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North Carolina Tar Heels season preview

August, 13, 2014
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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.

ACC's lunchtime links

July, 31, 2014
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The season really cannot get here soon enough, can it?

Until then, no news is good news, and North Carolina is the latest to find that out, with multiple reports saying that three scholarship Tar Heels are no longer on the team.

A school spokesman confirmed the departures to ESPN.com.

Defensive tackles Shawn Underwood and Greg Webb and linebacker Clint Heaven will not be with the Heels when fall camp kicks off Friday. Offensive guard J.J. Patterson is not a part of the 105-man roster, the spokesman said.

Underwood and Webb are no longer a part of the program due to personal reasons, the spokesman said, while Heaven has transferred to Northern Iowa.

Underwood is the most decorated of the four, having been on the two-deep up front and coming off a 10-tackle junior season.

As Insider Carolina's Greg Barnes notes, 15 UNC scholarship players with eligibility remaining will not return for the 2014 campaign, a number that would be staggering if it wasn't so familiar in the conference already. As Andrea Adelson noted last week, fellow Coastal division foe Georgia Tech has lost 13 non-seniors since last season ended.

Here's to relatively quiet camps this next month.

Elsewhere across the ACC:
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.”
Just a few weeks remain before fall camp opens around the ACC, and there are plenty of big questions still left to be answered. With that in mind, we’re looking at some of the conference’s biggest wild cards -- veterans without a distinguished track record who could make all the difference for their respective teams this season. One caveat: With so much of the conference breaking in a new QB, we ignored that key position for now. We’re also not including any true freshmen, since they all come with their share of intrigue. Instead, these are the Coastal Division’s biggest wild cards as we get set for 2014.

Duke: DE Dezmond Johnson

With fewer than five tackles for loss per game last year, Duke had the second-least-productive defensive front in the ACC. Then the Blue Devils lost three of their four starters on the D-line. That means there are major holes to fill and plenty of room for improvement. Johnson is a fifth-year senior coming off a solid spring, which makes him the first man up to fill the void.

Georgia Tech: DE Kenderius Whitehead

Talk about a wild card. Whitehead started his career at NC State, transferred to Georgia Military College, then became the first juco player to sign with Georgia Tech in the Paul Johnson era. Because he’s wrapping up his degree at GMC, he won’t even report to Tech until later this month, but the Yellow Jackets are so thin on the D-line that Whitehead could still be the starter at rush end. Aside from Adam Gotsis, Tech has virtually no established pass rushers, but before Whitehead can even begin to assert himself on Tech’s depth chart he has to take care of academics elsewhere.

Miami: LB Thurston Armbrister

A part-time starter last season, Armbrister has the ability to rush the QB and play the run. But after two linebackers were dismissed earlier this month, further diminishing an already thin group, the Hurricanes need their senior to blossom into a more well-rounded player in 2014. Aside from Denzel Perryman, Miami has little in the way of sure things in the linebacking corps. Getting some better production from that group -- Miami had the fewest tackles for loss in the conference and second fewest among Power 5 teams last season -- could be the key to the Canes’ defense.

North Carolina: DT Greg Webb

There’s ample depth on UNC’s defensive line, but there are plenty of question marks, too. After bandit Norkeithus Otis, the unit lacks an experienced pass rusher, and the Heels finished last in the ACC in rushing defense in 2013, allowing 182 yards per game on the ground. Right now, a handful of juniors and seniors are atop the depth chart, but last year’s struggles only underscore the need for younger talent to emerge. Webb could be the centerpiece. An ESPN 300 recruit in 2013, he has the size and quickness to make a difference up the middle. And if he can progress along with Nazair Jones, Dajaun Drennon and Junior Gnonkonde, there’s plenty of room for the unit to grow into a force in 2014.

Pitt: OT Adam Bisnowaty

A former four-star recruit, Bisnowaty has plenty of upside, but a back injury stemmed his progress early last season and sidelined him for the final four games and much of this spring. The left side of Pitt’s O-line has ample talent between Bisnowaty and Dorian Johnson, but the unit was a sieve at times last year, with the Panthers allowing the most sacks per game of any Power 5 team in the country. If Bisnowaty is healthy, he has a chance to get much better. And if he can hold down the left tackle spot, Pitt’s pass protection -- combined with a more mobile QB in Chad Voytik -- has a chance to improve dramatically.

Virginia: WR Darius Jennings

Coming out of high school, Jennings was an ESPN 150 prospect, and he appeared close to blossoming as a sophomore in 2012, catching 48 balls for 568 yards. Last year, however, was a regression. He had 10 fewer catches and just 340 yards on the season. He flashed potential with a 13-catch, 119-yard, two-TD performance against Georgia Tech, but that accounted for a third of his season’s production. With Virginia’s QB situation improving, the Cavaliers are looking for Jennings to finally capitalize on his potential in his final season in Charlottesville.

Virginia Tech: TE Ryan Malleck

OK, so pretty much the entire Virginia Tech offense feels like a wild card this year -- from leading rusher Trey Edmunds to a talented-but-inconsistent receiving corps to, of course, the mystery at QB. But for an offense in transition, its best friend can often be a reliable tight end. Coordinator Scot Loeffler plans to use Malleck, who missed last year with a shoulder injury, as a key contributor in 2014. When Loeffler was OC at Temple in 2011, his tight end led the team in receiving. When he moved to Auburn in 2012, the tight end finished second. Malleck was held out of contact drills this spring and has some competition at the position, but if he’s healthy, it’s reasonable to expect a big season.

ACC recruiting primer

February, 6, 2013
2/06/13
7:00
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ESPN RecruitingNation has signing day covered. Follow ESPNU’s coverage, chat with analysts and get breaking news on our Signing Day Live page beginning at 7:30 a.m. ET through 7 p.m. ET. For more on what to expect on signing day, check out the ACC conference breakdown Insider.

Bold prediction: Virginia Tech will climb back toward the top of the conference after signing a strong 2013 class.

Boston College
Biggest need: Playmakers at running back.
Biggest recruit: Three-star athlete Myles Willis will make the transition from high school option quarterback to running back for Steve Addazio’s spread offense.

Clemson
Biggest need: Playmakers on defense.
Biggest recruit: While the Tigers’ chances at four-star prospect Montravius Adams are slipping, there are some quality recruits on board, including ESPN 150 defensive end Ebenezer Ogundeko.

Duke
Biggest need: Defensive backs for the 4-2-5 package.
Biggest recruit: Three-star cornerback Evrett Edwards should be able to come in and play early.

Florida State
Biggest need: Offensive linemen and front-seven depth.
Biggest recruit: Florida State lost ESPN 150 offensive lineman Austin Golson a week ago and has been frantically trying to get him to recommit.

Georgia Tech
Biggest need: Team speed.
Biggest recruit: Several options here, but three-star wide receiver Ricky Jeune should find a spot on the field quickly.

Maryland
Biggest need: Playmakers and depth.
Biggest recruit: Junior college wide receiver Deon Long should be able to line up across from Stefon Diggs and give the Terps another major vertical threat.

Miami
Biggest need: Run-stopping defenders.
Biggest recruit: Five-star prospect Matthew Thomas is the most coveted prospect in the eyes of Hurricanes fans, but four-star defensive tackle Jay-nard Bostwick fits an even bigger need.

North Carolina
Biggest need: Playmakers on defense.
Biggest recruit: At the top of the class are two ESPN 150 prospects in cornerback Brian Walker and defensive tackle Greg Webb. Both will get early looks.

North Carolina State
Biggest need: Athletes for spread offense.
Biggest recruit: Three-star wide receiver Johnathan Alston leads a very good class of skill players.

Pittsburgh
Biggest need: Speed on offense.
Biggest recruit: Four-star offensive lineman Dorian Johnson is one of the best in the nation.

Syracuse
Biggest need: Quality depth on defense.
Biggest recruit: Junior college linebacker Luke Arciniega has the potential to be a big-time contributor in the fall.

Virginia
Biggest need: Defensive backs.
Biggest recruit: ESPN 150 running back Taquan Mizzell and four-star defensive back Tim Harris are two players to watch early.

Virginia Tech
Biggest need: Team speed on defense.
Biggest recruit: ESPN 150 prospect Kendall Fuller leads one of Frank Beamer’s best classes.

Wake Forest
Biggest need: Playmakers on defense.
Biggest recruit: Four-star linebacker Lance Virgile is the sort of physical presence Wake Forest’s defense will need in the future.

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