North Carolina football preview for 2016, including keys to success for the Tar Heels, best players and season prediction.
What You Need to Know About the North Carolina Offense
How effective will QB Mitch Trubisky be as the successor to Marquise Williams? It’s the only serious question mark for an offense that led the country at 7.3 yards per play a season ago. Carolina went airborne in 2015, averaging over 40 points per game. And not only is the system old hat now in Chapel Hill, but all of the running backs, five of the top six receivers and four starting O-linemen return.
In other words, Trubisky is taking the reins of an offense that’s mature, gifted and poised to keep humming.
Behind him, he’ll have All-ACC RB Elijah Hood, and that deep receiving corps includes playmakers Ryan Switzer, Mack Hollins and Bug Howard.
The blocking unit will be outstanding, even with the loss of next-level OG Landon Turner. How deep is the line? Even seniors John Ferranto and Jon Heck, an all-star, are being challenged for spots in the lineup. Considering the combination of the staff and the returning talent, it’d be an upset if Trubisky doesn’t hit the ground running in his debut as the face of the Tar Heel offense.
Biggest Key to the North Carolina Offense
Right side competition heating up. The Heels return four starters up front, needing only to replace all-star OG Landon Turner. But while the seniors to the right of C Lucas Crowley, OG John Ferranto and OT Jon Heck, have the edge in experience, neither is a sure thing. And that’s good news for the unit’s depth. Junior R.J. Prince and Brad Henson have had the kind of offseasons that could be springboards to even stiffer summer challenges to Heck and Ferranto, respectively. Regardless of who wins jobs, it’s clear the O-line will be both talented and deep this fall.
What You Need to Know About the North Carolina Defense
Gene Chizik darn near won the Broyles Award, given to the nation’s top assistant coach. And he earned every accolade and every bit of praise he received in 2015. The former Auburn and Iowa State head coach inherited a disheveled D that allowed 39 points per game the year before he arrived, and he immediately transformed it.
Without any great influx of newcomers, the Tar Heels executed an about-face, improving in nearly every statistical category. Still, there’s work to be done. Carolina had major issues winning the line of scrimmage, resulting in a poor run defense and pass rush. Heightening the challenge for this season, the team’s two best linebackers have graduated, leaving a hole at the second level. Chizik is counting on big years from Andre Smith and Jonathan Smith in the middle and Cayson Collins at strongside.
The line, too, needs to raise the bar, especially Mikey Bart and Dajuan Drennon on the ends. The front seven is a bit of work-in-progress, but the secondary is not. From the unit that ranked 12th nationally in pass efficiency defense, vets M.J. Stewart, Des Lawrence, Donnie Miles and Dominique Green are back. Plus, rookies Myles Dorn and Myles Wolfolk are showing signs of being ready to contribute immediately.
Biggest Key to the North Carolina Defense
Second level shuffle. For good reason, the Heels are confident about their D-line and DBs as coordinator Gene Chizik preps for his second year on the job. But linebacker has been a fluid situation since the graduations of Jeff Schoettmer and Shakeel Rashad. Carolina needs players to step up, especially after the run defense wilted late in 2015. MLB Andre Smith and SLB Cayson Collins played well when given snaps in 2015, but the staff will have a hard time keeping rookie Jonathan Smith off the field after he played so well in March and April.
North Carolina Will Be Far Better If …
the run defense finds a way to plug the holes that killed it last fall. Carolina was by far and away the ACC’s most generous run defense, yielding 247 yards per game and 5.1 yards per carry. And on first down, the Heels gave up 5.7 yards a carry to make life so much easier on opposing offenses. In the final three games alone, NC State, Clemson and Baylor racked up 1,272 yards and 12 scores on the Carolina run D. And if that trend can’t be reversed in 2016, this program will not take the next step in the ACC.
Best Offensive Player
Junior RB Elijah Hood. While Carolina has lost its starting quarterback, Marquise Williams, the return of Hood means the offense has a sure thing to build around in 2016. Hood was a downhill wrecking ball as a sophomore, providing the muscle and power to an otherwise finesse attack. Hood has a penchant for making everyone around him better, because his running style results in battered opposing defenses that are gassed in the second half of games.
Best Defensive Player
Junior CB M.J. Stewart. It was just two years ago that Chapel Hill was home to one of the country’s worst pass defenses. But the Tar Heels traveled from 117th nationally in pass efficiency defense in 2014 to No. 12 a year ago, because of defenders like Stewart. The junior plays the game with an attitude, intimidating receivers with his strength and his confidence. And with just one season as a full-timer, there’s every reason to believe Stewart will be even harder to beat over the top in 2016.
Key Player to a Successful Season
Junior QB Mitch Trubisky. The Tar Heel offense has gotten progressively better for Larry Fedora, leading the country in yards per play in 2015. For the trend to continue this fall, Trubisky will need to take the baton without skipping a beat. Fedora’s system is predicated on quarterbacks who not only spread the ball around to receivers, but also work running lanes like a back. While Trubisky is a very good athlete, he’s following in the footsteps of Marquise Williams, who rushed for 35 career scores.
The Season Will Be a Success If …
the Tar Heels are right back in the ACC Championship Game this December. After running the Coastal Division table and putting a scare into Clemson in Charlotte, Carolina is flush in confidence entering 2016. Plus, 10 of the 15 players who earned some degree of all-league recognition are back for another season, so a lack of talent won’t be an impediment to continued success. Unlike the Atlantic Division, the ACC’s other half, there are no scary roadblocks out of the Coastal that the Heels will need to figure out how to beat this season.
Oct. 15 at Miami. Yeah, there are more interesting games on the schedule, such as the neutral field opener with Georgia and the Oct. 1 trip to Tallahassee. However, it’s what comes after the FSU trip that’ll determine who wins the Coastal Division, a visit from Virginia Tech and this road game at Miami. The Heels torched the Canes last fall, 59-21, but now that Mark Richt is in charge, Miami is about to become Carolina’s biggest problem in the division.
North Carolina Football Stats From 2015
– Points per game: North Carolina 40.7 – Opponents 24.5
– Time of possession: North Carolina 25:16 – Opponents 34:44
– Yards per catch: North Carolina 14.1 – Opponents 11.1