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Eight unreasonably optimistic predictions for the 2017 Tar Heels

Because that’s what being a sports fan’s all about.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Florida State Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

Sports are all about unfounded optimism. If we are to root for a team, we have to believe that they are going to reward us for it. They will, almost inevitably, disappoint us, but the nature of sports fandom is such that we want to do it again anyways. After all, the Cleveland Browns still have fans. So, in that spirit, here are eight bold and/or wildly optimistic predictions for this year’s Tar Heel football team. Maybe of them will even come true!

  • The Tar Heels will rush for at least 30 more yards per game than they did in 2016.

As has been brought up on this blog before, the 2016 Tar Heels might have suffered from having the best quarterback that has ever played for UNC because they went away from what made the 2015 team ACC Coastal Champions: using a variety of players and looks to run the ball down opponents’ throats. 2015’s squad averaged 225 rushing yards per game. 2016’s regressed to a (respectable nonetheless) 146. With a quarterback guaranteed to be new and probably possessing less arm talent than Mitch Trubisky, I think the rushing game will make a significant jump regardless of losing its top two producers from last year in Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan.

  • Carl Tucker will take the starting tight end spot from Brandon Fritts.

Fritts had big expectations last year, having played in high school with Trubisky. Unfortunately, due to being injured for most of the season, he was not able to fulfill those expectations. Redshirt freshman Carl Tucker stepped in and made an immediate impact with two third-down catches against Georgia in the first game of the season. He was relatively quiet after that, as Trubisky preferred to pass to his proven receivers, but finished the year with 9 catches for 130 yards, including a 54-yard touchdown against Duke. Fritts would come back near the end of the season, but didn’t do much. This year, the first depth chart of the year gives them both a chance to start at tight end. Fritts is a good player with size and reliable hands, but I think Tucker’s athleticism will win him the job by the end of the season.

  • Austin Proehl will set a career high, but will not lead the team in receiving yards.

Austin Proehl had a breakout year in 2016, but was still overshadowed by the trio of NFL-caliber seniors on the team. This year, he’s setting up to be the main man in the wide receivers’ group, hoping to take some of Ryan Switzer’s production as well as continue what he did last year from the boundary. He’ll be a valuable target for whoever starts at quarterback. As the primary receiver, he’ll get a lot of looks, and should easily outpace his 2016 campaign (597 yards). But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from watching football, it’s that new QBs love their tight ends. With the strength of the group this year, especially compared to the unproven receiving corps, I think that a tight end will lead the team in receiving yards this year, acting as safety valve for whomever ends up being the quarterback. Having 2 guys over 700 yards would be a welcome treat.

  • Whomever starts at quarterback, they will end up with over 3,500 total yards.

Replacing star quarterbacks is supposed to be hard. Somehow, Larry Fedora has done it successfully twice, earning him some benefit of the doubt when it comes to the uncertainty of the position this year. The last two seasons, Fedora’s quarterbacks have cracked 4,000 total yards. That’s a bit too high a standard, even for a “wildly optimistic” article. After all, Marquise Williams was a touchdown away from being a Heisman finalist in 2015 and Trubisky played himself into the #2 pick in the NFL Draft. Expecting that from either a transfer or a redshirt freshman (sorry, Nathan Elliot, but I’m not a believer) is probably a long shot. What we do know, though, is that both have the arm, legs, and strength to run the offense that Fedora has been most successful with during his time at UNC. Whoever it is might not quite be as prolific as his predecessors, but he’s in the right position to have an excellent season anyways. The last time a full-time UNC quarterback starter was under 3500 yards, by the way, was Bryn Renner in 2012, and he was only 100 yards off (Williams had 127 yards in backup duty that season).

  • A running back will have double-digit touchdowns.

UNC fans are used to complaining about Larry Fedora’s occasional, or maybe slightly more than occasional, refusal to use his most powerful running backs near the goal line. He has often preferred to run with his quarterback, pass the ball, or run with less powerful backs. 2015 was the exception to this rule, as Elijah Hood broke out for 17 touchdowns. Last year, partially due to injury and partially due to playcalling, he regressed to 8, leading the team in rushing touchdowns regardless. With a less seasoned quarterback taking snaps and coaching staff likely to utilize a running back by committee approach, I think one of the running backs will find a niche as a goal-line back. Based on build alone, I think it might be linebacker convert Johnathan Sutton. With a less proven offense, it should help to have a go-to option in scoring situations, and this should lead to a designated touchdown scorer in the backfield. The ability to get the ball in the end zone consistently is going to be key, particularly if the offense can’t move the ball as well as it has in the past.

  • One of Andre Smith and Cole Holcomb will surpass his tackling total from last year.

This linebacker duo was a revelation last year after some early hiccups. Their quick instincts, foot speed, and sure tackling anchored a UNC defense that managed to not be a liability most of the time. This year, the defense is going to have to be more than that; they need to anchor the team, not keep it afloat. This will start with the linebackers, especially in run defense. Holcomb and Smith had 115 and 113 tackles (solo and assisted) last year, respectively, first and second on the team. Last year was the first year since 2011 that a defensive back did not lead the Tar Heels in tackles, a welcome sight. There aren’t enough tackles to go around for me to predict that both players outproduce their 2016 seasons, but I think that with a revamped defensive line, the linebacking corps is going to feast for real, and one of the two is going be a major beneficiary. If I had to pick one of the two, it would be middle linebacker Smith, but Holcomb’s nose for the ball is so great that it wouldn’t be surprising to see him, either. Either way, I think they’re both going to play themselves into at least a few All-ACC votes.

  • The defense will have at least 10 interceptions.

It’s probably not a bold prediction to say the defense will have more than one interception this year. That happened for two reasons: One, teams picked on UNC’s linebackers in coverage because the defensive backfield was so good. That won’t happen nearly as much, with some improvement from the linebackers and an improved pass rush. Two, the secondary was extremely unlucky. M.J. Stewart had 11 pass breakups and no picks! That’s not something that repeats itself. He, along with the rest of the UNC secondary, can get to the ball. This year, they’ll be securing it. Stewart had an excellent year last year in coverage. Now, he’ll be looking for notoriety. K.J. Sails, Patrice Rene, and Myles Dorn are all coming off of promising freshman years and will hopefully be much more comfortable after a year in the NCAA, and Donnie Miles will provide his presence as an enforcer in the backfield. Together, they make a formidable group, and quarterbacks are going to realize this pretty quickly.

  • UNC will have a double-digit sack producer

UNC’s defensive line is going to look very different from last year’s. The team lost star defensive tackle Nazair Jones, but Aaron Crawford is no slouch himself. Jalen Dalton, after a transition from defensive end to defensive tackle, was very solid last year and could be a star this year. The real revolution is coming on the ends, however. Tomon Fox and Dajaun Drennon should start after missing most of last year with injury. Fox raised eyebrows across Tar Heel Nation as a true freshman with a 4-tackle, 1-sack, 1-forced fumble game against Illinois in 2016 before injuring himself in practice later that week. After successfully getting a medical redshirt for the lost year, Fox will have the opportunity to re-take his starting spot and pick up where he left off. On the other side, Drennon came back late in the year and played extremely well in nearly every game he played. After a monster Spring Game, the senior looks ready to let loose. For the first time since at least 2013, the defensive line looks like it can be a strength for North Carolina. And what do you know, that’s also the last time the team had a player with double-digit sacks (Kareem Martin). I don’t know who it’s going to be, but I strongly believe that one of the ends will match that feat.

And of course, the big one: UNC will shock the country by going 9-3 in the regular season and ending up in the AP Top 25, landing a notable bowl game. I don’t know if they’ll win the Coastal, but I do think they’ll have a postseason win. Let the college football season begin.