UNC Beat: Retooled Heels Moving Fast

I’m back! Just 24 hours after telling the world how optimism abounds in Coral Gables, I’m afraid things may sound like a broken record, as I shift my focus towards Chapel Hill. But the truth is Miami and North Carolina have similar situations. The Heels have one thing going for them — they’ve already heard from the NCAA. With postseason play already off the table, they’re taking the field for pride this season, and a fiery coach has reenergized a program many consider to be a sleeping giant.

I’m pinch hitting on UNC Beat this week, so we’ll be short and sweet, and offer a quick look at how things are taking shape in Blue Heaven.

Head coach Larry Fedora leaves Brett Favre’s neighborhood and brings his Red Bull sponsorship to Tobacco Road. Listening to him speak, it’s hard not to want to run a marathon, or leap through walls. And that was just from media day, what on earth is he going to be like when UNC takes on State?

Offensively, Fedora and his crew are bringing a spread attack to the Heels, which at the very least, should be incredibly entertaining. They spent spring practice running a play, sprinting the length of the field and around back to the previous line of scrimmage. And if you weren’t there by the time the second unit ran its play, you were too slow. That’s how fast this no huddle offense wants to play in September.

Obviously, this will start under center. If you lined up any random 15 quarterbacks, and hand-picked them to run a spread option attack, Bryn Renner might not be among your first ten selections.  The 6-foot-3 senior is a straight drop back passer who completed a remarkable 68.3% of his passes as a first year starter. On the flip side, factoring in sack totals, Renner posted negative 88 yards “rushing.” That’s a far cry from the 445 yards Southern Miss’ QB Austin Davis averaged in his three healthy seasons as the Eagles’ signal caller under Fedora. I’m not going to sit here and predict Renner matches, or even sniffs, that sort of rushing total this season. But I am going to tell you he’s more than capable of playing in this offense, and is poised for a big, big season. He also had offseason surgery to clean out some bone spurs in his foot/ankle, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Renner turn in a season with 200-300 yards rushing.

Giovani Bernard

With that in mind, Renner simply won’t have to run the ball, because he’s got a running back that’s a perfect fit for any offense. Giovani (one n, please!) Bernard uses his short, stocky frame to hide behind his linemen before exploding through a hole and disappearing before defenders can react. He should find plenty of running lanes this season, and is also a valuable receiver out of the backfield. Simply put, you aren’t going to find many better pairings than Renner and Bernard nationally.

The biggest question heading into fall camp has been who’s going to catch passes from Renner. Erik Highsmith is the only proven commodity. And less than a week into practice, things have gotten even murkier. Jheranie Boyd remains an enigma to me. He’s flashed one ridiculously large performance per season, while giving you absolutely nothing for 11 other contests. And if his teammates don’t get healthy in a hurry, Boyd has no choice but to figure out some consistency.

The injury bug seems to have hit the Heels pass catchers even before camp opened, as heralded freshman Quinshad Davis has yet to work out with the team due to a mysterious injury or illness. Fedora won’t address the issue, and all that’s known publicly is that Davis isn’t on campus yet, and is seeking a second opinion on whatever ails him.

Sunday, sophomore wideout/kick returner T.J. Thorpe went down with what’s believed to be a broken foot. Again, no official comment has been released on the nature of extent of Thorpe’s injury, but multiple media outlets and their “sources” have indicated this isn’t a short term problem. Thorpe led the ACC in returns as a freshman, and seemed like a perfect option to work in the slot. I think his loss is a little more devastating than most ‘Heel fans want to admit.

Further adding to the ambiguity at wideout, Sean Tapley and Reggie Wilkins didn’t practice Wednesday for undisclosed reasons.  Both are expected back soon, but how on earth do you practice at warp speed with no bodies? Freshman Kedrick Davis saw some first team reps today, as did walk-on Roy Smith. I don’t know much about this kid, but he’s a walk on track runner, who’s from South Florida’s fabled Miami Northwestern High School. That’s all I need to know to tell me the kid has a chance.  Tight end Eric Ebron will likely get a chance to play in a hybrid-type, role should injuries continue to ravage this unit.

Last year, Fedora’s offense saw four players snag at least 32 passes, while six more caught at least ten. It’s not overly important here that Highsmith take the next step and become a star in the ACC. What matters is that guys like Boyd, Tapley, Wilkins, Davis (2x) and others get healthy, get conditioned and get on the field.

On a positive note, kicker Casey Barth is back on the field, and should give the kicking game stability. One final interesting tidbit is that the Heels are staying off campus in a hotel. It’s work, eat and breathe football in Chapel Hill right now, as buses head towards Kenan around 6:30 am, and return around 9:30 p.m.

On the defensive side of the ball, I won’t go into detail on personnel here, because quite frankly, I’m not as well versed on the playmaking potential on this side of the ball.  What I do know is this seems like a fun, opportunistic, mixed look defense.

The Heels are moving to a 4-2-5 base defense, which will employ the use of hybrid “bandits,” or “Rams,” if you will since it’s UNC, both in the secondary and in the front seven. They call ’em bandits for a reason, as they’ll be a hybrid DL/LB type who can rush the passer and drop into coverage from different looks on the field, and/or hybrid LB/S types who can cover deep, or cheat into the box. Southern Miss had eight interception returns for scores a year ago. Need any more evidence of the opportunistic style we’ll see? Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning was quoted during the offseason as saying they’ll mold this defense to what the personnel does best.

The style of football you’re going to see in Chapel Hill is certainly a mirror image of their leader. It’s also not a brand of football this school, or conference, is used to. For that reason alone, I’m excited about the product the Heels are fielding this fall. Win or lose, it’ll be fun trying. And just a hunch, but I think they’ll do more winning than losing.


Chris Bennett currently covers the ACC for Rotowire, and previously for College Fantasy Football Insider. Though a graduate of South Carolina, he had his allegiances well formed, and didn’t deviate despite spending four years in Columbia. Though completely against social media, he’s starting to warm up to Twitter as a reasonable reporting source, and thus will have a handle to follow sooner than later. Is it even called a handle?

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