As the countdown to September 2 continues, many storylines have emerged out of the North Carolina Tar Heels football fall camp. Although there are still a lot of questions due to positional competitions and varying degrees of injuries sprinkled through the roster, there are at least five notable areas of strength for the Tar Heels as the season debut against Cal approaches.
Returning Depth on Defense
There has been much discussion on the depth of the defense returning to the 2017 squad. The defense returns seven starters, led by senior cornerback M.J. Stewart. Stewart was named to the Bednarik Award watch list, presented to the College Defensive Player of the Year, and the Thorpe Award watch list, given to the best defensive back in college football.
In addition to potential All-ACC and All-American Stewart, the Heels return the top three tacklers from last season. Junior linebacker Cole Holcomb (115 total tackles in 2016), junior linebacker Andre Smith (113 total tackles in 2016), and senior safety Donnie Miles (102 total tackles in 2016) will return as starters this season and will seek to build upon their performances from last year.
On the defensive line, there will be a big hole to fill in the middle with Nazair Jones leaving early for the NFL Draft. Malik Carney, Aaron Crawford, and Jeremiah Clarke will lead the way, with Dajaun Drennon and Jalen Dalton poised for breakout seasons. Last year due to injuries, there were several players in the rotation on the d-line that might not have been there otherwise. Injuries are always a factor, and more experienced and talented depth will lessen the effect of attrition if those situations occur again this year. With a healthy Tomon Fox, and the addition of four-stars Jake Lawler and Xach Gill, there will be more young talent to create viable depth at each position.
Austin Proehl as the Security Blanket
Expect Proehl to fill the role that Ryan Switzer had last year: a reliable target that can gain extra yards in the open field. Proehl had 43 receptions last year, good for 597 yards and three touchdowns. He was a pivotal player in the comeback victory against Pitt, pulling down seven receptions for 99 yards and a touchdown.
Coach Larry Fedora said during the offseason that Proehl was the best route runner on the team. This will be extremely important with the current quarterback situation at UNC. Whether Brandon Harris or Nathan Elliott wins the starting job or a combination of both are used, having someone like Proehl will aid in their development in a new system (Harris) or as a first-time starter (Elliott). There will be less adjustments for the quarterback to make, leading to a decreased likelihood of a missed target if the receiver is where they are supposed to be on timing routes.
Proehl will be a focal point of the offense, and opposing defenses will do what they can to limit him. If Proehl is shut down, another option may be tight end Brandon Fritts. The junior was named to the Mackey Award watch list, given to the most outstanding collegiate tight end. After a standout freshman season, Fritts was bit by the injury bug in the first game against Georgia last year. The Tar Heels will need Fritts to step up as they seek to replace nearly all of their offensive production from last season.
Anchors on the Offensive Line
The center and the blind side (unless Nathan Elliott, the southpaw, is in the pocket) are manned by skilled veterans. Graduate transfer Cam Dillard will bring SEC starter experience at center while Bentley Spain has started 23 games for the Tar Heels. Dillard was named to the Rimington Trophy watch list, given to the Most Outstanding Center in college football. Spain was named to the Outland Trophy watch list, presented to the best college football interior lineman.
R.J. Prince, William Sweet, and Tommy Hatton return from last year, Khaliel Rodgers (now back with the team) is a grad transfer with experience in different position, and Jared Cohen is back with the team. This adds more depth and stability to an offensive line that was hit hard by injuries last year.
Much like the defensive line, the o-line will inevitably face injuries. The key on the line will, once again, be depth. Last year, some backups had to move to different spots on the line due to injuries to starters. UNC worked on this versatility scenario in the spring and during workouts. For example, before Dillard arrived on campus, several players lined up at center to gain experience. Hopefully Carolina avoids some of the “plug and play” shuffling that went on last season, even though injuries are reported for Spain and Hatton.
Philosophical Continuity on the Defensive Coaching Staff
The Gene Chizik era has ended in Chapel Hill, but the changes he made to the defense, and the entire football staff, will live on with new Defensive Coordinator John Papuchis. The Tar Heels will continue to #grind:
Thanks Coach. Time to Grind!!!— John Papuchis (@CoachJP_UNC) July 31, 2017
Papuchis joined the Carolina staff in 2015, the same year as Chizik, as the linebackers coach and defensive assistant. There was much written about how Chizik was a teacher and was able to successfully establish the 4-3 base defense. Rather than bringing in a totally different scheme or philosophy, such as during the Vic Koenning to Chizik transition, Papuchis will focus on building upon the existing defensive foundation. With a slate of returning starters on defense, Papuchis may be more aggressive with blitzes and packages with the overall scheme now firmly in place.
Punt Return Defense
This may not be the sexiest preseason strength, but it may be more important than suspected. Consider these facts: Carolina returns only 12.7 percent of their total offense from last season, there are new pieces on the offensive line, there is no clear frontrunner for the starting running back, and the quarterback battle between Harris and Elliott is continuing through two weeks of camp. In other words, there are a lot of questions on the offensive side of the ball.
This is where punt return defense comes into play. UNC led the nation in punt return defense last year, and have been ranked in the top 20 in the nation in four of the past five seasons. Freshman All-American Tom Sheldon returns as the starting punter this fall. Last season, he averaged 42.7 yards on 50 punts, with 21 of those fair caught.
There may be some growing pains on offense, especially in the hot noon sun in Chapel Hill on September 2 against Cal. Carolina may buck the trend of the past few seasons and may have to rely on the defense to carry the load. If this is the case, at least early on, field position will be mightily important. It certainly will when Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson leads Louisville to Chapel Hill. If the offense is sputtering, Sheldon and punt team will need to give as much help to the defense as they can.
What do you feel sets Carolina apart from the competition heading into the 2017 season? Let us know in the comments below. Check back next Saturday for UNC football’s preseason weaknesses.