ACC: Devonte Brown

There’s a lot to like about this year’s North Carolina roster, Larry Fedora admits. There are far more options now than there had been in his first two years in Chapel Hill, and when pressed for positions of strength at last week’s ACC Kickoff, the UNC coach reeled off a long list that included the tailbacks, the secondary, the receivers and even quarterback, where the Tar Heels are embroiled in a full-fledged competition for the starting job.

But for a team with eyes on a division title, there was one area that was noticeably absent from Fedora’s accounting of talent: the line of scrimmage.

On this point, Fedora is of two minds. On the offensive side of the ball, he readily admits that line is his biggest concern. Experience is limited, injuries were rampant, and question marks exist in key areas. The progress the O-line makes in camp, Fedora said, will have a massive impact on the Tar Heels’ season.

[+] EnlargeNorkeithus Otis
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesNorkeithus Otis is a key man up front for a revamped Tar Heels defensive line.
But what about the other side of the ball? The losses on the defensive front were massive, too. Defensive end Kareem Martin (21.5 TFL, 11.5 sacks) is gone. Pass rusher Darius Lipford (6 TFL, 2.5 sacks) followed. Among the returning defenders, only Norkeithus Otis had as many as two sacks last season.

And while the offensive line endured its share of struggles in 2013, the defensive line might have been North Carolina’s biggest weakness.

The Heels finished 2013 last in the ACC in rushing defense, surrendering 182.4 yards per game on the ground. UNC’s defense was 10th in the league in yards per carry, 11th in tackles for loss, and it allowed more than 200 yards per game on the ground in its six losses.

The defensive front was an area of concern in 2013 that lost its biggest star, and yet Fedora still thinks there’s cause for optimism.

“Across the entire front, we probably don’t have that name guy that everybody’s talking about, but I think that’s great motivation for those kids,” Fedora said. “I would say we have some numbers right now, some guys that can play, quite a few guys we feel comfortable with in the rotation.”

That list starts with Otis, who returns at UNC’s bandit position as the team’s most fearsome pass rusher. Behind Otis, Fedora believes Shakeel Rashad is ready to blossom into a productive performer. On the line, a trio of seniors — Ethan Farmer, Shawn Underwood and Devonte Brown -- bring veteran stability, while redshirt freshmen Dajaun Drennon, Nazair Jones and Greg Webb are poised to make an immediate impact.

In other words, the sheer quantity of options is enough to offer hope for improvement.

“We have a lot of guys ready to step up,” Otis said. “We have a lot of guys getting bigger, getting better.”

Otis said he’s been pleased with the work his teammates have put in over the offseason, and he envisions a group far more prepared for the rigors of the season than it was a year ago.

If that’s the case, it could mean avoiding another catastrophic opening act for the Heels’ defense, which actually improved dramatically as the season progressed in 2013.

Last September was a nightmare. UNC allowed a whopping 234 yards per game on the ground in the season’s opening month, allowing nine rushing touchdowns in four games. But in the season’s final nine games, that average dipped to a more respectable 159 yards per game rushing, and the opposition found the end zone on the ground just 10 more times.

That’s progress, Otis believes, and even with some new faces in key roles, it’s a trend he believes the unit is ready to build from.

“I’ve seen a major difference,” Otis said. “I’ve seen the guys working harder, watching film, teaching the younger guys, trying to get better each and every day.”

Breaking down the spring in the ACC Coastal division:

Duke

Spring practice over

What we learned:
  • Momentum rolls on. It's hard to believe the Blue Devils are already done with spring ball, but coach David Cutcliffe opted to open practice in February to capitalize on the momentum that was created last season. After the spring game ended Saturday, he praised the way his players handled the practices. There was a great deal of retention and not a lot of re-teaching, so coaches were able to get much more out of their players this spring.
  • Max McCaffrey emerges. Jamison Crowder had a spectacular 2013 season, but it was essentially him and then everybody else in the receiver group. That may not be the case this season. McCaffrey earned praise from coaches and teammates for the way he improved during the spring. Offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery said McCaffrey made as many plays as anybody else on the offense this spring.
  • Stepping up on the line. The Blue Devils lost three starters on their defensive line -- both ends in Kenny Anunike and Justin Foxx, and defensive tackle Sydney Sarmiento. But it appears as if the players behind them are ready to step up and make a seamless transition. Defensive ends Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo and Dezmond Johnson each had two sacks in the spring game. Kyler Brown also made the switch from linebacker to defensive end and had a sack in the spring game as well.
Georgia Tech

Spring start: March 24

Spring game: April 18

What to watch:
  • Justin Thomas takes over. After Vad Lee announced his transfer from Georgia Tech, the quarterback reigns fell to Thomas, who played in 10 games this season. The Jackets had their share of highs and lows under Lee, but what the staff is going to be looking for first and foremost is Thomas’ ability to hold on to the football. Georgia Tech had 24 giveaways and ranked No. 12 in the ACC in turnover margin.
  • Defensive line questions. The Jackets lose three starters on the defensive line, including All-ACC defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu -- who had 22.5 sacks over the last two seasons. Who will step up and fill that type of production? The most experienced backups returning are sophomores Tyler Stargel and Patrick Gamble. Also, Travin Henry will get a look at defensive end after playing wide receiver last season.
  • Offensive line questions. Georgia Tech also loses three starters on the offensive line -- tackles Ray Beno and Will Jackson and center Jay Finch. The trio combined to start 117 games in their careers, so there is no doubt this is going to be a much less experienced unit in 2014. The good news is All-ACC guard Shaq Mason returns to help anchor the new-look line.
Miami

Spring start: Started March 1

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Quarterback derby. Stephen Morris is gone, but the Canes do have at least one experienced quarterback on the roster in Ryan Williams, a Memphis transfer who has served as Morris’ backup the last two seasons. As a true freshman with the Tigers, Williams started 10 games -- all the way back in 2010. Challenging Williams is redshirt freshman Kevin Olsen, who had a bit of a rocky first year in Miami, along with Gray Crow.
  • Defensive improvements. Perhaps more than what happens at quarterback, Miami must see improvements out of its defense this season. Embattled defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio kept his job but the status quo cannot persist. Every single area of the defense must be upgraded. Ranking No. 13 in the ACC in total defense just can’t happen again.
  • Defensive improvements, Part II. To try and help the secondary, Miami already moved Dallas Crawford over to safety, where the Canes could use the help. But Miami must be stronger on the defensive front. The Canes only had 12 sacks in eight conference games. By comparison, BC led the way with 25 sacks in conference games. This is a big opportunity for guys like Al-Quadin Muhammad, Tyriq McCord and Ufomba Kamalu to really step up.
North Carolina

Spring start: Started March 5

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • The quarterbacks. Marquise Williams took over as the starter when Bryn Renner was gone for the season and ended up helping the Tar Heels make a bowl game after a 1-5 start. But coach Larry Fedora said the competition is open this spring. Look for Mitch Trubisky and Kanler Coker to give Williams a major push.
  • Defensive line questions. Kareem Martin and Tim Jackson are both gone, leaving big holes in the North Carolina front. Martin ended up notching 21.5 tackles for loss to rank No. 3 in the ACC. So who are the next guys up? At end, Junior Gnonkonde and Jessie Rogers are the top two contenders, while Shawn Underwood, Devonte Brown and Justin Thomason will compete for one of the tackle spots.
  • Replacing Ebron. Eric Ebron was dynamic at tight end for the Tar Heels last season, leading the team with 62 receptions for 973 yards, while adding three touchdowns. Will the Tar Heels be able to replace that type of production with just one player? Jack Tabb would be next in line among the tight ends, but this is a huge opportunity for the North Carolina receiving group as well. We saw plenty of promise out of young guys like Bug Howard, T.J. Thorpe and Ryan Switzer.
Pitt

Spring start: March 16

Spring game: No spring game. Last day of practice April 13

What to watch:
  • The quarterbacks. Chad Voytik played really well in relief of an injured Tom Savage in the bowl game, but coach Paul Chryst said the competition to win the starting job is open headed into the spring. At this point, Voytik and Trey Anderson are the only scholarship quarterbacks on the roster. So you can bet the biggest goal of all is to keep them both healthy.
  • Replacing Aaron Donald. One of the biggest surprises in all of college football this past season was the emergence and utter dominance of Donald at defensive tackle. Donald swept every major defensive award after notching 28.5 tackles for loss, 11 sacks, 16 quarterback hurries and four forced fumbles. Darryl Render is the next man up.
  • Complementary receiver. Devin Street is gone, leaving Tyler Boyd as the only standout receiver on the roster. Not only do the Panthers have to develop a consistent No. 2 receiver, they also have to develop some depth. Watch for Manasseh Garner, a former H-back who moved to receiver late last season when Street got hurt. He is more physical than Boyd, and has some extended playing experience.
Virginia

Spring start: Started March 1

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • The quarterbacks. David Watford is not guaranteed to win his starting job back after last season, when he threw eight touchdown passes to 15 interceptions. Greyson Lambert and Matt Johns are also in the mix and reps with the first team will be split. In fact, Lambert got the first-team reps when the Hoos opened spring ball last weekend.
  • Andrew Brown. The highly-touted freshman will have every opportunity to win a starting job at defensive tackle, and it all starts in spring ball. The No. 3-ranked player in the ESPN 300 comes in with tons of hype; now can he translate that into on-field success? He, Donte Wilkins and Chris Brathwaite will be competing to start next to David Dean.
  • Mr. McGee. Jake McGee was the best player the Hoos had among the group of tight ends and receivers a year ago, leading the team with 43 catches for 395 yards. This spring, McGee has now moved over to receiver so the Hoos can take advantage of his athletic ability. Plus, Virginia is lacking playmakers at the position, so we’ll see how much this move benefits both McGee and the offense.
Virginia Tech

Spring start: March 27

Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • Quarterback. Mark Leal heads into the spring with a leg up in the quarterback competition but make no mistake, there is no set starter. He will get competition from freshmen Andrew Ford and Brenden Motley in the spring, with freshman Chris Durkin and Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer arriving in summer. This competition will likely drag on into the fall.
  • Front seven. The Hokies are losing five terrific players up front, including ends James Gayle and J.R. Collins, and linebacker Jack Tyler, who racked up 100 tackles in back-to-back seasons. There is no doubt a major priority this spring is finding their replacements and building depth along the line and at linebacker. Who will step up as the leader of this group with Tyler gone?
  • Skill players. This has been an ongoing theme over the last two seasons and will continue to be a theme until the Hokies have consistently good players at running back and receiver. Offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler is excited about the return of tight end Ryan Malleck, and his entire tight end group for that matter. A healthy Malleck and improvement from Kalvin Cline means the Hokies could simultaneously improve their run and pass game.

Q&A with UNC coach Larry Fedora

March, 6, 2013
3/06/13
11:00
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North Carolina starts spring practices today in what will be coach Larry Fedora’s second season. The Tar Heels finished 8-4 last year and atop the Coastal Division standings, but were ineligible to play for the postseason because of NCAA sanctions. This year, North Carolina is eligible and has a chance to be a contender again, but first it has to replace some big-time talent on both sides of the ball. I spoke with Fedora recently to get his take on where the program stands heading into the spring.

Here are the highlights of the first part of our conversation:

[+] EnlargeLarry Fedora
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsBeing eligible for the postseason in 2013 has coach Larry Fedora and UNC pumped.
You had a great season in your first year, but this year you’re eligible to compete for the ACC title. Does that change the perspective going in?

Larry Fedora: It doesn’t really change the perspective. For us, the objective is to be better in each of the three phases than we were at the end of the season. You’ve got some holes you have to fill with seniors who left who did some good things. We’ve got to identify the guys who are going to step up and fill those holes and who are going to make the plays. Are we going to pick up where we left off, or are we going to go back? Are we going to start backwards? For us, it’s trying to pick up where we left off, and by the end of spring, be a better football team than we were in the last game.

What does the competition look like to replace Giovani Bernard?

LF: For Gio, we’ve got A.J. Blue and Romar Morris, and we have a kid we signed out of Durham by the name of Khris Francis, who is in school. Those three guys will be competing for that playing time. It’s the same thing I told them last year: For us it doesn’t matter whether you are a freshman, sophomore, junior or senior. It’s about producing, and the guys who produce are the ones who are going to be on the football field. We’ll see in spring what those three guys do. Both Romar and A.J., they got extensive playing time last year, so they’re going to feel comfortable with the system, and they’ll be better players than they were last year.

What does quarterback Bryn Renner need to focus on this spring?

LF: If you watched Bryn progress over the season, really about the last five games were maybe his best of the season. I think it’s to pick up where he left off. Hopefully, with the position development stuff that we do in the offseason, Bryn will pick up where he left off and be better than he was at the end of the season. Leadership is huge, which Bryn is taking a hold of and running with. I think for him it’s managing the game and taking advantage of what the defense gives us. That goes back to making great decisions. If we can make sure we improve in those areas, then he is going to be a better football player.

Overall, how do you think you guys look defensively? You lose some big names over there.

LF: Yeah we lose Kevin Reddick, we lose Sly (Sylvester Williams), some pretty big names that are going to go on and play at the next level and do well. We’ll be revamping in a lot of areas. We’ve got some young guys on the D-line that are going to have to step up and see who’s going to emerge as a leader up there. Kareem Martin really needs to have a big year for us. He’s a guy who’s going to come back with the most experience. Tim Jackson is going to be a guy inside that’s going to come back with the most experience. You’ve got Shawn Underwood, and you’ve got Devonte Brown, those are all guys who really need to have a great spring. Ethan Farmer, those guys. This spring is going to be very, very critical for their success. Justin Thompson and Jessie Rogers, they’re not freshmen anymore. I think they’re going to make some great improvement this spring. Then you go to the backers. I think this is really big for Travis Hughes. Travis Hughes needs to become the man. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does and Tommy Heffernan has to keep improving.

Check back Thursday for Part II of the conversation.

Opening camp: North Carolina

August, 4, 2012
8/04/12
1:00
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As ACC teams begin to start practicing again, Andrea Adelson and I will have a quick preview of each team to get you caught up on the basics. Next up to open camp …

School: North Carolina

Start date: Friday

Projected finish at ACC media days: Third in the Coastal Division

Biggest storyline: The Larry Fedora era begins. There has been a much-needed fresh start in Chapel Hill, and it all starts with the energetic new head coach whose offense is as up-tempo as his personality. Fedora has said repeatedly that the bowl ban and NCAA sanctions won’t deter his players from giving their all this fall, and the fact that they know what the sanctions are and can put the past behind them is a victory in itself. Fedora is right; those within the program and around it are tired of hearing that four-letter word (NCAA). It’s time to play football and see just how good this team can be after a complete overhaul of both the staff and philosophies.

Biggest position battle: Nose tackle. Sophomores Shawn Underwood and Devonte Brown are competing for the starting job, but neither has much experience. Underwood was listed as a co-starter at defensive tackle, and was one of 10 true freshmen to play last year. He had shoulder surgery immediately after spring practice. Brown also played as a true freshman last year, but his time was limited to the season opener against James Madison.

Who needs to step up: Wide receivers. This group has to increase its production in order to compensate for the loss of Dwight Jones, who accounted for nearly a third of Carolina’s receiving yardage last year and scored nearly half of the team’s receiving touchdowns. Erik Highsmith, Jheranie Boyd and Todd Harrelson will get the spotlight, but ideally, Fedora would like to have at least three receivers on the field the majority of the time, and eventually four or five at times. The group isn’t quite ready for the latter yet, but if Fedora’s offense is going to work, the receivers need to be ready for the “Fed spread.”

Opening camp

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