By: Steven Lassan | 5/14/12, 4:04 PM EDT
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You can read the entire Tar Heels preview in Athlon Sports' 2012 ACC magazine, available for purchase now at the Athlon Sports store.
#29 North Carolina
ACC Coastal PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Larry Fedora, First Year | OFF. COORDINATOR: Blake Anderson | DEF. COORDINATOR: Dan Disch, Vic Koenning
North Carolina is overhauling its offense under new coach Larry Fedora, converting from a pro-style scheme to the no-huddle spread attack that has become prevalent throughout the nation. The Tar Heels want to operate at a faster pace, with the goal being to tire out opponents in the fourth quarter. UNC would like to run 75 or 80 plays per game while maintaining balance between the run and pass.
Junior Bryn Renner figures to be the triggerman after leading the ACC in passing efficiency and throwing a school-record 26 touchdown passes a year ago in his first season as the starter. He will be able to lean on a gifted tailback in Giovani Bernard, who last season led all FBS freshmen in rushing and became UNC’s first 1,000-yard runner since 1997, and a powerful offensive line that boasts tremendous size for support. The Tar Heels return four of five starters up front, including standout performers on the left side in guard Jonathan Cooper and tackle James Hurst. Each starter on the line is listed with a height of at least 6'3" and a weight of at least 305 pounds.
UNC must find some playmakers on the outside to replace Dwight Jones, who racked up 1,196 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns as a senior. Erik Highsmith (51 receptions in 2011) is a proven possession receiver, and T.J. Thorpe has the speed and quickness to turn short passes into big gains. Sean Tapley is talented enough to emerge as a threat but keep an eye on incoming freshman Quinshad Davis.
The Tar Heels also are switching their scheme on defense, changing from a traditional 4-3 base to an unconventional 4-2-5 look that will feature a Bandit (a hybrid defensive lineman/linebacker) and a Ram (a hybrid linebacker/defensive back). The unit lacks the familiar names and big-time NFL prospects of recent years, but the Tar Heel defense hopes to be disruptive by creating confusion with a variety of blitzes and coverages.
Tackle Sylvester Williams and end Kareem Martin anchor the line, where stopping the run is UNC’s primary goal. Senior Kevin Reddick returns as a stalwart at linebacker, but the Tar Heels need someone to seize control of the other starting linebacker position. Big-hitting free safety Tre Boston could emerge as the best player in the secondary. Jabari Price and Tim Scott are expected to win the starting spots at cornerback.
Casey Barth is one of the ACC’s best kickers, a nice bonus for Fedora in his first season. Barth returns for a fifth year of eligibility after suffering a season-ending groin injury in 2011, and he needs only three field goals to tie his brother, Connor, for UNC’s career record, although he’ll be kicking with a new snapper and holder. Thorpe is a dangerous weapon, having led the league in kickoff return average as a freshman in 2011, but the Tar Heels must improve their punting game. UNC ranked eighth in the conference in net punting and last in the league in punt return average in 2011.
The Tar Heels aren’t going to a bowl game, regardless of how many games they win, thanks to NCAA sanctions stemming from Butch Davis’ tenure as head coach. But they want to make a positive impression in Fedora’s first season at the helm. They have an offense with the potential to put up big point totals, but the question is whether their defense can keep opponents from scoring even more. The combination should make for an exciting season.