Three questions: Triangle schools prep for 2013
Posted August 3, 2013
Updated August 6, 2013
Raleigh, N.C. — As the “Summer of P.J.” winds down (sort of) and North Carolina’s Aug. 29 trip to South Carolina to take on the Gamecocks draws closer, let’s take a look at three key questions each Triangle football squad and David Cutcliffe, Larry Fedora and Dave Doeren will have to answer by the end of the month.
Can Anthony Boone replace Sean Renfree?
The short answer here is no, simply because Boone and Renfree don't share the same skill set. Renfree is a thrower first, scrambler-for-his-life second, and Boone is a 6-foot, 230-pound dual-threat signal-caller with an arm plenty good enough to win Duke football games. The key here is can Boone's style fit with Cutcliffe's vision of the Duke offense and help the Blue Devils come close to matching, or even succeeding, their impressive numbers from a season ago.
In his final season in Durham, Renfree attempted more than 35 passes seven times. It's hard to believe Boone will come close to equaling those totals, and it's probably for the best. In his lone start in 2012, Boone led a balanced Duke attack in a 42-17 thrashing of Virginia, completing 18 of his 31 passes for 212 yards and four touchdowns. He also ran the ball seven times for 41 yards and a score.
That sort of production will be necessary for a team replacing the ACC's all-time leading pass catcher (Conner Vernon) and the bulk of its secondary. The Blue Devils won't be winning many games 14-10, and Boone is going to be the person most responsible for making sure Duke can hang with opponents likely to light up scoreboards in Wallace Wade Stadium and elsewhere.
Who becomes the 3rd down receiver?
With Conner Vernon gone (sobs), it would be easy to assume that Duke is lacking at wide receiver. False.
The Blue Devils have plenty of capable bodies, namely Jamison Crowder and Isaac Blakeney, the top returning pass catchers. Duke also has a stable full of running backs who can catch the ball out of the backfield – Juwan Thompson and Jela Duncan combined to haul in 43 passes a season ago.
For Boone, however, a necessity during fall camp will be to find a go-to receiver on third downs and in key situations near the red zone. Can Crowder, who caught 76 passes in 2012, step into the role? Does a relatively unknown receiver like Max McCaffrey or freshman Johnell Barnes step up? Or will it be a tight end like Braxton Deaver, David Reeves or, wait for it, backup QB/RB/TE/HB Brandon Connette?
Whoever it is, Boone is going to need a security blanket in his first full season as a starter. Renfree had Vernon for four years, and the record-setting receiver helped the quarterback lead a Duke offense that was a problem for ACC defenses.
Do bowl game hangovers happen? Is that a thing?
If the last five games of the 2012 season are any indication, the answer here is yes. Duke clinched its first bowl trip in nearly 20 years on Oct. 20 when they rallied in the final minutes to beat North Carolina, 33-30. In the next four games, they were outscored 198-96. Despite that, the Blue Devils happily made their way to Charlotte for the Belk Bowl and all the swag that goes with it.
Then, stuff happened. The Blue Devils led 16-0 in the first quarter but lost in heartbreaking fashion after a Josh Snead fumble at the Bearcats' 5-yard line (with 80 seconds left in a tie game) allowed Cincinnati to steal a win with an 83-yard touchdown pass with 44 seconds left.
Despite that, and despite the last month of the season going all wrong against some of the better teams in the ACC, the mood was relatively positive after the 6-7 season. The Blue Devils had shown marked improvement. They had arrived, so to speak.
In reality, the bowl-clinching win over the Tar Heels ended up starting a hangover that lasted more than two months. For Duke to get to a second consecutive bowl game in 2013, Cutcliffe and the team's leaders are going to have to make sure the mood throughout the entire season resembles the one from the first eight weeks of 2012.
Easier said than done, but not impossible for a team with more depth than it has had in recent memory.
How fast is too fast?
Headed into year two of Larry Fedora's we-will-go-as-fast-and-humanly-possible-and-score-a-lot-of-points-because-Red-Bull project, the Tar Heels seem poised to unleash hell on the ACC's defenses. Bryn Renner is back and joined in the backfield by two running backs with experience (A.J. Blue, Romar Morris) and a freshman (T.J. Logan) with all sorts of potential, the league's best tight end (Eric Ebron) and a group of talented and versatile wide receivers led by Quinshad Davis and Sean Tapley.
There are questions along the offensive line, sure, but Fedora and Co. have to feel good about where the offense is headed going into the season.
More important than the talent, though, is the simple fact that most of these players are in their second year in Fedora's scheme. They are used to the pace, both in practice and in games, and they know the impact it can have on an opponent's ability to defend, especially late in games after 75-80 snaps.
In essence, things could slow down for the Tar Heels on offense in 2013. Offensive linemen won't be sucking wind AND trying to remember assignments, Renner won't be stressing about getting his unit lined up while also concerning himself with the defense's positioning and skill position players will be able to do what they're on the field to do – make plays with their abundant skill.
Fedora was quick to point out the role of both conditioning and experience Thursday after UNC's first practice.
"Tempo was good, we got the reps in and we pushed the reps. We were in good shape there," he said. "The older guys, there's no thinking involved. They know exactly what they're doing and they're able to do it fast."
Can Renner take another step forward?
While Fedora and offensive coordinator Blake Anderson are the mad scientists responsible for developing and implementing UNC's up-tempo scheme, fifth-year senior Bryn Renner will be in charge of making things happen on the field.
For the Tar Heels to go where many think they can – the ACC Championship Game in Charlotte – Renner will have better his numbers from 2012, when he threw for 3,356 yards and 28 touchdowns while completing 65.4 percent of his throws.
Need proof of that? In North Carolina's four losses a season ago, the Heels fell because their defense couldn't hold up. Sept. 8, at Wake Forest, the Demon Deacons scored late to steal a 28-27 win. A week later, in Kentucky, future ACC member Louisville won 39-34 despite FIVE touchdown passes from Renner.
In Duke's Oct. 20 win mentioned above, the Tar Heels defense allowed the Blue Devils to march down the field and score with 13 seconds left to win 33-30. Renner struggled that day, by his standards, completing just 19 of his 32 passes for 198 yards.
The final straw came two weeks later against Georgia Tech in Chapel Hill. Renner and Co. put up 50 points on a day when he completed 24-of-35 passes for 350 yards and two touchdowns. The Tar Heels lost by 18. (Obligatory #goacc mention.)
With plenty of questions remaining about UNC's defense headed into 2013, Renner will have to be the man responsible for securing victories. After flourishing late in Fedora's first season, expect Renner to be up to the task.
Does the defense stop (slow down) anyone?
There are eight other questions in this list, but in terms of impact on the way 2013 plays out for the Triangle's football teams, this one may be the most important.
If Fedora can get even marginal improvement from his defense in 2013, the Tar Heels will be a player in the Coastal Division and could theoretically get to 10 wins in the regular season. Quick reminder: North Carolina avoids Clemson and Florida State on a very manageable schedule.
Everyone is back from a secondary that gave up countless big plays in 2012, and that fact alone should help the Tar Heels be more consistent on the back end. Senior safety Tre Boston, a preseason All-ACC selection, will be expected to lead. If UNC can move into the upper half of the ACC in scoring defense and pass defense (10th and 11th in those categories a season ago), it will help a young front seven tremendously.
Up front, UNC wasn't quite as lucky in terms of getting players back for a second season in Fedora and defensive coordinator Vic Koenning's scheme. The Tar Heels will have to do without standouts Sylvester Williams and Kevin Reddick. Preseason All-ACC choice Kareem Martin is back, however, and will be tasked with leading a young defensive line that will play in front of an unheralded group of linebackers.
That group, most notably Tommy Heffernan, Travis Hughes and Darius Lipford, who will return to the field in 2013 after missing all of last season with an injury, could be the difference in whether the Tar Heels have another eight-win season or compete for the Coastal Division crown.
Can TOB's players execute Doeren's plans?
Any time there is a coaching transition, the incoming staff – for at least a couple of years – has to deal with what is left in the cupboard. Some situations are better than others, but there are always big question marks about how players from one regime and system will translate.
In Dave Doeren's first season, NC State's ability to do just that could make or break the Wolfpack's chances to take advantage of a schedule that includes eight games in Carter-Finley Stadium and just two contests outside the state of North Carolina.
The question itself is a bit cliche, but it's true. If an experienced but unheralded group of wide receivers can't adjust to a no-huddle scheme that may include less vertical passing, it doesn't matter who is throwing passes. Offensive linemen who can't get in good enough shape to forego a huddle won't have much success against any of the ACC defensive lines they'll face. A defense with some experienced players returning could be eaten alive if the back seven doesn't master Doeren's defensive schemes come late September.
It's an exciting process, at least for the coaches and players involved. It's all new. There is excitement in the air. But if things go wrong in either non-conference game before Clemson comes to town Thursday, Sept. 19, the year could take an ugly turn in a hurry.
Does a 'two-quarterback system' become the status quo?
After spring practice, the quarterback competition in Raleigh looked about as clear as possible for a team looking to replace Mike Glennon: Pete Thomas or Manny Stocker, or both, would be taking snaps for the Wolfpack in the fall. Simple. Clean. Easy to remember.
A lot can change in four months.
With the arrival of Arkansas transfer Brandon Mitchell and the addition of freshmen Josh Taylor and Bryant Shirreffs (the freshmen shouldn't really be considered part of the equation, but whatever...), Doeren has plenty of options when it comes to picking the leader of his first offense in Raleigh.
Before any of the oldest players in that group of five took a snap in fall camp, it appeared Mitchell – who played wide receiver for the Razorbacks in 2012 – was the leader in the clubhouse. Time will tell if that says more about Mitchell than it does Stocker or Thomas, but it's clear that the quarterback competition is pretty wide open in Raleigh.
By Aug. 31, the best case scenario for the Wolfpack would be having one of those three step and take the reins. Quarterback controversies never go well. And even though Doeren is in his first year and would probably get a bit of a free pass, a back-and-forth situation under center (or in the shotgun, more accurately) would probably hurt other players transitioning into Doeren and offensive coordinator Matt Canada's system.
For the record, I'll bet on Brandon Mitchell to win the job. Why? Because.
Secondary issues: Who steps up for departed stars?
With the departure of David Amerson, Earl Wolff and Brandan Bishop, three of the most experienced and successful defensive backs in NC State history, there are obvious holes in the secondary headed into 2013. Right now, in early August, those holes are of the gaping variety.
Dontae Johnson will be tasked with leading a re-worked group in the secondary, and based on his performance a season ago (70 tackles, six tackles for loss and eight passes defended), it's not a stretch to believe he could be the next Wolfpack defensive back headed to the NFL. Now, about those other three spots.
Juston Burris, a 6-foot-1, 200-pound Raleigh product, will play opposite Johnson at right corner. With Johnson checking in at 6-foot-2, NC State will again trot out two corners with above-average height.
Behind Johnson and Burris, things could get a little dicey. Hakim Jones was listed as the starting strong safety entering fall camp. He'll be joined by converted corner Jarvis Byrd, who has suffered two ACL tears in his time with the Wolfpack.
It's a fair guess that Jones and Byrd won't give the Wolfpack anything close to Wolff and Bishop-like production, but perhaps a more consistent approach from the secondary as a whole will lead to better overall play. Allowing fewer big plays in the passing game will be the first goal.
Congratulations, folks, you're now 5 minutes closer to college football season. Go organize tailgate equipment.