What we learned from the first 12 games of 2015 was that Gene Chizik could work some minor miracles with a group of defensive players inherited from the last coordinator. What we learned from the final two games of the season was that Chizik’s miracles can only go so far, and for North Carolina to really turn the corner on that side of the ball, he needed to add talent -- and more specifically, talent that fit his system.
As the page turns to 2016, Chizik is certainly closer to that goal, and with Larry Fedora’s offense that’s fully stocked with explosiveness, there’s a good chance the Tar Heels will be in the driver’s seat for the ACC Coastal again. But some key players -- and key voices, for that matter -- are also gone, which means there will be some big holes to fill.
Biggest need going into signing day: A pass rush
The defensive line was a disaster for North Carolina last season, finishing 59th out of 65 Power 5 teams in pressure rate and 55th in sack rate, leaving the secondary vulnerable all season. And all of those struggles were noted before the bowl game implosion against Baylor, when no one on UNC’s defense -- particularly the guys on the line -- could figure out how to stop the run. That the Tar Heels were able to do so much with so little production up front was impressive, but it’s going to be hard to turn that trick twice.
How it was addressed: Not surprisingly, UNC’s lone ESPN300 signee was a defensive end. Tomon Fox is a four-star pass rusher from Georgia with good quickness. He’s a potential difference maker on the line, but he’ll need to bulk up from his 6-3, 232-pound frame and refine his skill set a bit -- meaning he might be more of a project than an impact performer in 2016. The Tar Heels signed four other defensive linemen in this class, too, led by four-star tackle Kyree Campbell. The influx of new talent should help, but if UNC is really going to take a step forward, it probably has to start with the development of Dajaun Drennon, Nazair Jones, Tyler Powell, Jeremiah Clarke and others.
Strongest position: Wide receiver
Sure, North Carolina waves goodbye to its two most senior members of a prolific offense with QB Marquise Williams and receiver Quinshad Davis moving on. And while their losses could be significant, the Heels clearly have the talent to replace them. At QB, Mitch Trubisky has been waiting in the wings for three years and could blossom into a star quickly -- particularly given the wealth of talent at receiver. UNC returns Ryan Switzer, Bug Howard, Mack Hollins and Austin Proehl, while adding Vanderbilt transfer Jordan Cunningham, a former ESPN300 recruit who had to sit out the 2015 season.
Biggest remaining need: Linebacker
The Heels added Dominique Ross, Jonathan Smith, Tyrone Hopper and juco transfer J.B. Copeland to the mix in this signing class, but after the departures of Jeff Schoettmer and Shakeel Rashad, the linebacking crew is still awfully thin. Schoettmer and Rashad played the bulk of the snaps last season at the mike and will positions, respectively, likely leaving a group of sophomores -- Andre Smith, Cole Holcomb, Ayden Bonilla -- to pick up the slack. That they’ll have spent a year in Chizik’s system already is good news, but replacing the experience that’s departed won’t be easy.