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UNC vs. California: Three things to watch

The 2017 season finally gets started, and questions will start to be answered

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Pittsburgh v North Carolina Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

It’s here! 247 days after the Tar Heels walked off the field in El Paso, football season is back. We’ve watched folks get drafted, seen new uniforms unveiled, and spent weeks speculating who will be playing where; it’s time to actually play the game.

This season, Tar Heel Blog will be giving you three keys to the game. For this week, they are going to be a little more open-ended as both the Tar Heels, and their opponent California, come into this game with more questions than answers. It’ll be the second season in a row that Carolina helps christen a team’s new coach.

Quarterback Play

On Monday, Fedora released the first depth chart of the season, listing three guys as the possible QB. It feels like it’s been a foregone conclusion ever since Brandon Harris announced he was coming to UNC for his last year of eligibility that he would end up starting, but with the ominous “or” being placed alongside Harris with sophomore Nathan Elliot and Redshirt frosh Chazz Surratt, no one really knows what to expect at this point.

Surratt is the surprise here. Folks who have been observing practice have noted that he has grown by leaps and bounds since the spring, and his inclusion in the fight for the top spot isn’t by accident. Both Surratt and Elliot have a year of working in Fedora’s system in practice, which likely has given them the leg up over Harris.

At least for this week, expect more than one quarterback to see some time on the field this Saturday. The money is still on Harris to get the start, but Fedora has played rotating quarterbacks before. In fact, between Renner/Williams and Williams/Trubisky, we forget Fedora will rotate his quarterbacks more often than not. This is the big unknown, and while we likely will get a few answers by the time Saturday is done, don’t expect it to be crystal clear.

Offensive Battles

What’s almost been forgotten in the shuffle to figure out who will be taking the snaps is that Carolina is replacing almost everyone on offense, not just quarterback. Mack Hollins, Bug Howard, Ryan Switzer, Elijah Hood, and TJ Logan are all gone, and that’s quite a bit of talent to replace.

Right now, the only known quantity is Austin Proehl, which isn’t a bad place to start. The depth chart would lead one to believe that senior Thomas Jackson and sophomore Anthony Ratliff-Williams have won the right to start with Proehl, but six others will have the chance to shine. More surprising is at tailback. Even though they have another grad transfer, the chart shows the competition has come down to sophomore Jordon Brown and freshman Michael Carter. One will start, but others will likely get a chance while Fedora figures out who he can count on.

On top of all this, the line just continues having issues. They’ve had one guy go as far as retiring and then returning to help bolster the losses, and just Monday Fedora confirmed that Jared Cohen left the program after working his way back as a walk on. Having Cam Dillard transfer in at center and be listed as a starter indicates both how quickly he caught on, and how pressed Fedora is to build that line. Any shakiness there will make it difficult for both the new quarterback and running backs to get comfortable.

Overall, look to see if Fedora return to more a of run/pass balance that has been his hallmark prior to last season when he just had too much air power and that balance was skewed.

Also: to say Fedora hasn’t opened up the playbook in their opener is being kind. In essence, Fedora views this opener as a chance to fine tune the team going into ACC play, knowing it doesn’t really matter whether he wins or loses this game as it doesn’t count in the standings. It’s ridiculously frustrating for fans, as it probably cost them an Orange Bowl spot in 2015 and may have cost them a better bowl last year. That said, with Louisville looming next week, look for Fedora to not make Bobby Petrino’s job any easier.

Defense saving the Offense

Let’s all take a moment and thank Gene Chizik. You can’t fault a man for deciding it’s time to go home and spend time with his family. He took a defense that was (looks in a thesaurus under “horrific” and can’t find a better word) horrific and brought it back to respectability. By the end of last year, they finished 43rd in scoring offense, and you saw their ability at the end of the Sun Bowl where Trubisky almost completed the comeback.

Carolina looks to continue this trend up with new Defensive Coordinator John Papuchis. Unlike the wholesale change under Chizik, Papuchis has worked with this group for the past couple of seasons. He is aware of what he has and what they can do.

While they do lose of Nazir Jones, Des Lawrence, and Dominique Green, the rest of the defense returns intact. This gives them a huge advantage over a Cal team that, to be kind, is rebuilding. New coach Justin Wilcox came in after the recruiting season, and is trying to figure out who his quarterback is going to be, including using a rotating cast themselves. An experienced defense can feast off of that.

The one area Cal has as a known strength is, unfortunately for them, matched up against one of the biggest strengths for Carolina: their receivers versus UNC’s secondary. Look for the line, if they can’t sack whoever ends up under center, to force that quarterback into some bad passes. While their receivers can make plays, a bad pass usually ends up going the other way, so the secondary has a chance to get off to a stellar start.

Overall, while the offense looks to start almost from scratch, the defense will be looking to take the next step and against a team that is in arguably a worse spot than Carolina. It’s likely at least some of the points will be a direct result of this defense, and it should be a trend for the season. If it isn’t, it’s going to be a long afternoon.

In Closing

Even with Fedora’s penchant to use the opener as a warm up, we should at least have a few more answers once this game is over.

There’s a reason Carolina, despite all of its questions, is opening up as a double digit favorite against this Bears team. Wilcox may be a great hire for Cal but he has a complete rebuild ahead of him, and flying cross-country to play a 9 AM body time game isn’t a great way to start your season. Carolina should look rough just because of all of the turnover, but if this game is reasonably close it may be a signal to a long 2017 season.

Or it could signal nothing, but at least we will have an actual game to look at.