in that stage of learning the offense. Chazz is a tremendous athlete who has led his team to state championships both on the field and in basketball. He has a chance to be really good.”

He also expressed confidence in Harris, who’s best season came with LSU in 2015, when he passed for 2,165 yards, 13 touchdowns and six interceptions, and added 226 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 67 carries.

“Then you got Brandon Harris, who’s a guy who I thought really fit with what we did coming out of high school,” Fedora said.

“He can run, he’s got a strong arm and he’s played in big games so he’s not gonna get rattled. It’s gonna be about how fast he can learn everything and integrate into our system.”

Additionally, Fedora mentioned that only one returning running back had a carry for UNC last year, highlighting the lack of experience across the board on offense.

However, Spain believes the team chemistry they will build throughout the season will allow each player to maximize their efforts and increase production despite having significantly less big-name guys.

“The O-line can really help get some of our guys opportunities,” Spain said.

“We have a lot of young guys who are really gonna step up and shock some people. They haven’t been household names that a lot of people know, but that doesn’t mean they’re not gonna be good players.”

UNC has plenty of question marks across the board on offense, but both Fedora and Spain are confident that the young players will step up and play a major role for the team this year.