The Tar Heels reported to fall camp on Thursday with their minds on repeating as Coastal division champions in 2016. With those expectations being set there are still questions that need to be answered during camp prior to kicking off versus Georgia.
1. Who will emerge as a consistent force at linebacker?
Even with the inconsistent nature of the Carolina defense over the past several years the two steady forces in the middle were Jeff Schoettmer and Shakeel Rashad. The two signed to NFL camps as undrafted free agents and leave the biggest void in the Carolina defense. Sophomore mike linebacker Andre Smith (53 tackles in ‘15) and junior sam linebacker Cayson Collins (10 tackles and forced fumbled vs. Georgia Tech) will be the first two looked up to step in for the departed Schoettmer and Rashad.
JUCO transfer J.B. Copeland came into spring as the guy expected to fill the will linebacker role but true freshman early enrollee Jonathan Smith may have stolen the job with his play. With both Collins and Smith out for respective injuries, the younger Smith (no relation) held his own and will compete for the starting job. Copeland will still figure in to the main linebacker rotation despite what the rookie Smith does. Sophomore Cole Holcolmb, who saw time in all 14 games last season, should see an increased number of snaps with the four already mentioned.
2. Who will provide depth at the safety position?
Carolina’s most consistent defensive unit boasts preseason All-ACC first-teamer Des Lawrence, 2015 second-team All-ACC performer M.J. Stewart and Donnie Miles, who led the team in tackles a year ago. The three, if healthy, should be one of the best in the ACC and helped to push forward the development of defensive coordinator Gene Chizik’s defense. In the game of football injuries happen, and when they do a team needs depth to help alleviate the loss.
Senior free safety Dominique Green finished with 41 tackles and two interceptions last season and should fill in well for the departed Sam Smiley. Junior safety Allen Artis looks to be the first to get the call behind Miles and Green. The transfer of sophomore defensive back Mike Hughes hurts the secondary depth but true freshmen Patrice Rene and Myles Dorn will be the two most looked upon to fill in to the two-deep. Dorn, an early enrollee, impressed throughout the spring and looks poise to see some early reps. Rene, a former four-star committed to Rutgers, will be expected to learn the playbook fast after coming in this summer. The more they learn about the Chizik defense the more prepared they will be to contribute come September 3rd.
3. Who fills the vacant right guard spot of Landon Turner?
Landon Turner was unquestionably the heart and soul of this football team in 2015. With his “I got your back” slogan and proclivity to open up monster holes for running backs Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan, it was easy to get behind Turner. Even with his exit to the NFL, up until a month ago the Carolina offensive line looked to be one of the most experienced and talented units in not just the ACC, but the entire country.
Unfortunately, with senior John Ferranto’s season-ending pectoral injury, the unit loses some of that talent and experience. Incidentally, Ferranto was pegged to be Turner’s replacement at right guard. Junior Brad Henson, who has appeared in 22 games during his first two seasons in Chapel Hill, will see the bulk of the first team reps. While, redshirt freshmen Mason Veal and Charlie Heck will compete behind him.
4. Will a viable backup emerge behind Mitch Trubisky?
One of the luxuries of having Mitch Trubisky wait his turn at Carolina was the fact that Larry Fedora always had a reliable option off the bench. With the new NCAA rule mandating that players who lose a helmet sit for one play, the importance of having a confident backup has never been more important. Finding a viable backup to come in for spot duty is critical in keeping the playbook open in crucial situations.
Sophomore Caleb Henderson, a former U.S. Army All-American, comes into the fall as the backup. However, Henderson struggled in the Spring Game, throwing for 79 yards paired with three interceptions. Behind Henderson are redshirt freshman Nathan Elliott, true freshman Chazz Surratt, and true freshman early enrollee Logan Byrd. Surratt, the Parade magazine National Player of the Year in 2015, enters camp after rehabbing a left throwing elbow. Surratt, who broke former Florida quarterback Chris Leak’s North Carolina state career total yards record, is likely to redshirt this season alongside Byrd but should be a major factor in this offense in years to come.
5. Who will emerge at punter?
Special teams wins ball games, y’all. Ask Nick Saban and Alabama what pushed them past Clemson in the National Championship Game. Last season, Corbin Daly and Joey Mangili combined for 39.8 yards per punt, while only allowing five returns. The five returns is great, but the average was well, average. Fedora mentioned at ACC Kickoff that the competition is wide open and I assure that he is hopeful to have one guy and not have to go punter by committee in 2016.