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UNC Football: Coaching Preview

There are quite a few new faces on the sidelines in 2018.

NCAA Football: Sun Bowl-Stanford vs North Carolina Ivan Pierre Aguirre-USA TODAY Sports

In preparation for the college football season, our staff has been providing preseason analysis of the Tar Heels. You can find all positional previews at the links below:

Quarterbacks
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
Running Backs
Offensive Line
Defensive Line
Linebackers
Secondary
Special Teams

Today, we conclude these previews with moving away from the positions and focusing on the coaching staff. There are a few new faces on the sideline that most fans may not be familiar with. We’ll try to bring you up to speed, without going down too many rabbit holes.

Offense

Offensive Coordinator/Offensive Line

For most UNC fans, this coaching position is a touchy subject as they think back to last year’s “OC3” configuration of coordinators and play calling. In 2017, OL coach Chris Kapilovic was listed as the offensive coordinator and now departed WR coach Gunter Brewer was listed as “co-offensive coordinator”. Larry Fedora also kept busy with play calling duties, even taking back some of that control in mid-October of last year as the offense sputtered.

It appeared to be an effort to fix whatever issues had festered as the offense sputtered at the end of 2016, when the Heels lost 3 of their final four games. Injuries or no injuries, whatever that set up was intended to be, devolved into an absolute disaster.

This season, Kapilovic is back as the OL coach and the only listed offensive coordinator. It will be his third season in the role, even though it’s still unclear just how much of the offense’s performance rests on his shoulders. As Inside Carolina wrote earlier this month, the offensive play calling at UNC doesn’t quite fit the description that most fans think of when they envision coordinators on the sideline. Whatever the structure, there is no denying that most fans are watching the offensive side of the ball with more scrutiny than the past few seasons.

Passing Game Coordinator/Quarterback Coach

Keith Heckendorf returns for his fourth consecutive season at UNC, and his seventh overall. Along the way, he has helped develop Bryn Renner, Marquise Williams, and Mitch Trubisky. The one year he wasn’t on the staff, 2013-2014, the Heels stumbled to a 6-7 record. Offensive coordinators have come and gone, but Heckendorf has remained the common denominator in the success of UNC’s signal callers. Even with last season’s revolving door at the position, UNC quarterbacks still threw 21 touchdowns – good for fifth best in the conference.

Now, he enters the season with an undisputed starter in Nathan Elliott, who has been in the offense for four seasons. Whatever limitations Elliott may have with his arm, it’s a solid bet that Heckendorf will maximize the junior’s strengths. Expect a bounce back year from the position.

Wide Receivers/Special Teams Coordinator

Luke Paschall returned to Chapel Hill this offseason after wide receiver Gunter Brewer turned pro with the Philadelphia Eagles. Paschall spent two seasons as a graduate assistant at UNC before heading to Arkansas State with former UNC offensive coordinator Blake Anderson.

With Paschall heading up the receivers, the Red Wolves appeared in four straight bowls and won two Sun Belt championships. Last season, they led the Sun Belt in passing yards per game and passing touchdowns. Nobody can replace Gunter Brewer, but Paschall brings a familiarity to UNC’s system that should minimize the loss.

Tight Ends/Hybrids

Chad Scott returns for this third season at UNC. Arriving prior to the 2016 season, he has supervised the development of tight ends, though there has been very little on field success. Much of that is not Scott’s fault. In 2016, the position was young and inexperienced though Brandon Fritts and Carl Tucker did average over 10 yards per catch. Last season, like almost every other position, the TE’s saw a plateau or decline in development and production after Tucker was lost to a foot injury.

Entering 2018, the Heels return exactly 14 receptions from last year’s group, after an ACL injury likely sidelined Brandon Fritts for the season. Fortunately, with a healthy Carl Tucker and Noah Turner on the depth chart, the tight ends have talent and size to make a difference. That will be a welcome sight from a position that has largely underwhelmed since Eric Ebron was a first round selection in the NFL draft.

Running Backs

Robert Gillespie is another new addition to the staff. Arriving from the University of Tennessee, where he was also the assistant head coach, Gillespie brings over a decade’s worth of experience coaching the backfield. At Tennessee, he recruited and developed Alvin Kamara, the 2017 NFL Rookie of the Year.

However, Gillespie’s greatest attribute may not be seen on the field. Also the recruiting coordinator when he was in Knoxville, Gillespie’s work with high school players and coaches may be more important during the 2019 season. Look for him to help the Heels gain momentum on the recruiting trail as they begin to lay the groundwork for the classes of 2020 and 2021.

Defense

Defensive Coordinator

John Papuchis returns for his second season at defensive coordinator, after leading the linebackers in 2015-16. This is Papuchis’ second stint as a defensive coordinator, after serving in the same position at Nebraska from 2011-2014. It’s difficult to judge last year’s performance, but there is no way to ignore that the defense struggled throughout the season. There are plenty of reasons to believe they were better than the final numbers indicated, but this season they will have to prove that notion. If you want some optimism, consider that in his final season at Nebraska, the Cornhuskers were second in the nation in defensive completion percentage, fourth in defensive pass efficiency, and fifth in third down defense.

That success in the secondary carried over to North Carolina, where his work with the linebackers and secondary have led to successful defensive backfields. Most notably, MJ Stewart and Andre Smith heard their names called by NFL teams in April. It should also be noted that UNC’s third down defense has improved every season that Papuchis has been in Chapel Hill. With a fully stocked defensive line and depth at secondary, Papuchis’ defense will look to take a massive step forward this season.

Defensive Line

Deke Adams returns for his second season as the defensive line coach. The front four have been much maligned for most of the Fedora’s tenure, and last season was no different. Considered a strength heading into 2018, questions have emerged in the past two weeks. Suspensions to three defensive ends and injuries to Jalen Dalton and Aaron Crawford could slow some of the momentum that was building through the spring.

Though it’s only Adams’ second season with Fedora, he and the players will (rightfully) be under a microscope. The Heels have been in the bottom third of the ACC in sacks and tackles for loss for the last four seasons. If there is any single position group that should be held to a higher standard than the others, the defensive line is that group. With seven upperclassmen expected to be part of the regular rotation, it’s time for this unit to produce.

Cornerbacks

Henry Baker is also new to the Heels this season. Heading down south from Rutgers, he inherits a solid defensive backfield that has the parts in place improve on last season’s up and down performance. Baker’s guys will be tested early and often after the defense allowed 13 catastrophic plays last year – most of them through the air.

Like Gillespie (and Tommy Thigpen, below), Baker was brought in to help expand UNC’s recruiting up along the east coast. They have routinely made forays to the Washington D.C and New Jersey regions. Baker should help with that recruiting strategy.

Safeties

Perhaps the most heralded of the offseason coaching acquisitions, former UNC standout Tommy Thigpen returned to Kenan Memorial. Joining Robert Gillespie from Tennessee, his accolades as a player and a coach often precede him. Known as one of the premier recruiters in college football, he has plenty of coaching success that proves he’s more than a recruiting specialist.

With experience in the ACC and SEC, Thigpen won a national title while coaching the safeties on Gene Chizik’s staff at Auburn. He followed that up by heading to Tennessee from 2012-2017, where his duties expanded and his recruiting abilities helped earn Tennessee a top-5 class in 2014. Now he returns to UNC for the fourth time in his life (once as a player, twice as a coach), and will look to improve on his impressive resume.

Linebackers

Mike Ekeler returns for his second season supervising UNC’s linebackers. The position group may be UNC’s biggest question mark heading into the season, after losing junior Andrew Smith to the NFL and Cayson Collins to graduation. He does have the luxury of returning the team’s leading tackler Cole Holcomb.

This season, Ekeler will look to fill the gaps left by Collins and Smith. However, in order for the linebackers to take their production to the next level, they’ll have to improve their ability to stop the run and cover the running backs and slot receivers across the middle of the field. That has been a yearly struggle for Fedora’s LBs.

Head Coach

It’s pointless to run down the numbers from previous seasons. Fedora’s tenure has been one that has lacked consistency and direction. His offenses can be fun to watch, his defenses can make you want to cover your eyes, and his decision-making process is a mystery known to only God himself. I’m not one to sound warning sirens, but it’s hard to ignore that if Larry Fedora can’t prove last season was an anomaly, the heat in Chapel Hill is going to turn up. Fast.

The Heels have averaged eight wins per season over the last six seasons, yet have two losing records. They have surpassed expectations (2012, 2015) only to come crashing to earth two years later (2014, 2017). Euphoric wins (Florida State in ‘16, at Virginia Tech in ’15, N.C. State in ’12) are equaled by frustrating losses (the entire 2016 season, Miami in ’13, California last year).

In an effort to get the program back on track, he has overhauled almost his entire coaching staff the past few years. Six of the nine coaches listed have spent less than two full consecutive seasons on UNC’s staff. Like the product on the field, stability and consistency off the field have been hard to come by.

Entering his seventh year, Fedora has to steady the ship. He was successful after 2014 devolved into near mutiny in the locker room. Following two consecutive disappointing seasons, can he find similar success and bring UNC back to respectability?

A favorable schedule and talent on both sides of the ball have UNC poised to prove last year was a fluke. Just how much of a fluke, will depend on Fedora’s leadership and growth as a head coach.