ACC: Khris Francis

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Following Wednesday’s practice, North Carolina coach Larry Fedora was pressed on his running back rotation. The Tar Heels have a wealth of talent at the position, including T.J. Logan, Romar Morris, Khris Francis and early enrollee Elijah Hood, and the question posed was whether Fedora could manage to get each of them enough carries during the season.

The UNC coach simply laughed. He knows better than to bask in any apparent riches.

“I’ve never had too many great players,” Fedora said. “I can assure you of that.”

[+] EnlargeBentley Spain
Miller Safrit/ESPNNorth Carolina early enrollee Bentley Spain could see immediate playing time on the offensive line in 2014.
If Fedora needed a reminder of how quickly talent can evaporate, he need look no further than the men opening the holes for his vast cadre of running backs. On the offensive line, North Carolina is scrambling.

The attrition began before last season even ended, when All-ACC left tackle James Hurst suffered a leg injury in the Belk Bowl, ending his Tar Heels career with three quarters left to play. Center Russell Bodine followed Hurst out the door, opting to enter the NFL draft after the bowl game. Then Caleb Peterson, who started 12 games last season, underwent shoulder surgery that will sideline him throughout the spring.

Now the Tar Heels are cobbling together an offensive line with just a handful of bodies, many of whom have virtually no gameday experience.

“It’s tough,” Fedora said. “Some tackles are playing in at the guard position and it’s making it tough. It’s not their normal position. The continuity of those five guys up front is pretty chaotic right now.”

The left tackle spot is perhaps the most glaring vacancy of the spring on offense, and while Fedora is looking at three options -- sophomore John Ferranto, redshirt freshman R.J. Prince and early enrollee Bentley Spain. They’re all rotating in at guard, too, to simply fill space.

The shuffling inherently leads to mistakes, and the youngsters are still getting used to the adversity. But more than that, the players behind them are eager to help pick up the slack.

“It takes a while for an offensive line to jell,” Logan said. “The running backs, we’re trying to take our games to the next level, and if they come out with us and compete, they’re going to get a lot better.”

In the end, Fedora said, a little adversity can go a long way toward developing players in the spring, and the hope is that the struggles during the next few weeks will result in a stronger offensive line when the season begins in September.

It’s a situation Fedora knows well. A year ago, the line was in flux, too, but Peterson and Jon Heck learned on the fly and grew stronger from the struggles. This year, Fedora hopes the same will be true of some of the newcomers -- particularly Spain, who was one of the top offensive line recruits in the country and drew raves from his coach for his offseason conditioning work.

“We want to try to create as much adversity for them as possible, and it’s not hard because we have no continuity right now,” Fedora said. “There’s frustration that sets in because they’re not having the success they want to have, and it’s a little more difficult up there. But everything that they’re doing, every rep, you hope it’s a learned experience. Sometimes you learn more through failure than you do success.”
In shorts, North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said, every player looks pretty good, so there’s not much that can be gleaned from the team's first few days of spring practice.

Still, it’s relatively easy to tell the new players from the veterans, and for the Tar Heels, the five early enrollees participating this spring figure to have plenty of eyes on them.

[+] EnlargeElijah Hood
Tom Hauck for ESPNESPN 300 tailback Elijah Hood is one of five early enrollees this spring for the Tar Heels.
“They’re a little big-eyed because it’s a different tempo of practice,” Fedora said after UNC’s first practice on Wednesday.

Carolina brought in defensive backs M.J. Stewart and Allen Artis, tight end Brandon Fritts, offensive lineman Bentley Spain and tailback Elijah Hood this spring. While none have a clear path to a starting job, the youth on UNC’s roster combined with the extra time they’ll spend in practice this spring could make for some surprises by the time the season kicks off in September.

“I think all five of them could help us, and that’s why they’ve taken advantage of the opportunity, gotten here early and are working very hard,” Fedora said.

Fedora said he was pleased with the early work Stewart and Artis got during offseason conditioning drills, and both figure to be in the mix for playing time in the secondary. Spain made a big impression early, and Fedora said there could be a starting job waiting for the freshman by the fall.

“He’s having a great offseason, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that kid isn’t playing for us next year,” Fedora said.

But it’s Fritts and Hood who are perhaps the most intriguing.

With Eric Ebron’s early departure for the NFL, North Carolina will be looking for someone to fill the void at tight end. Fedora said senior Jack Tabb will get first crack at the job, but divvying up Ebron’s 62 receptions and 973 yards from 2013 likely won’t be a one-man job.

Then there’s the running game, which Fedora pointed to as one of the more disappointing aspects of North Carolina’s 2013 campaign. The Tar Heels finished 11th in the ACC in rushing (148.3 yards per game) and Marquise Williams, the part-time starting quarterback, was the team’s leading rusher.

There’s ample reason for optimism on the ground, as UNC returns a deep bench of runners, led by sophomore T.J. Logan (533 yards, four TDs in 2013), who missed the early part of last season with an injury. Romar Morris and Khris Francis will be in the mix, too, but there’s no question that Hood could make an instant impact. One of the top recruits in the state, Hood was an ESPN300 player and the No. 9 tailback in the country, and Fedora said he’s already added weight and impressed coaches during offseason drills.

“He’s a guy that’s 225 pounds and has great speed,” Fedora said. “He’s really having a good offseason with us right now. We’re excited to see how he does this spring.”
North Carolina was an enigma in 2013, opening the season 1-5 before finishing as one of the nation’s hottest teams. The Tar Heels look to keep that momentum going as they open spring practice Wednesday. We talked with head coach Larry Fedora about what’s in store for North Carolina as the players return to the practice field for 2014.

You won six of your last seven games, including the bowl. How can that strong finish to 2013 help you as you kick off spring practice this year?

Larry Fedora: It enables you to go into the offseason with a lot of excitement and a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of young kids are understanding now what it takes to win. It took us a while just to learn. We were so young last year with nine seniors on the team, it took us a while for those young kids that were playing to understand what it truly took to win at this level.

So many young players made a big impact in your turnaround last season. Can you see a difference in them this offseason?

[+] EnlargeLarry Fedora
Rob Kinnan/USA TODAY SportsLarry Fedora's North Carolina team ended up the season as one of the nation's hottest teams.
Fedora: They realize the success they had because of how hard they worked, so you can push even harder at this point in the offseason. Nobody wants to start out 1-5 again. A lot of guys learned some great lessons throughout the season and grew up and it makes us very excited about this upcoming season.

You’ve said it will be an open competition at quarterback. What more do you want to see from Marquise Williams, and what do you think Kanler Coker and Mitch Trubisky can add to the mix?

Fedora: Marquise started six games for us, took us to a bowl game and won. He has the advantage because he’s been there, been in the fire. But we still want to have to earn everything we get at every position -- not just his. We have returning starters, and he would be one of them. But you want to have competition at each position. We’re not there yet, but we’re building there. We’re building depth, so guys compete. And if they’re competing, they’ll be that much sharper, play that much better.

You bring in Kanler Coker and Mitch Trubisky and allow them to compete with Marquise. Both are similar to Marquise. All three of them run very well. They all can throw the football. All fit this style of offense well, including Marquise. So we’re excited about the competition we’re having at that position.

Ryan Switzer made such a big impact on special teams last year. How can you try to get him more involved offensively in 2014?

Fedora: There were a lot of ways to get the ball in his hands last year; it’s just that he was one of those young guys that the light didn’t really come on until five or six games into the season. When he settled down and started realizing "I’ve been doing this for a long time, and it just happens to be my first year in college doing it," then he really exploded.

We don’t have to design other ways to get him the ball. Within our offense, we have plenty of ways to get the ball in playmakers’ hands. He’s proven he’s a playmaker and he will get more balls.

The running game struggled at times last year, but you’ve got a good stable of runners returning. How do you see that dynamic shaking out?

Fedora: We were really disappointed in our production in the running game last year, so we’ve really challenged all of those guys at that position. We’ve got to get much more out of them. Start off with T.J. Logan, who was another of those young guys who, as the season went on, he got much better. He had an injury and didn’t really play until the sixth game, and so by the end of the year, he was probably where he would’ve been about midseason. So we’re excited what he’s bringing back.

Khris Francis was another true freshman that played at that position that has a lot of talent that we’re excited about. Romar Morris is back. He probably has the most experience of everybody. Then you bring Elijah Hood into the mix.

Eric Ebron was a unique talent. How can you replace that production offensively? Can one player pick up all the slack?

Fedora: That was a comfort level for our quarterbacks, knowing that you could put the ball up to Ebron and he was probably going to bring it down. Jack Tabb will most likely step into that role. We’ve got Brandon Fritts, an incoming freshman, that is here. We have Eric Albright there; Tyler Alberts is moved into that position. We’re going to have some good competition there this spring. We’re going to have a tight end on the field. Jack has the opportunity to be just as productive as Ebron was, and this enables other receivers on the field to get more balls also.

The defense really struggled against the run last season, but like the rest of the team, it seemed to improve as the season went along. How much better can the run defense be this year?

Fedora: We were a young football team, and we’ve got guys that are going to now have some experience. We’re going into our third year of the defense, and we’ve had stability on that side. Our guys know what’s going on; they know what’s expected of them. We’ve got to be much better against the run. When you look at it and break it down, you’ll see early on we had some missed tackles that really hurt us, and we gave up some big plays. If we can eliminate those things and get much better in those areas, we’re going to be a much better defense.

[+] EnlargeRyan Switzer
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsRyan Switzer made five punt returns for touchdowns as a freshman, and North Carolina will look for more ways to get him the ball.
As you’ve monitored the offseason thus far, are there a few players you’re particularly excited to get a closer look at this spring?

Fedora: You’ve got M.J. Stewart, who is a young kid that’s come in. Allen Artis is another one on defense. Those guys in the secondary are here. Desmond Lawrence and Brian Walker got quite a bit of playing time last year. T.J. Jiles in the secondary will have to step up. Sam Smiley, who missed the whole season with an injury. Dominique Green was a true freshman who started at safety for us the entire season. We’re going to be so much better in that back end with Tim Scott back, Malik Simmons. These are all young guys who have played quite a bit.

Linebacker with Travis Hughes back with a lot of experience. Norkeithus Otis had a great year last year and I expect him to be even better his senior year. Darius Lipford. Inside, we’re going to count on guys like Ethan Farmer and Shawn Underwood and Justin Thomason that have some big shoes to fill.

We mentioned Switzer’s impact as a punt returner, but it’s tough to repeat a performance like that now that teams are aware of what a weapon he is. How’s he preparing for 2014 on special teams?

Fedora: There’s no doubt. He works hard and he wants to be the best. But he knows now, and I’ve tried to prevent him -- there’s going to be some frustration involved this year until we find out exactly what teams are going to do. The majority of them probably won’t kick to him, and that’s going to cause some frustration. But we’re going to have to find ways to combat that.
The bottom was not really rock bottom, not when you saw the way North Carolina kept fighting against unbeaten Miami on a Thursday night in Chapel Hill.

Despite that close loss, you never got the sense that the Tar Heels had given up on their season, despite a 1-5 record, bowl hopes on life support and chatter that the Tar Heels had been the most disappointing team in the league.

Coach Larry Fedora told reporters afterward, “We’re going to find a way to win football games. That’s going to happen.”

Even still, making a bowl game seemed improbable, if not impossible.

Yet here the Tar Heels stand, riding a four-game winning streak, one victory away from bowl eligibility. They can get there against Old Dominion on Saturday, to complete the biggest in-season turnaround of 2013. Since the regular-season expanded to 12 games in 2006, only five teams that began the season 1-5 went on to make a bowl game. Only one – Rutgers in 2008 – came from a power conference.

“We just had to stay with a positive attitude, and positive behavior,” quarterback Marquise Williams said in a recent phone interview. “That’s one thing Coach Fedora always preaches to us. Any other team probably would have thrown in the towel and been OK with going whatever the record is, but we knew we had to do something to change things around and get us back rolling. That wasn’t the football team we wanted to be. We wanted to be better than that.”

Fedora credits leadership from his coaching staff and seniors to keeping the team together after such a poor start. The low point came Sept. 28, a 55-31 thrashing at home by East Carolina, a game in which players admitted they overlooked their opponent.

Two more loses followed, but there were signs of life. The defense started playing better, giving up fewer big plays. Young players like Ryan Switzer, Bug Howard, T.J. Thorpe and Khris Francis started contributing. Eric Ebron has developed into one of the best tight ends in the country, and already owns the single-season school record for receptions by a tight end.

And Williams showed his worth after starting for an injured Renner in a loss to Virginia Tech.

He and Renner both played until Renner was lost for the season following the NC State game. North Carolina has rolled on to two straight wins without its senior leader. Keep in mind, Williams was not even around the team in the spring because he was on academic suspension.

Now, Williams is a big reason why the Tar Heels have an opportunity to make their first postseason appearance since 2011 after being banned from postseason play in 2012.

[+] EnlargeWilliams
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsQuarterback Marquise Williams has been a big part of the Tar Heels' four-game winning streak.
“Going through that, it was a huge wake-up call,” Williams said. “I didn’t take the game seriously, and didn’t focus on what I needed to do. Adversity is going to hit in your life, and that made me grow up, and become a better person and more mature person, to respect things, to appreciate things. To show people it’s not about me, it’s about everyone else. I’ve been focusing on a lot of people other than myself. I just had to grow up and be more mature about the things I was doing.”

He’s not the only one who has grown up. Of North Carolina’s 36 touchdowns this season, 28 have been scored by either freshmen or sophomores. Switzer already has the single-season school record with three punt return touchdowns, and he needs one more to tie the ACC record.

Defensively, North Carolina is only allowing 331 yards per game and 17.5 points per game during this four-game winning streak. Compare that to 455.9 yards per game and 30.7 points per game during the 1-5 start.

Now granted, the schedule has gotten a lot easier in the back end. According to USA Today’s Sagarin rankings, North Carolina had the fourth-most difficult schedule in the country through its first six games. In the last four, the Tar Heels have faced just one team with a winning record.

Nonetheless, it takes a team playing together to win games, no matter the strength of the opponent. North Carolina stayed true to itself, and now it’s on the verge of getting back to the postseason.

“The entire team has to buy into it,” Fedora said. “For us, it’s earlier in the year so you could go a lot of different ways. That’s why I give credit to the staff and those seniors and the leaders on this football team, how they kept everybody together.”

ACC predictions: Week 12

November, 14, 2013
11/14/13
9:00
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Last week saw a few upsets in the ACC, costing Heather a little more than Andrea. Heather went 4-3 on the week after picking Maryland, Notre Dame and Miami to win. Andrea went 5-2, correctly picking the Hokies to upset the Canes. Andrea now has a one-game lead in the overall standings with a 67-18 mark. Plenty of time for Heather to walk away with the highly coveted, extremely prestigious ACC predictions trophy.

Now on to the picks!

Thursday night

Georgia Tech (6-3, 5-2) at No. 8 Clemson (8-1, 6-1), 7:30 p.m., ESPN. #GTvsCLEM. Recent history suggests this game is going to be close, so expect the same this season. Both teams have plenty on the line in this one, which is the final ACC contest for each. The Yellow Jackets need a win to stay in contention for the Coastal Division crown. Clemson needs a win to stay in contention for an at-large BCS berth. Georgia Tech's defense is much better than the group that allowed Clemson to rack up 601 yards of total offense a year ago, but the Tigers’ defense is better than it was a year ago, too. Tajh Boyd will find a way to make enough plays on this D. He needs three touchdown passes to break the ACC career mark of 95 set by former NC State All-American Philip Rivers (2000-03).

AA picks: Clemson 38, Georgia Tech 33

HD’s pick: Clemson 35, Georgia Tech 28

Saturday

NC State (3-6, 0-6) at Boston College (5-4, 2-3), 12:30 p.m., ESPN3. #NCSTvsBC. The Wolfpack have not been able to find a way to win games in the fourth quarter this season. They continue to struggle with quarterback issues, the biggest reasons why they remain winless in ACC play. Meanwhile, BC has found ways to win the last two weeks in the fourth quarter and now stands one victory away from bowl eligibility. The Wolfpack are getting several key players back on their defensive front, but Andre Williams seems like an unstoppable force right now. Williams needs 256 yards to break Mike Cloud's single-season school record for rushing yards.

AA picks: Boston College 24, NC State 21

HD’s pick: Boston College 28, NC State 21

North Carolina (4-5, 3-3) at Pitt (5-4, 2-3), 12:30 p.m., ESPN3. #UNCvsPITT. Both teams have experienced a youth movement of sorts this season. Twelve true freshmen have played for Pitt, and the Panthers are led in seven statistical categories by freshmen. Meanwhile, 24 of North Carolina's 32 touchdowns this season have been scored by freshmen or sophomores. Young players like Ryan Switzer, Bug Howard, T.J. Logan and Khris Francis have been critical to North Carolina's recent turnaround. With an improving defense, North Carolina has not given up nearly as many big plays over its three-game winning streak: only 12 of 46 "big plays" given up have come during this streak. The Tar Heels are on a hot streak, and that continues against a Pitt team that might have a letdown following an upset of rival Notre Dame.

AA picks: North Carolina 28, Pitt 24

HD's pick: Pitt 24, North Carolina 21: The Panthers are confident from their win against the Irish, and this is the win they need to become bowl eligible in front of a home crowd. More importantly, quarterback Tom Savage was sacked only one time by Notre Dame -- a huge improvement in the pass protection. Pitt’s offense is taking care of the ball well and will continue to open up the play-action against UNC with a strong running game. Another big reason the Panthers get it done? Defensive tackle Aaron Donald. He’ll make himself comfortable in the Tar Heels’ backfield.

Maryland (5-4, 1-4) at Virginia Tech (7-3, 4-2), 12:30 p.m., ESPN3. #MDvsVT. Well look who has played its way back into the Coastal Division race? None other than the familiar Hokies, who are riding high off an impressive win at Miami. Logan Thomas had one of the best performances of his career, and the run game was outstanding. Virginia Tech hopes to carry that momentum against the Terps, who are on a three-game losing streak. A sputtering Maryland offense is not going to be able to do much against the No. 3-ranked defense in the country.

AA picks: Virginia Tech 30, Maryland 10

HD’s pick: Virginia Tech 31, Maryland 13

Syracuse (5-4, 3-2) at No. 2 Florida State (9-0, 7-0), 3:30 p.m., ABC. #CUSEvsFSU. Everybody already has penciled in wins for Florida State the rest of the way out, but the Seminoles are going to have to guard against complacency if they want a spot in the national championship game. Syracuse has shown improvement with its run game and on defense over the last two weeks. In five wins this year, the Orange are averaging 244.4 yards rushing. To have any shot at the upset, Syracuse is going to have to maintain that average. That is a tall task.

AA picks: Florida State 49, Syracuse 13

HD’s pick: Florida State 42, Syracuse 10

No. 23 Miami (7-2, 3-2) at Duke (7-2, 3-2), 3:30 p.m., ESPNU. #MIAvsDUKE. Miami is not going to lose three straight games. It doesn't matter how bad its defense has looked over the last two weeks or how badly it missed Duke Johnson against Virginia Tech. That game got out of control because of special teams miscues that put Miami in a hole from the outset. Duke has its own issues to deal with on offense, with nine turnovers over its last three games, all wins. A big reason has been the play of the defense, which has forced nine turnovers over the same stretch. Miami simply has way more talent on offense than anybody the Blue Devils have faced this season, and Stephen Morris will find a way to get Miami back in the win column.

AA picks: Miami 30, Duke 21

HD’s pick: Duke 28, Miami 24: Going out on a limb here, but it’s not a typical week in the ACC if there isn’t at least one shocker. The main reason for this pick, though? Duke has an honest-to-goodness belief it can win. The Blue Devils went on the road and beat Virginia Tech. There’s no reason they can’t beat an average Miami team at home if they play smart, disciplined, mistake-free football. Sure, Miami has more “athletes,” but right now, Duke has the better defense and all of the momentum it needs for its second upset of the season.

North Carolina season preview

August, 14, 2013
8/14/13
10:30
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Today we're looking at UNC, which returns one of the nation's most accurate passers ...

North Carolina Tar Heels

Coach: Larry Fedora (42-23 overall, 8-4 at UNC)

2012 record: 8-4

Key losses: RB Giovani Bernard, G Jonathan Cooper, DT Sylvester Williams, LB Kevin Reddick

[+] EnlargeBryn Renner
Bob Donnan/US PresswireWith veteran quarterback Bryn Renner leading the Tar Heels, this year's offense should run much smoother.
Key returnees: QB Bryn Renner, OT James Hurst, DE Kareem Martin, S Tre Boston

Newcomer to watch: Running back Khris Francis quickly made headlines as an early enrollee with his performance in the spring game. With the early departure of standout Giovani Bernard to the NFL, the Tar Heels are looking for some help in the running game. While A.J. Blue and Romar Morris are the leading candidates to do that, Francis showed some big-time potential this spring. He had a game-high 101 yards on 20 carries in the spring game.

Biggest games in 2013: Aug. 29 at South Carolina, Sept. 21 at Georgia Tech, Oct. 5 at Virginia Tech, Oct. 17 vs. Miami.

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: How the running game will fare without Bernard and his lead blocker. It’s not just Bernard who the Tar Heels will miss. Equally as important is the hole that was left by Cooper up front. Caleb Peterson, a redshirt freshman from Auburn, Ala., is slated to take that job, and while he was the No. 11 guard in his recruiting class, according to ESPN.com, there will still be some adjusting to his new role. North Carolina’s offensive line will still be solid and experienced, especially with Hurst returning, but Bernard was a special player who also will be missed in the return game.

Forecast: North Carolina’s offseason was much smoother, just for the simple fact that the Tar Heels were more comfortable after one year in Fedora’s system. With a veteran quarterback returning in Bryn Renner, UNC is looking to build upon last year’s success and is further motivated by the fact that this year the program is actually eligible to play in the ACC title game after serving a one-year postseason ban.

Whether they can actually win the division depends on how efficient the running game is without Bernard, and if the defense can find some playmakers and leaders to replace Williams and Reddick. There are high expectations that senior defensive end Kareem Martin will be one of the best in the conference, and Carolina returns all four starters in the secondary, including safety Tre’ Boston, who led the team in tackles with 86 and tied cornerback Tim Scott for the most interceptions with four.

Offensively, Renner should be one of the best in the country, and he’s on the verge of setting nearly every school career passing record. He has thrown for more than 3,000 yards in each of the past two seasons. While Renner is the face of the offense, running back A.J. Blue is “the heart and soul of the team,” according to Fedora. Blue is penciled in as the starter this fall, and he was second on the team in rushing a year ago with 433 yards and nine touchdowns.

Overall, North Carolina has enough talent returning that it should again be a contender in the Coastal Division race. The schedule, though, isn’t going to be easy, as some of UNC’s toughest games are on the road. The Tar Heels have to play at Georgia Tech, at Virginia Tech and at Pittsburgh, and a nationally televised Thursday night home game against Miami will help determine the division winner.
Few if any coaches will tell you point-blank this time of year which first-year players are likely to see the field and get a chance to contribute immediately, but there were a few hints across the ACC this spring. For some players, like Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, the spotlight was unavoidable. For others, like Miami freshman linebacker Alex Figueroa, their success was more under the radar. Based on what we learned this spring, here are five first-year players worth watching this fall in the ACC in no particular order:

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesJameis Winston's intelligence might be as impressive as his physical tools, Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said.
Clemson TE Jordan Leggett: He enrolled in January and wasted no time impressing the coaching staff. When Sam Cooper tore his ACL, the door opened for Leggett, who had seven catches for 97 yards and a touchdown in the spring game, and he played well in the last two scrimmages. He’s not listed as the starter yet, but he is good enough to earn the job by the opener against Georgia.

UNC RB Khris Francis: Another early enrollee, Francis opened some eyes with a stellar performance in the spring game. With the early departure of standout Giovani Bernard to the NFL, the Tar Heels are in need of a running back to step up. While A.J. Blue and Romar Morris are the leading candidates to do that, Francis showed some big-time potential this spring. He had a game-high 101 yards on 20 carries in the spring game.

Miami LB Alex Figueroa: Figueroa also enrolled in January, and Miami’s coaches have praised his progress -- evidenced by his spot at the top of the post-spring depth chart at outside linebacker. The son of two U.S. Marines, Figueroa has been lauded by those within the program for his tireless work ethic. According to hurricanesports.com, coach Al Golden said that Figueroa earned the No. 1 Sam linebacker spot in the spring because he outworked everyone during Miami's UTough program.

Florida State QB Jameis Winston: The hype has grown larger than the 6-foot-4, 218-pound two-sport phenom, but he hasn’t even officially been named the starter. Following the transfer of former quarterback Clint Trickett, though, and an outstanding performance in the spring game, many FSU fans have already anointed Winston the starter, even if coach Jimbo Fisher hasn’t. At the very least, Winston’s 12-for-15, 205-yard passing performance in the spring game made him the clear front-runner.

(tie) Virginia Tech cornerback Brandon Facyson and tackle Jonathan McLaughlin: They were both early enrollees and played well enough this spring to work their way into the two-deep. McLaughlin played his way to first-team left tackle, ahead of junior Mark Shuman, and Facyson spent time with the second-team defense behind starter Kyle Fuller.
North Carolina is a team folks are not sleeping on in the Coastal this year, thanks to immediate results in Year 1 under Larry Fedora.

But there certainly are some questions that have to be addressed on offense, with players like Giovani Bernard, Jonathan Cooper and Brennan Williams gone. I had a chance to check in with North Carolina offensive coordinator Blake Anderson to see how his offense has progressed in filling those spots and addressing other key areas. Here is a little of what he had to say.

Where do you feel you guys stand after the spring?

Blake Anderson: We’re a long ways away from where we’ve got to be. We lost some really good players, and it’s not going to be easy but in terms of this spring, one of the things we focused on was we wanted to increase our transition speed -- play faster. The first year of a tempo offense from a pro-style team to a tempo-style team was good but we felt like we can improve and I thought we did that. We focused on being faster between plays, the ability to get the next play off quicker, to communicate. I thought we took a step forward in that.

We simplified things offensively to try to be better technically and better positionally and allow guys to maybe fine-tune their craft. We did a better job as a staff of being more streamlined and narrowing a few things down and that allowed guys to get better at a few things. We have so many new faces on offense, we wanted some young guys to step in and play early so it’s a combination of a couple different things.

And really, the rest of it is a work in progress. How many of our tailbacks take over the load that Gio’s leaving and then with three offensive linemen getting drafted we have to find who our starting five is and even more importantly who Nos. 6 and 7 are. We’ve started on that process, but we’re not near finished with it.

In terms of playing faster, how many plays did you end up running per game?

BA: It was somewhere around 74, 74.5 last year, a good bit lower than what we would like it to be.

Where do you want it to be?

BA: Well, we’d love to average 80 a game. That’s always been a ballpark number. Some of that is outside of our control. Some of that is how the opponent plays offensively in terms of the clock they run, what are they doing -- are they trying to milk the clock? Some of it had to do with games we had the lead in and we consciously slowed the game down in the second half. I look at it in a game-by-game basis but I felt like overall our transition tempo can improve and it should and it is. Now I don’t know if our average play per game will be a whole lot different or not. But 80 is a good marker for us. It gives us a good average number. If we’re around that number we’re moving in the right direction.

How does the transition up front impact Bryn Renner?

[+] EnlargeJames Hurst
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsThe Tar Heels have to replace three starters on the offensive line, but they are set at left tackle with James Hurst.
BA: I’d be lying if I said he doesn’t think about it but I don’t want him worried about what’s happening up front. I think he has some comfort in knowing he’s going to have one of the best left tackles in the country with James Hurst on one side, and for a right-handed quarterback that obviously is a good amount of comfort. There’s not a guy that’s going to outwork Hurst. Russell Bodine at center has come a long way. He’s become one of the best at that position in the country as well so he has a tremendous amount of confidence in those guys. We’re fortunate that Landon Turner played as many snaps as he did last year with Brennan Williams being injured. Even though three guys went in the draft, there’s three guys coming back that played basically the entire season for us. I don’t think Bryn’s that concerned or I hope he’s not that concerned about those other two spots. We took big steps with Kiaro Holts and Caleb Peterson this spring at getting them to be functional up there. Are we going to be as talented as we were last year? Probably not. Maybe in the long run we’ll be just as good. Initially, there’s going to be some growing pains but that’s not something Bryn’s got a lot of time to be worried about. I think he’s aware he has to get the ball out quickly at times, he’s aware of where some pressures might come from. His biggest role is communicating well and feeling poised so those guys aren’t rattled, so Bodine and Hurst and Landon Turner can bring those other two guys along. It’s going to be a team effort. I don’t want him to worry. His job is already tough enough as it is.

Coach Larry Fedora mentioned if the season started today, A.J. Blue would get the starting nod at running back over Romar Morris because of his experience. How do you envision the rotation working out?

BA: It’s going to be running back by committee to some degree. Even as good as Gio was and as good a year as he had, it took all those guys to get through the season. So it’s going to take them all. They’re all a little bit different, and injury at some point is going to keep somebody out for a game or a quarter or a half and we’re going to need everybody, all hands on deck. I would say the walk-on Charles Brunson that went through the spring or T.J. Logan, the freshman coming in, I would say those guys would end up touching the ball as well. It’s just the nature of college football.

How do you think Khris Francis fits into the mix?

BA: Really surprised at how quickly Khris Francis picked up things. He put the ball on the ground early but got better as the spring went on. For a freshman coming in, it’s always an eye-opening experience. Defenses at this level attack the football and try to take the football away. He’s got the skill level to be good. I think it’s going to be a one-two punch, you may see A.J.-Romar one week and maybe Romar-Khris or maybe Khris and A.J. depending on who’s healthy, who’s got the hot hand, who’s having a great day and how the season is going. I can see a one-two punch with three or four guys.

Quinshad Davis emerged for you at receiver last year but maybe you didn’t have the depth you wanted. Where does that group stand now?

BA: Just the transition from the old style to what we do, that’s the position where it takes the longest to get your numbers built the way you want to get them built. You’re getting a lot more plays than you’ve gotten. We’re asking more guys to be on the field than they have in the past. So we’re still seeing some growing pains. We are thin, we were beat up. We’ve been unfortunate with a few guys who have ability but haven’t been physically able to get out there. T.J. Thorpe is one of those guys we have to get on the field. I thought Quinshad had a great freshman year, better than expected. He had a really good spring. I saw him step up, his personality, he became even more competitive on a daily basis whereas in the fall he was playing well, but you didn’t see him step up and try to lead in any way. He was just following the group. I thought this spring he stepped up his competitive nature and led some drills, led the group, and that will make him a better player.

And then Kendrick Singleton and Sean Tapley both played several different positions during the spring. We bounced them around and utilized them different ways, which is going to benefit us in the fall. It’s going to make us more versatile. We’re trying to find out what role they can play. The way we operate you have to talk about the tight end at the same time. Without Eric Ebron this spring, I thought Jack Tabb had a very, very good spring. He trimmed down a little bit, got a step faster and became more versatile. Once you throw Ebron back in the mix with Tabb and those guys I mentioned and hopefully we can infuse a couple young guys coming in, I think we’re going to be still inexperienced but I think we have a chance to be a step better.
North Carolina Tar Heels

2012 record: 8-4

2012 conference record: 5-3, Coastal

Returning starters: Offense: 6; defense: 7; kicker/punter: 1

Top returners

QB Bryn Renner, OT James Hurst, DE Kareem Martin, S Tre Boston

Key losses

RB Giovani Bernard, OG Jonathan Cooper, DT Sylvester Williams, LB Kevin Reddick

2012 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Bernard (1,228 yards, 12 TDs)

Passing: Renner* (276-of-422 for 3,356 yards, 28 TDs, 7 INTs)

Receiving: Quinshad Davis* (776 yards, 5 TDs)

Tackles: Boston* (86)

Sacks: Reddick (6.5)

Interceptions: Boston, Tim Scott (four each)

Spring answers

1. Offensive line. Though the Tar Heels are losing three starters on the offensive line, including All-American guard Cooper, they do already have their starting five pretty set going into fall camp. Landon Turner and Kiaro Holts have playing experience, and Caleb Peterson is a redshirt freshman taking over for Cooper. The good news is the Tar Heels have two terrific players helping them in tackle James Hurst and center Russell Bodine.

2. Strong secondary. There are some key faces the Tar Heels have to replace on their defense, but their secondary returns nearly all of its key contributors. Safety Tre Boston has an opportunity to be an all-conference player, and this unit should be much better than it was a season ago.

3. Watch for Kareem Martin. By all accounts, Martin had a terrific spring as the leader of the defensive line with Williams gone. Martin had four sacks and six tackles for loss in the spring game, and is motivated to have a monster season.

Fall questions

1. Running back. We did get a few more answers this spring about A.J. Blue and Romar Morris, but it’s still unclear how the Tar Heels are going to use him and true freshman Khris Francis, who was in for spring. They might use a running back-by-committee approach as they try to replace Bernard’s productivity.

2. Offensive line depth. While the Tar Heels feel certain they know what their starting offensive line is going to look like, they are not so sure about who the next three men into the rotation are going to be. So depth is one key area that has to be built in the offseason and into fall camp.

3. Receiver. At this point, North Carolina has three known commodities in Quinshad Davis, Sean Tapley, and tight end Eric Ebron. The Tar Heels are waiting on T.J. Thorpe to get healthy and some other guys to really start being more consistent and defining their roles, because there are plenty of opportunities for making big plays in this offense.
One of the biggest questions facing UNC coach Larry Fedora this spring was how he is going to possibly replace running back Giovani Bernard, who finished 2012 as the ACC’s leading rusher, leading scorer, top punt returner and leader in all-purpose yards.

[+] EnlargeA.J. Blue
AP Photo/Don KellyA.J. Blue, a redshirt senior, is in the best position to take over as the Tar Heels' starting running back in the fall.
Answer: It starts with A.J. Blue.

Fedora said on Thursday that if the season began today, Blue would be in the starting lineup. He also said, though, that Romar Morris had the best spring -- and that true freshman Khris Francis was one of the biggest surprises of the spring game. So while Blue might be the leader on the depth chart heading into fall camp, North Carolina found out this spring that it will have more than one player capable of helping to compensate for the loss of Bernard, who declared early for the NFL draft.

“I thought those guys did a nice job,” Fedora said. “If we had to start out tomorrow, we would go with A.J. Blue right now. A.J. Blue has emerged as a team leader, not just on the offensive side of the ball, but the entire team. A.J. is about 215, 220 pounds, a guy who’s going to finish off all his runs. He’s going to be the bruiser type of runner, he’s going to do a really nice job of being physical, and he does a great job in pass protection and he can catch the ball well."

Blue is a redshirt senior who didn't get his first career start until last fall against Wake Forest. He made the most of it, running for a career-high 106 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries. While he established himself as the starter this spring, he actually wasn't the top performer in the group, according to Fedora.

“A.J. is a guy that can really come on for us, but the guy probably that had the best spring was Romar,” he said. “Romar Morris is a guy who can take you from goal line to goal line. He’s got special speed and skills. He’s much more effective as he’s slowed down to be able to see the zones, the zone run, and all of the seams that are created that way. I’m real excited about what Romar is going to bring to the table this year.”

UNC fans seem to be equally eager to see what else Francis can do. Francis, an early enrollee, had a game-high 101 yards on 20 carries in UNC’s spring game.

“I was really pleasantly surprised at how quickly he picked everything up,” Fedora said.

Blue has the edge now, but it might just take all three to replace Bernard this fall.

ACC spring game recaps

April, 15, 2013
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Seven ACC teams held their spring games this past weekend as practice begins to slowly wind down until August.

Heather provided her Pitt recap earlier this morning. Here is a quick look at the headlines from the other spring games across the league:

CLEMSON

The Tigers suffered a big hit during their spring game last Saturday, when the team lost backup quarterback Chad Kelly to an apparent torn ACL. Kelly was in a heated competition with Cole Stoudt for the backup job, but it now appears he could be lost for the season. Coach Dabo Swinney said Kelly was hurt while making a cut at the end of a run. Starter Tajh Boyd was held out of the game so the Tigers could get a good look at Kelly and Stoudt. The backup last season, Stoudt set a Clemson spring game record with 304 yards passing and threw four touchdown passes, but his White team lost to the Orange team 34-26 in front of a spring-game record crowd of 30,000.

Sammy Watkins led all receivers with seven catches for 156 yards and two scores, while Grady Jarrett had three sacks. Vic Beasley had two sacks, giving him 10 sacks in four scrimmages.

Tight end Sam Cooper and tackle Kalon Davis also sustained knee injuries in the game, but they are not believed to be as serious.

DUKE

Anthony Boone and Jamison Crowder were the stars of the spring game as the Blue Devils showed a glimpse of how good they can be on offense this season. Boone went 18-of-30 for 273 yards with two touchdown passes to Crowder, and two interceptions. Crowder finished with four catches for a team-high 71 yards as the Blue team beat the White 27-12.

Blue team end Britton Grier had two sacks and seven tackles, including three for loss. Lucas Fisher, Sam Marshall and Keilin Rayner each added sacks for the Blue team.

“I like where we’re headed,” coach David Cutcliffe said. “We’re building some depth. I think we can be a more energetic defense. The big thing is focusing on why we give up big plays, but trying to play defense, trying to force longer drives. It’s going to be interesting film to study. We got a lot out of this game.”

FLORIDA STATE

Coach Jimbo Fisher did not name a starting quarterback after the spring game, so the competition will go on into the offseason. But highly touted Jameis Winston sent jaws dropping with his standout performance, going 12-of-15 for 205 yards with two touchdown passes before leaving the game early to play in the Noles' baseball game against Duke.

"He came in there and he took advantage of opportunities," Fisher said. "That's what you got to do. You've got to go make plays and he's done a nice job of making plays. He took the opportunity to take the day with the stage he had and I thought he played pretty well for the most part."

Winston and Clint Trickett split time with the first team for most of the afternoon. Trickett was just 10-of-16 for 98 yards and an interception before switching to the second team, where he was 12-of-16 for 161 yards and a touchdown. Jacob Coker, also competing for the starting job, went 15-of-26 for 186 yards, a touchdown and two late interceptions.

MARYLAND

Running backs Brandon Ross and Albert Reid took center stage, as both ran for over 100 yards in a 13-13 tie between the White and Red teams on Friday night.

Ross had 123 yards on 10 carries, while Reid had 138 yards on 23 carries in the game. Wes Brown, who missed the spring with a shoulder/ankle injury, is expected to be healthy in the fall so the competition at this position is going to be an intriguing storyline during the offseason.

"I limited what the defense could do. It was still good to see them," coach Randy Edsall said. "That is what we have seen out of Brandon and Albert all spring along with how they run. The one thing we have to be able to do is run the ball efficiently. When we do that it opens up the passing game. With the skill guys we have at wide receiver it will make us more productive and a chance to get big plays. They ran the way they have been running all spring.”

MIAMI

Stephen Morris threw for a game-high 256 yards and four first-half touchdowns to lead the Orange team to a 35-20 win over the White team. Meanwhile, ACC freshman of the year Duke Johnson led all rushers with 120 yards on 10 carries as the Hurricanes showed how explosive they can be on offense this season.

“We’re pretty dominant,” receiver Rashawn Scott told local reporters. “Everyone is communicating and … no one is frustrated. If we mess up, we all talk instead of yelling at each other.”

At halftime, the Canes handed out four Spring awards to Nantambu-Akil Fentress (305 walk-on award), Olsen Pierre (defensive most improved player), Danny Isidora (offensive most improved player) and Herb Waters (special teams most improved player).

NORTH CAROLINA

Bryn Renner went 16-of-27 for 216 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Blue team to a 34-10 win over the White. The running back who took center stage in the game was not A.J. Blue or Romar Morris but true freshman Khris Francis, who ran 20 times for 101 yards to lead the White team. Blue had eight carries for 30 yards, and Morris had 15 carries for 80 yards to lead the Blue team as the Tar Heels work to replace Giovani Bernard. Blue added a 33-yard touchdown reception on a screen pass.

"I thought all three of our running backs played well," coach Larry Fedora said. "But Khris, for his first time out there in a game-type atmosphere, he did a good job. He hit some holes and exploded in them. One time I thought he got stood up. I said something to him and the next time he's got his shoulders down and he's running north-south. That's what he's got to do, so he did some nice things."

Defensively, end Kareem Martin had seven tackles, including four sacks. Travis Hughes added a team-high 14 tackles, including two sacks.

Q&A with Larry Fedora: Part II

March, 7, 2013
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North Carolina started spring practices on Wednesday, and we checked in with Larry Fedora to get his take on the program heading into the first of 15 practices in Chapel Hill. Here is the second part of our conversation:

Heading into spring, what are your main priorities?

Larry Fedora: I would say No. 1 is to try to discover what the identity of our offense is going to be, what the identity of our defense is going to be, and what the identity of our special teams is going to be. That’s No. 1. There is no identity right now until we get back out on the field. You get 15 practices to start determining what that identity is going to be. Probably the main thing is to be better than we were when we left off.

How much better do you think you can be? From the outside looking in you see, ‘Wow, they lost some good guys up front.’

LF: No doubt. That’s a good question. I don’t know the answer to that. How good can we be? I’m going to expect us to be really good. Whether we’re going to reach that I don’t know. That’s to be determined, but the expectation level is not going to change, I can assure you.

What about in the return game? Gio (Bernard) was such a big part of that.

LF: We’re going to have an opportunity for somebody else to step up. T.J. Thorpe was going to be the starter going into the season and when he broke his foot that changed. T.J. will get that opportunity, Reggie Wilkins, Khris Francis was a return guy in high school. We’ll see who can emerge into that spot and also give some opportunities to some guys we signed this year who will be coming in this summer.

You mentioned one player at running back (Khris Francis), are there any other players in this incoming recruiting class who Carolina fans might see right away?

LF: That’s hard to tell you before spring. I’ll have a better idea after spring. You hope you don’t have too many of those guys, because that means there’s holes to fill. But there may be. We’ll have to wait and see.

How much more comfortable are you and your staff right now, just having a year under your belts?

LF: Much more. For one, when you look at a guy’s face you know his name. When you see a guy on the field you know who he is. Hopefully by this time we understand what guys can do, what they can’t do, what needs to be developed, how to keep them away from certain things and get them involved in other things.

You guys are playing South Carolina, one of the highlights of the ACC schedule. What are your thoughts on that game?

LF: We’re excited about it. They’re probably as good as they’ve ever been in the history of their program. Coach Spurrier has done a great job with them. It’s exciting. For our guys, it’s extra motivation to work hard in the offseason, spring ball and summer, because you’ve got a great game to start the season with.

Q&A with UNC coach Larry Fedora

March, 6, 2013
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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.

UNC running game to get a makeover

December, 14, 2012
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North Carolina’s running game is going to get a makeover this offseason.

As coach Larry Fedora enters his second season, he does so arguably with a bigger challenge on offense than he did at this point a year ago. With Giovani Bernard, the nation’s top punt returner and No. 11 rusher, leaving two years early to enter the NFL draft, the Tar Heels will lose their most explosive playmaker on both offense and special teams. Equally as important, though -- if not more -- is the fact that All-American offensive tackle Jonathan Cooper, who was Bernard’s lead blocker, is also gone along with two other starters on the offensive line.

The good news for 2013: UNC will return offensive tackle James Hurst, a three-year starter, and center Russell Bodine. Guard Landon Turner started the past four games after Brennan Williams got hurt. At running back, UNC returns senior A.J. Blue (433 yards, nine touchdowns) and sophomore Romar Morris (386 yards, two touchdowns). The staff is confident it has recruited well at that position. Khris Francis, a four-star recruit, is rated the No. 31 running back in his class by ESPN.com.

While having to replace three starters on the offensive line is never easy, there is at least experience at running back waiting in the wings. It’s going to be even more difficult to replace Bernard on UNC’s special teams.

T.J. Thorpe, who led the ACC in kickoff returns in 2011, returns after redshirting this year with a foot injury, but the staff isn’t sure if he can/will return punts. North Carolina will sorely miss Bernard’s home-run ability in the return game.

UNC won eight games in Fedora’s first season, but he inherited an offense tailor-made for success. This year, Fedora is going to have to be the one who puts the pieces together.

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