Marilyn Payne

Tar Heels start camp searching for starters

Posted August 2
Updated August 3

Larry Fedora’s goal for his team is simple as North Carolina starts camp. Before the end of the week, a roster of primarily game-inexperienced players have to install almost all of the playbook.

“We want to get everything installed,” the sixth-year head coach said. “So, in the first five days, we’ll get about 98 percent of the offense, defense and special teams installed. We want that done.”

Sounds pretty straightforward, but given the number of game-inexperienced Tar Heels taking the field for practice, that install comes with less familiarity than there’s been in a while in Chapel Hill.

Continuous (Quarterback) Questions

There’s no depth chart for the offense yet. Obviously, the quarterback battle is the biggest attention grabber, but there are question marks and newcomers all over the field.

Graduate transfer Brandon Harris, sophomore Nathan Elliott, and redshirt freshmen Logan Byrd and Chazz Surratt are competing for the quarterback spot. Austin Proehl returns the most experience and production to the wide receivers group, Brandon Fritts is back to full health after starting just seven games at tight end last year. Most of the other position players are unknown namess.

The good news, though: the Tar Heels did their summer homework. Fedora felt the recall from spring ball was good. The freshman and new transfers knew what team was installing.

In particular, former LSU Tiger Harris was in-tune with everything he needed to know.

“He was able to execute everything we did – that’s Day One install,” Fedora said. “We’ll see as it goes, as he starts putting more in, how he’ll react.”

But even an “end-of-full-install,” deadline doesn’t exist for the quarterback decision.

As was the case back in Mitch Trubisky’s redshirt freshman season, when Fedora chose between the 2017 NFL Draft’s second overall pick and then-more-experienced Marquise Williams, Fedora just wants to see “separation.”

“If somebody doesn’t, (the decision)’ll go until I guess the last five minutes before the game,” Fedora said. “Eventually, it’s going to be the guy that runs the team the best (and) shows that they want to lead this team and that the offense is better when they’re on the field than when they’re standing on the sideline.”

The coach sees that all of the guys vying for that spot have worked on more than just playbook comprehension.

“All of those guys know that this is their opportunity to lead this team so they watched in spring how they all made improvements in leadership, presence and the way that they carry themselves around the football team,” he said.

From Proehl’s perspective, the inadequacy that in-part cost Harris his starting job with Les Miles’ team is a non-issue now.

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“I think that this offense fits (Harris) better than that offense at LSU,” Proehl said. “I feel like he’s more comfortable in it. Since he’s been here, I have not seen a problem with his accuracy, I have not.

“I give him a lot of credit because learning on the run is hard. You know you have a lot of stuff going through your head and you expect a lot of yourself. He expects a lot of himself and he’s continuing to try and perfect what he’s doing in our offense in two months.”

Logistical Learning

UNC is breaking in more than just new offensive skill players. The Tar Heels are learning the spacing and boundaries of their new practice space, Kenan Stadium, too.

“We had our coaches, managers and everybody do a walkthrough of practice (Tuesday),” Fedora said. “Still, the space and where we need to be, we can adjust to some things in the next practice. Overall, our guys adjusted really well to it. That’s not knowing where they’re going.”

Compared to the old Navy Field practice location, North Carolina is squeezed for space. Players have to be conscious of where they are on the field and what’s going on around them at a higher level with less field space.

The biggest place the limitations show up is in how the team is able to finish drills, according to Fedora.

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“The logistics of how we’re practicing on this field and where everybody goes, in five days, I’m hoping that at that point, these guys will be relaxed and understand and we can focus more on being the best we can be instead of a drill and ‘Where do I go next,’” he said. “There’s some of that going on because of the unknown.”

It’s all happening as the program’s new practice facility is being built. That turns something new into something necessary and worth it.

“It’s not an inconvenience or a distraction,” he said. “It’s something that’s my responsibility to get done because the reward of what we’ll have at the end of it will be well worth what we’re doing right now.”

Power-Five proven faces in different places

Fedora says he’s going to have to be more hands-on with the offense this year. He and the coaching staff’s meetings won’t change, and his presence in meeting rooms won’t necessarily have a different dynamic either. But the head coach believes he’ll certainly be more inclined to voice his “two cents,” as the offense develops through its growing pains.

Four of the new faces on the roster in Chapel Hill are grad transfers. Harris, center Cam Dillard (Florida) offensive lineman Khaliel Rodgers (USC) and tailback Stanton Truitt (Auburn) bring experience from Power Five programs that gives the team experience in different ways.

On the o-line, Dillard has given returner Bentley Spain support and helps set an example as a leader – both vocally and in terms of work ethic – for the most experienced part of the offense.

These guys are “not just missionaries,” in Chapel Hill for a season and out, Fedora insists. The foursome have done their part to integrate themselves into the program thoroughly.

Grad transfer, did a great job of coming in and being a part of the program “not just missionaries,” in & out.

As for the defensive staff, which went through a shake-up rather than a complete turnover when defensive coordinator Gene Chizik retired in the spring.

John Papuchis moved from linebackers coach into the defensive coordinator vacancy.

Defensive line coach Deke Adams, who was a part of Fedora’s first coaching staff at UNC after working with him at Southern Miss, returned to Chapel Hill in January after a season with East Carolina and three seasons at South Carolina.

The Tar Heels swiped linebackers coach Mike Ekeler from former offensive coordinator Seth Littrell’s North Texas staff. Ekeler worked for Papuchis at LSU and Nebraska and is familiar with how Papuchis runs things.

Defensive backs coach Terry Joseph also worked with Ekeler for Papuchis at Nebraska before joining UNC’s staff from Texas A&M this fall.

“Anytime you’ve got experience, it’s good,” Fedora said. “They’re not going to be big eyed. It’s just making sure they know change in terminology and communication.”

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