ACC: T.J. Thorpe

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- North Carolina coach Larry Fedora had the right idea when he described the final five minutes against Virginia as wild and hectic.

Other adjectives that work: Improbable. Crazy. Insane. Head-scratching ...

You get the idea.

What went down Saturday was a microcosm of the way both North Carolina and Virginia have played recently: The Tar Heels are the team that won't go away; the Hoos are the team that cannot get out of their own way.

So it came to be that North Carolina came back to beat Virginia 28-27 to stay alive in the Coastal Division race. The game turned on four plays in the final 5:09, plays that are probably going to keep coach Mike London up tonight.

Play No. 1: Virginia had a 26-21 lead and began marching down the field, all the way down to the North Carolina 32. On second down, Virginia quarterback Greyson Lambert went back for a screen pass to Kevin Parks. Defensive tackle Nazair Jones read the play and leaped off the ground, snagging the interception. North Carolina took over at the Virginia 38 with a chance to win.

"I should have just done something different with the ball, thrown it in the dirt or something," Lambert said. "I thought that would have been a statement drive for us and a play here or there can always change that. We've got -- especially me -- to do a better job of executing."

Fedora said: "I was looking somewhere else at the time until everybody started yelling, and I saw him running and I saw the screen setting up and I mean he's 6-foot-5 and he's 290 pounds and he's mobile. That was big. Screens is a big part of what they've done on the past and our guys worked hard on it so it was good to see them execute that from their work in practice."

Play No. 2: North Carolina got down to the Virginia 11 after Marquise Williams threw a 27-yard pass to Ryan Switzer. On second down, Eli Harold tackled Williams to the turf. Williams' helmet popped off, sending backup Mitch Tribusky into the game.

Fedora considered calling a timeout, but decided to roll with it. Trubisky calmly delivered a 16-yard touchdown pass to a wide open T.J. Thorpe, pulling the Tar Heels ahead 28-27.

"I'm happy with what we've been doing with Mitch," Fedora said. I know a lot of people think we're idiots but it paid off for him in that situation. He was calm, he knew what he was running and he executed the play. He never blinked."

Trubisky said: "I saw his helmet come off and just knew I had to be ready. It was such short notice that I didn't have time to think about it."

Virginia safety Anthony Harris said, "It's tough to give up a play like that right in the middle of the end zone and give them the lead on that play."

Play No. 3: Fedora had a choice to make. With 4:05 remaining, he could kick to Virginia and hope his much-maligned defense would come through. Or ...

Assistant coach Ron West asked Fedora whether he wanted to go for an onside kick.

"Throughout the game, they were saying, 'Look, it's there, and then they said it again, and I said you know what? It's the right time to do it," Fedora said.

Kicker Nick Weiler, who missed two field goals in the game, lined up.

"We executed it in practice every time, so the coaches were confident in it," he said. "We had the look and we knew we had to make a game-changing play on special teams."

The signal went up, Virginia was unprepared, and Mack Hollins recovered the ball.

"Nick kicked a real good ball," Hollins said. "They were backing up while we were keeping it onside so by the time they turned around, they had no chance."

Virginia safety Quin Blanding said, "For them to cover it, it blew my mind."

Play No. 4: Williams returned to the field and made some plays by running with the ball -- getting North Carolina down to the Virginia 21 with 1:17 to play. The Tar Heels called a timeout, and elected to set up for a field goal.

Coming off the sideline, Virginia made a critical error. There was confusion among the linemen, and the Hoos ended up with 12 men on the field. The refs saw it and called the penalty.

Game. Over.

"There was an extra guy on the field who should not have been there," London said. "When we make those switches, one guy comes in and one guy comes out. It was not caught or noticed. That is coaching, that is us on the sideline watching what's going on."

Now both teams are 4-4, and 2-2 in Coastal play. This one could be a launching point for the Tar Heels to make a run at a division title; it could also spell doom for the Hoos.
North Carolina Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora knows he has an unusually small senior class headed into 2014, a fact he has pointed out to throughout the preseason.

But does that make the Tar Heels inexperienced?

It all depends on your perspective.

With the recent dismissal of Shawn Underwood, North Carolina has 11 seniors on its 105-man roster. Five are starters -- four on defense and just one on offense. Only one of those five players -- cornerback Tim Scott -- has started more than 15 career games.

Forty players are either true or redshirt freshmen. But as Phil Steele points out, the Tar Heels return 75 percent of their lettermen from a year ago to rank No. 22 in the country. Indeed, North Carolina relied on a bevy of young stars to turn around a tough start to 2013 and make a bowl game. Those young stars are another year more experienced. Sophomores like Ryan Switzer, Khris Francis, T.J. Logan, Bug Howard, Dominique Green and Brian Walker will be relied on even more. Three sophomores are expected to start on the offensive line as well.

That may not replace the intangible that senior leadership brings, but at least the Tar Heels have got a solid core of young talent with game experience headed into the season.

Now for a comparison, let us take a look at rival NC State. Coach Dave Doeren has spent months discussing the youth on his team, throwing out one stat after another to prove his point.

The Wolfpack have 52 true or redshirt freshmen on the 105-man roster and 17 total seniors. Of that senior group, eight are projected starters. Three have started 20-plus games in their careers.

Even though the senior class is larger and 14 starters are back, NC State still ranks No. 114 in the nation in experience. So in this case, a bigger senior class does not translate into more experience because nearly 50 percent of the NC State roster has never played a collegiate down.

Plus, NC State does not have as many sophomores with as much game experience as those at North Carolina.

Bottom line: The North Carolina senior class may be small, but the Tar Heels make up for the numbers with many more experienced players across the board. The only issue to work through is leadership. We saw what strong senior leadership meant to Duke a year ago. With so few seniors, Fedora knew he had to try and develop more leaders. So earlier in the summer, Fedora decided to go away from a senior-only leadership course to include players by position. Switzer, Quinshad Davis and T.J. Thorpe were in that group.

Will it help? We have to wait and see.

Breaking down the spring in the ACC Coastal division:


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.

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.

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.

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.

The Belk Bowl unfolded quickly as North Carolina jumped out to an early lead over Cincinnati and never looked back Saturday, running away with a 39-17 win. Here's how it all happened:

It was over when: Can a game be over almost as soon as it begins? North Carolina started off as strong as conceivably possible, scoring the game's first touchdown on a 2-yard run from Romar Morris with 5 minutes, 40 seconds left in the first quarter. Just three minutes later, the Tar Heels delivered what proved to be a debilitating series of jabs as Kareem Martin got the sack-safety and T.J. Logan followed that up by taking the ensuing kickoff 78 yards for a score, resulting in a 9-point swing. Cincinnati showed some life in the second half, but the 16-point deficit was ultimately too much to overcome.

Game ball goes to: Even without Blake Anderson calling plays, North Carolina didn't miss a beat. Marquise Williams executed the offense in perfect tandem with head coach Larry Fedora, who subbed in while his former offensive coordinator was off starting his own head-coaching career at Arkansas State. Williams, a talented sophomore, spread the ball around in the air, completing passes to seven different receivers while rushing for 46 yards. He finished the game with 171 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions on 19-of-33 passing.

Unsung hero: Make no mistake, North Carolina won the Belk Bowl in the trenches. A tip of the cap should go to both the offensive and defensive lines. The Tar Heels wouldn't have jumped out to such a big lead without the defense providing four sacks and three three-and-outs in the first half. Cincinnati's line entered the game having allowed 12 sacks all season, but UNC wound up with five on the day. UNC's offensive line, meanwhile, allowed for a balanced offensive attack, with 171 yards through the air and 174 yards on the ground.

Stat of the game: North Carolina got the monkey off its back by finally not rejecting some good old-fashioned home cooking. The Tar Heels won a bowl game in their home state for the first time after losing the three previous bowl games they played in Charlotte. Ryan Switzer, meanwhile, managed to tie an NCAA record by returning his fifth punt for a touchdown this season. Where many would have called for a fair catch in the third quarter against the Bearcats, Switzer hung in, caught the ball with a number of defenders in the vicinity and weaved upfield 85 yards for the score.

What North Carolina learned: Fedora taught his Tar Heels that it's not how you start but how you finish. Ending the season with six wins in seven games was impressive. Getting above .500 after starting off the year 1-5 was incredible. The hope for North Carolina is that the momentum coming out of the Belk Bowl will carry over into next season and such a furious surge won't be necessary to reach the postseason again. With Williams, freshman tailback Logan, freshman receiver Switzer and sophomore receivers T.J. Thorpe and Quinshad Davis all returning to Chapel Hill, the future is bright.

What Cincinnati learned: The Bearcats, on the other hand, end the season on a sour note. The momentum of winning six straight games late in the year was almost entirely wiped out after losing in overtime against Louisville on Dec. 5 and then getting blown out by North Carolina on Saturday. Next season will be tough for head coach Tommy Tuberville, as he will be without senior quarterback Brendon Kay and the quarterback of the defense in senior linebacker Greg Blair. But with the much-traveled redshirt freshman transfer quarterback Gunner Kiel entering the fold, there's reason for optimism. The former No. 3-ranked quarterback in the 2012 class has all the tools to do well in the Bearcats' spread offense.

To watch the trophy presentation of the Belk Bowl, click here.
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's lunchtime links

August, 2, 2013
Have a great weekend, everyone!
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.

Q&A: UNC QB Bryn Renner, Part II

April, 12, 2013
North Carolina quarterback Bryn Renner has his sights set on an even better season in 2013. In Part II of our interview, he discusses his new backfield mates, where he wants to improve and where the Tar Heels are finding motivation this offseason.

What have you seen out of A.J. Blue and Romar Morris this spring that gives you the confidence they can replace Giovani Bernard?

BR: The confidence factor and playing experience. You can’t replace that. Just getting in live action, having the feel of what game experience is like, those guys split reps with Gio and also had to start games when he was hurt. You can’t replace that. They know where to go, that’s the biggest thing that’s different. A.J. runs the ball extremely hard, a very physical runner. Romar’s an outside speed guy. It’s a good 1-2 punch to have. Replacing Gio is going to be tough, but you couldn’t ask for two more hungry guys to step into that role.

[+] EnlargeQuinshad Davis
Robert Willett/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT via Getty ImagesQuinshad Davis (14) is expected to be one of Bryn Renner's go-to receivers this season.
What about at receiver; we saw Quinshad Davis step up last year. How does that group look?

BR: Quinshad has made a ton of progress as far as his work ethic in the weight room, getting bigger and faster. He missed a little bit of training camp and didn’t have a chance to get that weight on him. Him coming back and having that playing experience -- hopefully he can continue to have a big year. But I think, Sean Tapley hopefully we’ll get T.J. Thorpe healthy, guys like Kendrick Singleton, Jack Tabb, Eric Ebron -- we have some receivers that can make plays. The only thing they’re lacking is making plays on a down to down basis. Once we get into the flow of the season and get more reps in training camp, they’ll be able to step right in there and play good football for us.

Everybody expects improvements going into Year 2. Where do you think you can get better?

BR: As a quarterback, you have to be the leader. That’s the one thing I wanted to focus on in the offseason is really taking the offense and dissecting it. Where can I get better? I looked at every interception I threw, and where I could improve. The biggest thing I have to do is manage the game. Coach [Larry] Fedora says it all the time. I think down the stretch I did a good job late in the season, when we reeled off some wins, of just managing the game and not doing too much. The second year of the system you expect to get better and that’s what I’m hoping to do.

You guys were able to stay motivated last year despite knowing there was no postseason. Do you sense any extra motivation now that you will once again have a shot at playing for an ACC title and in a bowl game?

BR: It’s motivated us even more. We had a lot of expectations last year to prove people wrong, that it wasn’t going to affect us. But now it’s at our fingertips, so we’re using last year as a learning tool, of just perseverance. Now we can go after a conference title and have a chance to compete for a bowl game, that’s what we’re looking forward to. Last year, it was tough on us sitting home watching the ACC title game. It put a chip on our shoulder. That’s our expectation every year, but it starts with practice and one game at a time. We can’t look too far ahead but ultimately our goal is to get back to a bowl game.

One game at a time starts with a big one against South Carolina. Have you guys already started talking about that game?

BR: I think you can’t not talk about it. That’s the biggest thing, enjoying the moment. Not many kids get a chance to kick it off against a very good team and a great player in Jadeveon Clowney. That’s what you look forward to as an athlete. So we’re going to use that as motivation and take that into the summer. After spring ball’s over, we’ll have that motivation to work that much harder. So you can’t take that for granted, and you look forward to that happening.

For those who missed it, here is Part I.

If you’re just joining us, this series looks at the unranked teams in the ACC as either contenders or pretenders heading into the 2013 season. Florida State and Clemson are not included because they are the only two teams from the ACC expected to be ranked this preseason. Those rankings automatically qualify them as contenders.


What do you expect out of North Carolina in 2013?


Discuss (Total votes: 2,938)

Let's move on to the Coastal Division, which is completely wide open headed into 2013. Expect there to be many more contenders out of this division. Let's start with North Carolina, which had the best overall record in the Coastal last season at 8-4. Can the Tar Heels contend now that they are eligible for the postseason?

Why they're a contender: North Carolina returns one of the top passers in the league in Bryn Renner, who threw for 3,356 yards, 28 touchdowns and seven interceptions a year ago. He has some talent to throw to, from Sean Tapley to Eric Ebron to T.J. Thorpe to Quinshad Davis, who emerged in the second half of the season. A.J. Blue and Romar Morris should help ease the loss of Giovani Bernard. And James Hurst returns as one of the best tackles in the nation to help mitigate the loss of Jonathan Cooper. The Tar Heels were one of the most explosive offenses in the ACC last year, ranking just behind Clemson. With Renner back and another year in the Larry Fedora hurry-up spread system, the hope is that this team will be even better on offense despite losing some of its best players.

Why they're a pretender: As mentioned above, North Carolina has to replace Bernard and Cooper, the two top players on offense from a year ago. Bernard was more than just a running back. He was the best all-purpose player in the ACC, and they are going to have to rely on multiple players to reproduce his production. Can Romar and Blue be as effective? Who replaces Bernard in the return game? Three starters are gone on the offensive line -- two guards and a tackle. Redshirt freshman Caleb Peterson or sophomore Landon Turner are vying to replace Cooper, guys with little playing experience. So the potential for some growing pains exists, which could hamper Renner and the run game. Defensively, North Carolina loses its top two players off an inconsistent group from a year ago, with Sylvester Williams (13.5 tackles for loss) and Kevin Reddick (85 tackles, 18.5 for loss) gone.

Final verdict: Contender. North Carolina has to replace some outstanding All-ACC players. But the Tar Heels do return Renner to lead the offense, which should be more fine-tuned in Year 2 under Fedora. So should the defense, which showed flashes at times but should have a much better understanding of what is expected in this scheme. Even with Bernard and Cooper gone, it is tough to count out a team with a senior quarterback capable of throwing for 3,500 yards in an offense designed to rack up yards and points.

More in this series

Q&A with Larry Fedora: Part II

March, 7, 2013
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.

UNC running game to get a makeover

December, 14, 2012

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

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.
Casey Barth, North Carolina's record-setting kicker, is out for the rest of the season, according to the school's latest injury report. Barth was injured on a kickoff in the third quarter of Saturday's 68-50 loss to Georgia Tech last week. Barth holds the school record for field goals and extra points, and has made 80.5 percent of his field goals (66 of 82). He had made all 44 extra points this season, a single-season school record. He is also the school's career leader with 66 field goals, surpassing his brother Connor (54), with a 30-yard field goal at Wake Forest.

North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said Thomas Moore will take over the place-kicking and kickoff duties.

"Casey, losing him is obviously a big loss for our football team," Fedora said. "He's the record holder here at the school for just about everything in the kicking game. He brings a wealth of experience and a lot of confidence to the position.

"When Casey was injured last year, Thomas was the one who was doing all of the kicking at that time. So we feel comfortable with him. He's had plenty of live reps in games throughout his career. Even though we're going to miss Casey, the next guy has gotta step up and play."

Carolina has made 166 consecutive extra points, including a school record 126 by Casey Barth and 42 by Thomas Moore. Barth’s only miss was in the second quarter of the season opener vs. The Citadel in 2009. Barth has made 160 of 161 attempts.

Here are the full injury reports for both teams:


Out for the season

Out for the season

ACC injury report: Week 11

November, 9, 2012
Here are the ACC injury reports for Week 11 from the schools that emailed them:


Out for the season

Surgery/Out for the season
North Carolina


NC State

Out for the season

Out for the season

ACC injury report: Week 9

October, 26, 2012
Here are the ACC injury reports for Week 9 from the schools that emailed them:



Out for season



Out for season

Out for season



Out for season