2011 Football Preview: Offense

Ahhh, actual football talk.

Last year at this time the buzz about UNC's offense was whether or not they could keep up with the defense and questions lingered about the ability of T.J. Yates to lead the team. In the topsy-turvy world that was 2010, however, the offense became the team's stable unit and Yates left Chapel Hill with more than a handful of school quarterbacking records.

For 2011, the offense again has a chance to be the team's highlight as many familiar faces return. The offense as a whole will be an experienced unit and the coaching turmoil caused by the firing of Butch Davis and elevation of Everett Withers to interim head coach has left the offense mostly unscathed.

Here is a preview of the offense using the week 1 depth charts (previously posted by THF and courtesy of Inside Carolina):

Quarterback

Bryn Renner (6-3, 215, So.)
Braden Hanson (6-6, 215, Jr.)
Marquise Williams (6-2, 220, Fr.)

Hard to believe, after a record-setting 2010 campaign by T.J. Yates,  that there was serious discussion that Bryn Renner might be a better long-term choice at quarterback. But the time has finally come to hand the reins of the team to Renner, and the word from both spring practice and training camp is that the confidence in the sophomore is not misplaced.  He is a sharp passer and shows some mobility. The key for Renner is how quickly he picks up the intricacies of reading defenses and making adjustments at game speed. Given UNC's home-friendly early schedule, he may have the chance to get that experience before things get more difficult in October and down the stretch.  Williams may be UNC's quarterback of the future and I'm sure the coaching staff will hope to keep his redshirt intact this season.

Fullback

Devon Ramsay (6-2, 250, Sr.)
Curtis Byrd (6-1, 255, Sr.)

Devon Ramsay returns from his NCAA-imposed exile with experience but having missed the last 2/3 of last season. Curtis Byrd picked up key snaps last season given the NCAA mess and injuries in the backfield. Fullback will be a strength for the Tar Heels as both of these guys are good blockers but can also run and catch efficiently.

Tailback

Ryan Houston (6-2, 245, Sr.)
Giovani Bernard (5-10, 205, R-Fr.)
A.J. Blue (6-2, 230, So.)

The tailback corps is talented but has been a M*A*S*H unit of late.  Ryan Houston returns from an NCAA-prompted redshirt year but was injured late in 2009, so it has been almost 20 months since he has seen meaningful action. He was also injured during training camp so getting back to game speed will be crucial. Gio Bernard has been turning heads ever since he arrived in Chapel Hill, but sat out last season due to injury and was slowed by a hand injury in training camp.  A.J. Blue is also returning from injury in 2010 and has been moved from quarterback to tailback, giving UNC a lot of versatility at that position. Offensive coordinator John Shoop can choose from a number of styles: bruising with Houston, speed with Bernard, or even a wildcat with Blue, especially given that Shoop has been known to call a halfback pass. The issue is that none of UNC's tailbacks saw game action in 2010, so it may take them a few games to get acclimated.

Wide Receiver 1

83 - Dwight Jones (6-4, 225, Sr.)
5 - T.J. Thorpe (6-0, 190, Fr.)
81 - Reggie Wilkins (5-10, 175, R-Fr)

Wide Receiver 2

88 - Erik Highsmith (6-3, 190, Jr.)
87 - Jheranie Boyd (6-2, 190, Jr.)
6 - Sean Tapley (6-1, 185, R-Fr.

Certainly Bryn Renner will have the luxury of throwing to some of the most talented receivers in the ACC. Dwight Jones, Erik Highsmith, and Jhey Boyd are all experienced wideouts who have all had big games over the past two years. The issue with Carolina's receivers has been consistency; at some point over the past two seasons, it has seemed that each of those three has been on the verge of breaking out and becoming an elite receiver, only to not be able to put it together week-to-week. But the receivers have commented on how much they love playing with Renner, so if he can get them the ball consistently (and they can catch it), it will open up the running game.

Tight End

Nelson Hurst (6-4, 260, Jr.)
Christian Wilson (6-3, 250, Sr.)

Replacing Zack Pianalto and Ryan Taylor, who are currently on NFL rosters, at tight end certainly has to be a concern for Shoop and the offensive staff. Nelson Hurst and Christian Wilson both saw a lot of snaps with the injury to Pianalto last season. Hurst is a blocking-first guy who has improved his receiving in the off-season, while Wilson had a number of catches including a TD reception against NCSU.  Throwing to the tight end will need to be an option in the UNC arsenal.

Offensive Line

Left Tackle

James Hurst (6-7, 310, So.)
Nick Appel (6-6, 305, R-Fr.)

Left Guard

Jonathan Cooper (6-3, 305, Jr.)
Peyton Jenest (6-5, 300, Jr.)

Center

Cam Holland (6-2, 320, Sr.)
Russell Bodine (6-4, 305, R-Fr.)

Right Guard

Travis Bond (6-7, 345, Jr.)
Landon Turner (6-4, 335, Fr.) OR
David Collins (6-8, 325, So.)

Right Tackle

Brennan Williams (6-7, 315, Jr.)
Carl Gaskins (6-5, 315, Sr.)

Holy cow, is this group freaking HUGE. Three guys on the starting offensive line are 6-7  and all weigh over 300 pounds. On paper, this should be an experienced, proven bunch.  Yet the O-line has probably been the most disappointing part of the team year-in and year-out over the past few seasons. These guys must give Renner time and open holes for the backs. If so, the offense can really click.

Special Teams

Place-kicker/Kickoff

Casey Barth (5-11, 185, Sr.)
Thomas Moore (5-10, 190, R-Fr.)

Kickoff Return

13 - Todd Harrelson (6-2, 195, Jr.)
5 - T.J. Thorpe (6-0, 190, Fr.)
6 - Sean Tapley (6-1, 185, R-Fr.)
81 - Reggie Wilkins (5-10, 175, R-Fr.)

Punt Return

5 - T.J. Thorpe (6-0, 190, Fr.)
13 - Todd Harrelson (6-2, 195, Jr.)
6 - Sean Tapley (6-1, 185, R-Fr.)
7 - Tim Scott (5-11, 180, Fr.)

Casey Barth has quietly emerged as a solid kicker that evokes the confidence in the kicking game that UNC fans had in his older brother. The word from training camp is that Barth has been allowed to test the range of his leg a little more than before. The only surprise is in the kickoff and punt returners, in that there is no one back there that you've ever heard of. Many teams use specialists who only play on special teams, but under Butch Davis, many regulars  took the field for kickoffs and punts. At least in the returners, it looks as if UNC is going the specialist route.

On offense, the Tar Heels look to be solid but need to be battle-tested. If Renner lives up to expectations, the running backs get to game speed quickly, the tight ends can catch, the receivers can make plays, and the O-line gels, the Carolina offense will be just fine.

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