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UNC Football: Preseason weaknesses

Here are five areas of concern for the 2017 Tar Heels.

Georgia Tech v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Training camp is over, and the North Carolina Tar Heels have turned the page heading into game week. Despite moving into game prep, there are still lingering questions for UNC one week before their season opener.

Who will be the quarterback?

It can be argued that this may not necessarily be a weakness, but it is undoubtedly a question mark that needs an answer. A good quarterback battle in training camp can increase the level of play of those involved and produce a starter that is hungrier to retain a role that was hard-earned.

However, as Inside Carolina reported this week, the quarterback battle has expanded to three: Brandon Harris, Nathan Elliott, and Chazz Surratt.

Larry Fedora has used two quarterbacks before, whether in alternating series or certain situations, such as with Bryn Renner and Marquise Williams in 2013. There was both praise and criticism for that rotation, depending on the outcome of the particular series.

But what to do with three quarterbacks competing for a job? Each brings their own skillset to the table, and each has the talent to be a starter every week. However, with the attrition on the offensive side of the ball, a case can be made for both a single starter and a rotation.

Each of the quarterbacks have their own unique attributes (Harris with the strong arm, Elliott the lefty, and Surratt the true dual-threat). Will replacing nearly all the offense from last season require a consistent style under center? The skilled positions can know what to expect on thrown balls and timing routes, and the line will be familiar with one style of play calling. Or can the offense adapt enough that quarterbacks can be best used based on situations, the style of defense, or who has the hot hand?

The quarterback will be the top story this week, and look for at least two of the three quarterbacks to face “live fire” against California on Saturday.

Absences on the offensive line

Coming into camp, two starting positions on the offensive line were set: graduate transfer Cam Dillard at center and Bentley Spain at left tackle. Spain went down early with an injury and missed most of camp.

Tommy Hatton, who started seven games last year at left guard, was expected to compete for that job this season. However, he missed most of training camp. Graduate transfer Khaliel Rodgers “retired” a couple days into camp, only to “unretire” and return to the team a few weeks later.

These key absences on the offensive line during training camp—especially the injury to Spain—is not ideal. They are even worse in the context of what happened with injuries last season. With a relatively new offense, the o-line needs to be a stabilizing force for Carolina.

The positive, though, is that if/when injuries occur this season, there will be backups and reserves that have spent at least some time with the first team and perhaps in positions other than their normal ones in training camp. All things considered, consistent starters on the offensive line throughout training camp is the best scenario with quarterback and running back position battles.

Running back by committee

As Roger Burton detailed in his running back position preview, there will likely not be a feature back. The 2017 offense, at least in the beginning, will be running back by committee.

This, to be clear, is different than situational backs as demonstrated the past two seasons with Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan. This type of setup is not uncommon in the collegiate, and even NFL ranks. When all the pieces around the two backs fit, as in 2015, the offense is dynamic and creates difficulties in preparation for the opposing defense.

However, with only one running back that has rushed the ball for UNC, there are a ton of questions around who, when, and how often the running game will be used this season.

There must be reliability for short yardage situations and as a receiving target out of the backfield. It is doubtful that these critical scenarios will allow for “plug and play” with the committee of running backs. If a feature back does not emerge this season, hopefully one or two running backs can be counted on to execute during these sequences.

Results on the run defense

A strength of this team will be the returning starters and depth on defense. Depth, though—especially on the defensive line—does not equate to success.

Until proven otherwise, the run defense is a weakness of this team. There was improvement last season from the year before, with the team averaging 227 rushing yards allowed per game in 2016 from 247 yards per game in 2015.

These numbers must improve for Carolina to be in contention for a Coastal Division title and ACC Championship. The Tar Heels cannot allow an average of 4.48 yards a carry, with a first down average of 5.16 yards, and expect to outscore their opponents on their way to Charlotte.

There was nearly an 1,000-yard difference in total rushing yards allowed between UNC and divisional winner Virginia Tech last season, even with the Hokies playing one more game than the Tar Heels.

Of course, these statistics are not in a vacuum and many factors on both sides of the ball influence success. Just look at the 2015 defense and the outcomes from that season.

The kicking game

Only one kicker on the team has any collegiate experience. Expected starting placekicker junior Freeman Jones has only one PAT in his career. True freshman Noah Ruggles was a top five kicking recruit from 2017 and may compete for the starting role.

Long story short: The Tar Heels, with all the new faces on offense, cannot afford to be in a situation where they must go for it on every trip to the opposing end of the field due to unreliable placekicking.

Imagine the Florida State game from last season if Nick Weiler was not entrusted to kick a 54-yarder.

Where are the blindspots for Carolina this season? Can these problems improve as the season progresses, or will other issues pop up for the Tar Heels? Let us know in the comments below.