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Carolina Football: What to watch as spring practice kicks off

The new era at Carolina officially starts on Sunday.

NCAA Basketball: Gonzaga at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Mack Brown’s return to coaching football in Chapel Hill hits another major checkpoint on Sunday, as the Tar Heels will suit up for the first of 15 spring practices. This spring will likely be heavily focused on installing new schemes, as both OC Phil Longo and DC Jay Bateman have different approaches and terminology from the previous staff.

What we last saw in Chapel Hill on November 24th should be thrown out the window. What the media reports on Sunday should, as well. The team should look a lot different for the Spring Game, set for 5pm on Saturday, April 13. Here are some things for which to look out:

1) Position Changes

We’ve already seen one confirmed move, with former QB Chazz Surratt moving to an outside linebacker role.

Surratt has certainly put on some good weight for the position quickly, and we’ll see if he takes to the switch. On one hand, Bruce Carter and Quan Sturdivant were high school quarterbacks. On the other, Surratt hasn’t tackled anything besides opposing defenders in three years.

Surratt’s change won’t be the only one, to be sure. O-lineman Marcus McKeithan has been rumored to be making a switch to the defensive line, and there is plenty of reshuffling of the deck still necessary to fill out the position groups on the completely redesigned defensive front seven.

2) That Gorgeous New Indoor Practice Facility

Man, I’d live there if I could.

It’s no surprise to see Pace mention that the team won’t be doing much practicing in Kenan, that’s common practice among football teams after middle school. With the rumored switch to FieldTurf in Kenan forthcoming, it’s probably best for the team to maximize reps out of the elements— both to learn the new playbooks and get fully adjusted to their new playing surface.

3) The Quarterback Battle

We won’t know anything for certain until closer to kickoff against South Carolina in Charlotte, but the competition for snaps should be an absolutely awesome battle throughout the spring, into voluntary summer work, and likely not resolved until next fall.

Redshirt freshmen Cade Fortin and Jace Ruder are joined by blue chip early enrollee Sam Howell, and senior Nathan Elliott.

In all likelihood, this is a three-man race with Elliott serving as a mentor, depth, and perhaps getting a leg up in a potential coaching career.

  • Fortin showed out early against Virginia Tech before suffering a knee injury, and returned to throw one pass in the Duke game and play wire-to-wire against N.C. State— where an insane case of the drops from his receiving corps dragged down his stat line. All told, he finished 32/64 for 388 yards, a touchdown, and a pick.
  • Ruder stepped in for Elliott during the Georgia Tech game, and went 4/5 for 80 yards and a score, and 21 yards rushing. The last of those rushing yards cost him the season with a broken collarbone.
  • Howell, who has been discussed at length on this here website, has all of the tools in a beefy 6’0, 230 pound frame. He had a very nice Army All-American Bowl, showcasing his ability to throw in the pocket, on the move, and juke defenders out of their shoes in the open field.

I refuse to handicap this race. Fortin’s experience would seemingly give him a leg up, but Phil Longo’s offense does ask the quarterback to run a moderate amount— and mobility would be a strength of Ruder and Howell.

4) Philosophical Shifts in Public Relations

We’ve already seen an embrace of local media and publicity from Mack Brown, and I would expect the culture shift to continue. Media availability has not been confirmed yet, but I expect more access than under the previous staff.

Without a doubt, there will be less Art of War-style gamesmanship and empty, coachspeak answers from the guys in charge. I expect player access will be increased, as even at practice Brown is selling the program to recruits.

I expect more All-Access type videos, more individual features on both players and coaches (I can’t wait to get Dre Bly mic’d up), and a spring practice that is actually...worth covering.