North Carolina

UNC searching for QB, will rely on defense in 2017

Posted July 14

— North Carolina and Larry Fedora are in a position unfamiliar: no clear best-option at starting quarterback. For the Tar Heels and the coach who hangs is offense on a fast, QB-centered system, 2017 starts like no other season has.

“In all my years, I’ve never experienced this,” Fedora said at ACC Kickoff Friday. “It’s a little bit unknown for me. There are a lot of guys where you may recognize their name from recruiting, but you’ve never seen them on the field.

“It’s time to go a step up, it’s their opportunity to become a household name.”

The criteria for the decision is the same as always: the quarterback who earns the starting job will have to be a player who, “can lead the football team, make good decisions and take care of the football,” Fedora said.

Most of the questions surrounded the specific development of redshirt freshmen Logan Byrd and Chazz Surratt and graduate transfer Brandan Harris. Sophomore Nathan Elliot is the only quarterback on UNC’s roster who has ever thrown a pass for the team in a game.

Harris comes to Chapel Hill from Baton Rouge, where he started a total of 15 games, including all 12 games his sophomore season. In 2016, Harris started the Tigers’ first two games, but was pulled in Week 2 and only appeared in two more contests last season. The issue for the gunslinger with the most college playing experience of North Carolina’s options is inaccuracy.

After spring, Harris seemed to be the front-runner to become the centerpiece of Fedora’s high-powered, fast-paced offense, but cornerback MJ Stewart’s description of the new teammate indicates there is still room to grow before he is able to be the clear-cut best decision to lead North Carolina this season.

“He works, he’s a hard worker,” Stewart said. “If he messes up, he’ll come ask me what I saw. I like his work ethic. I see (he and Marquise Williams) as similar quarterbacks.

“Brandon Harris has a strong arm, he can throw the deep ball, he’s getting accurate. His footwork is getting better. He’s able to escape the pocket even if it breaks down.”

In addition to the pending decision about who will start at QB, the Tar Heels also have uncertainty at the skill positions: the team lost its three best runningbacks (TJ Logan, Elijah Hood and Khris Francis) and three best wide receivers (Ryan Switzer, Bug Howard and Mack Hollins) after last season.

The offensive line is effectively the only fully-experienced unit on that side of the ball (that being said, that unit, too lost a pair of experienced players).

“We kind of like doing our job and not really being in the spotlight,” offensive lineman Bentley Spain said.

“It’s definitely been guys (leading) who in the past have been playing, but not leading, now immediately being thrown into (leading).”

As if all of the uncertainties in offensive personnel aren’t worrisome enough, Fedora spent a solid chunk of time talking about the logistical difficulties that come with the deconstruction before the program’s indoor practice facility is completed early next year.

“We’re totally displaced this whole season,” he said. “We have Kenan – that’s it.”

The sixth-year coach joked that he “doesn’t have enough things to worry about,” while explaining that his team will practice in Kenan Stadium every day, then have field staff replace the practice field with the game surface and paint in 36 hours every week of a home game.

For Fedora, the promise of the facilities to come is worth the single-season of chaos. But with so many other unanswered questions, he hopes that “Something went wrong with the field… what do we do?” is something that he and the staff have covered in its multiple-thought-process preparation for not having a true practice field this season.

Even UNC’s special teams units are going to look mostly brand new. Tom Sheldon, who joined the team last season, returns at punter. But North Carolina is still sorting out who will serve as its place kicker and punt and kickoff returners.

So maybe it’s unsurprising that Fedora declared that this season, the defense is going to have lead the way for the team.

Nevermind that defensive coordinator Gene Chizik, whose impact was quick and clear in helping the team’s defense turn a corner hard in 2015, retired in the offseason.

Nonetheless, Stewart believes that the upward-trending defense can continue in that direction under the leadership of John Papuchis, who is now the DC after joining the UNC staff with Chizik and serving as the linebackers coach since 2015.

Only Nazair Jones is missing from last season’s defensive line, all three starting linebackers return and the secondary only took a 50 percent hit in personnel lost since last season.

“The last few years, our defense has been ascending,” Stewart said. “This year’s our coming out year. This is the time that we come to the party and let everybody know that we’re a defense that people have to watch out for.”

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