ACC: Dajuan Drennon

North Carolina Tar Heels season preview

August, 13, 2014
Aug 13
10:30
AM ET


» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Previewing the season for the North Carolina Tar Heels.

Key returners: QB Marquise Williams (1,765 passing yards, 536 rushing yards, 16 TDs), RB T.J. Logan (533 rushing yards, 4 TDs), WR Quinshad Davis (48 catches, 730 yards, 10 TDs), WR/PR Ryan Switzer (872 all-purpose yards, 8 TDs), LB Jeff Schoettmer (85 tackles), LB Norkeithus Otis (13 TFL, 7.5 sacks), LB Travis Hughes (76 tackles), S Dominique Green (3 INTs)

Key losses: TE Eric Ebron (62 catches, 973 yards), RB A.J. Blue (298 yards), LT James Hurst, C Russell Bodine, DB Tre Boston (94 tackles, 5 INTs), DE Kareem Martin (21.5 TFLs, 11.5 sacks), DB Jabari Price (80 tackles, 9 pass breakups)

Most important games: Sept. 27 at Clemson, Oct. 4 vs. Virginia Tech, Oct. 11 at Notre Dame, Nov. 1 at Miami, Nov. 20 at Duke

Projected win percentage: .703

Vegas over/under: 8.5 wins

[+] EnlargeMarquise Williams
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesMarquise Williams completed 58.1 percent of his passes last season.
Instant impact newcomers: Running back Elijah Hood is 220 pounds of brute force who figures to be a major asset in UNC’s ground game from the outset. True freshman Bentley Spain is in the mix for the starting job at left tackle, though spring injuries limited him in the early going. Redshirt freshman Dajaun Drennon could see significant playing time on a badly depleted defensive line. And of course, there’s the issue of quarterback, where redshirt freshman Mitch Trubisky is still hoping to unseat Williams as the starter.

Biggest question mark: The line of scrimmage. Larry Fedora says the offensive line may well dictate just how good UNC is as a team, and with the losses of two key players from last year’s group and a host of spring injuries, there are still plenty of questions left to be answered in that area. But if the O-line is a major question mark, the D-line isn’t much more settled. The losses of Kareem Martin (11.5 sacks) and Tim Jackson leave a major void, and some of the talent expected to help fill the gaps -- Shawn Underwood, Greg Webb -- was ruled ineligible before the start of fall camp.

Best-case scenario for 2014: Fedora finds his quarterback, the O-line jells quickly, the rushing defense improves dramatically from a year ago and UNC finally finds some consistency overall. The schedule won’t be an easy one, but if the Heels can get off to a quicker start this year than last, they remain a strong contender for the Coastal Division.

Worst-case scenario for 2014: The luxury of having two good QBs devolves into a full-fledged quarterback controversy that never is resolved. The O-line looks shaky and the youth on defense becomes a major problem. Four of UNC’s toughest games are on the road, which is potentially problematic for a young team, which could mean last year’s strong finish fades to a distant memory by mid-October in 2014.

Number to know: 9. That’s the number of touchdowns scored last season by North Carolina’s defense and special teams -- tied with national champion Florida State for the most by any team from a Power Five conference. Overall, defense and special teams accounted for 16.4 percent of UNC’s touchdowns last year, the most by a Power Five conference team. Switzer led the way for the Tar Heels with five punt-return scores.
From Florida State's veteran line to Clemson's fearsome defensive front, the ACC projects to have some of the country's best position groups this fall, while a few other contenders will enter 2014 with some major question marks in key areas. With that in mind, we're looking at the ACC's best units, a few more that might surprise in 2014 and the top teams with holes that could keep them from an ACC title.

Up next: Defensive line.

Best of the best: Clemson

The Tigers are stacked on the defensive line, returning all four starters plus their top four backups from a season ago. Easy to see why Clemson gets the nod over the Seminoles -- sheer experience alone. Clemson has the best returning lineman in the league -- and one of the best in the nation -- in Vic Beasley, who had 13 sacks and 23 tackles for loss a year ago. His backup, Shaq Lawson, had 10 tackles for loss. That is more than anybody Florida State returns. So not only does Clemson have a group that is active behind the line, it has good depth, too, which should keep everybody fresh and make for one of the best line rotations in the country. If this group can live up to expectations, the Tigers have a chance to be one of the best groups in the entire country.

Next up: Florida State

If there is one constant in the ACC, it is a rock solid, dominant defensive line at Florida State. Five defensive linemen have been drafted over the past two years and another, Mario Edwards Jr., is rated as a top 5 defensive end among all underclassmen. There is no doubt the Seminoles are talented once again, but they do need to rebuild some depth across the entire line and may even rely on more linebackers to help out with the pass rush in 2014. Freshmen also will factor into the mix, as the Seminoles signed seven defensive linemen to help make up for some of the losses. Players such as Edwards, Eddie Goldman and Chris Casher are set to be the standouts on this group, but the Noles will need some unproven players to step up to keep the championship-level quality of the defensive line going.

Possible sleeper: Virginia

The Hoos have to replace two starters, but there is growing expectation for the line to be improved over a year ago. Eli Harold returns at defensive end after racking up 8.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss a year ago, and has received early consideration as a potential All-ACC candidate. Mike Moore, slated to start at the other end position, was one of the defense's most improved players during the spring. Then, of course, there is incoming true freshman Andrew Brown, one of the top-rated players in the class of 2014 with an opportunity to make an immediate impact at tackle. Brown enrolled early and participated in spring practice. Though he battled through a bit of an injury, he is still in the mix to win a starting job.

Problem for a contender: North Carolina.

The Tar Heels have to rebuild along the front again, after losing starters Kareem Martin and Tim Jackson. Martin leaves behind the gaping hole, after racking up 11.5 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss, along with 14 hurries a year ago. Even with Martin getting into the backfield, North Carolina ranked last in rushing defense, so there is no doubt this group has to make major improvements up front. Among the ends, only Junior Gnonkonde returns as a consistent contributor, with Jessie Rogers and redshirt freshman Dajaun Drennon in the mix. There is more depth at tackle than at end, though, so North Carolina will no doubt be growing up its ends in a hurry to make up for Martin's departure.

Previous previews:
The 2013 signing class has already made its mark on the ACC, from Tyler Boyd and Stacy Coley shining on offense to Jalen Ramsey and Kendall Fuller starring on defense to Ryan Switzer racking up All-America honors on special teams. But for most players, the transition from high school to college takes a little time, and it’s not until Year 2 that they truly shine. With that in mind, we’re taking a look at the best candidates for second-year stardom in the conference -- the players who didn’t quite hit the big time as true freshmen, but are poised for a breakthrough in 2014.

See our previous projections HERE.

[+] EnlargeDesmond Lawrence
Dannie Walls/Icon SMIFormer three-star recruit Des Lawrence is expected to be a starter for the Tar Heels in 2014.
Next up: North Carolina

Class recap: Larry Fedora brought in the No. 21 overall class (and No. 5 in the ACC) in 2013, and he used a good portion of his freshmen right off the bat. T.J. Logan led UNC running backs in rushing, Khris Francis carried 63 times, Bug Howard was a key member of the receiving corps and, of course, Switzer won All-America honors as a punt returner.

Second-year star: CB Des Lawrence (6-foot-1, 175 pounds)

Recruiting stock: Lawrence wasn’t the most coveted talent, and among UNC defensive backs, he was widely overshadowed by ESPN 300 member Brian Walker, UNC’s top signee in 2013. But Lawrence did rank as the No. 47 safety, and was a three-star prospect from Charlotte with good height and athleticism.

2013 in review: A knee injury early in training camp scuttled some early enthusiasm for Lawrence, and he missed the first six games of the season. It’s probably coincidence that UNC finished 6-1 after Lawrence’s return, but he did finally record his first tackle on Nov. 9 against Virginia and saw his playing time mount as the season progressed, finishing with 11 tackles (one for a loss).

2014 potential: The excitement surrounding Lawrence upon arrival at North Carolina was tempered early last season, but coaches knew what they had in him. He entered spring penciled in as a starter at cornerback alongside Walker, his fellow 2013 signee, and showed no signs of slowing down this spring. The Tar Heels’ secondary was burned for too many big plays last season (75 plays of 15 yards or more) and Fedora believes Lawrence and Walker can help turn that tide in 2014. Lawrence will need to show he can be more effective in supporting the run and utilize his size with more physical receivers, but he’s got ample talent to blossom quickly, and UNC is willing to let its young corners learn on the job this season.

Also watch for: The freshmen who played last season are all expected to take a big step forward in 2014, particularly the running backs. Walker will see his role increase significantly alongside Lawrence, and both could blossom into solid players this year. Dajaun Drennon could fill a role in a depleted group of defensive ends, R.J. Prince is pushing for a starting job on a thin line, and Lucas Crowley projects to take over as the starting center. And all of that ignores the biggest wild card, as quarterback Mitch Trubisky remains in competition to win the starting job over incumbent Marquise Williams. In other words, the Class of 2013 was big as freshmen, but it could have a massive impact in Year 2 in Chapel Hill.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

ACC SCOREBOARD

Saturday, 12/27
Saturday, 12/20
Monday, 12/22
Tuesday, 12/23
Wednesday, 12/24
Friday, 12/26
Monday, 12/29
Tuesday, 12/30
Wednesday, 12/31
Thursday, 1/1
Friday, 1/2
Saturday, 1/3
Sunday, 1/4
Monday, 1/12