Team: North Carolina Tar Heels
2011 W-L: 7-6 (3-5)
Head Coach: Larry Fedora (first season)
Returning Starters: 13 (8 Offense, 5 Defense)
While the narrative for UNC’s 2012 football season will ultimately be the postseason ban they must serve, new head coach Larry Fedora will probably play a close second. The former Southern Mississippi coach, known for a high-octane attack on both sides of the ball, has brought the same energy to Chapel Hill with the promise of a new era in Tar Heels football. Between the talent already on the team, and his dedicated work on the recruiting front, Fedora could be building one of the country’s most entertaining squads to watch.
Last year, Clemson‘s pace blew away much of the rest of the ACC, as they utilized superior speed on offense to simply run other opponents right off the field. With a similar group of athletes at his disposal at UNC, Fedora is attempting to recreate it for himself. The first step is getting QB Bryn Renner on board with the high-octane spread — something he’s already driven headlong into in order to master. If Renner is fully up to the transition from Butch Davis’s pro-style set to this spread, then that’s half the battle. Second, the team will also lean significantly on the agility of sophomore back Giovani Bernard. The speedy rusher was one of the big surprises of the conference last season, and it’s a necessity for him to be effective in order to properly set up the pass. Bernard, who also caught 45 balls for 362 yards last year, can also expect even more involvement in the passing game this year, putting 60 receptions well within reach. And he’ll desperately need to get there if the receiving corps remain as muddled as they’ve been. Senior Erik Highsmith is obviously the star of the group, but beyond him, there’s a lot of uncertainty. With T.J. Thorpe out of the year, Jheranie Boyd becomes the only other experienced option out there; not the best scenario for Renner at all.
On defense, the team is working to replace eight starters — a tall order, but not insurmountable considering this side’s depth last season. With upper classmen all over the field, there needs to be a center of attention, and that man is obviously linebacker Kevin Reddick. Remaining at North Carolina strictly so he could run wild in the new 4-2-5 scheme, Reddick will find himself involved in most stops, operating from the Mike Linebacker position. New defensive coordinator Dan Disch swears by the unique setup, and has the results to prove it works, too. Under Disch’s guidance last year, Southern Miss managed to pick off 11 passes for touchdowns (an FBS record) and maintained a scoring defense in the top 30 overall.
The new, aggressive 4-2-5 also plays out well for senior defensive end Sylvester Williams. He’ll be involved in more blitzes, which should up his sack numbers immensely. A holdover from last year’s strong, physical defensive line, the tackle will be able to take shots at will — a pass-rusher’s dream.
If there are any concerns at all, it may be with an unproven secondary. This younger group must learn to be responsibly aggressive, picking spots to go after INTs, while also playing safe coverage as necessary. As a defensive coordinator, the last thing you want is all of your cover guys running loose in a weak man-to-man scheme. Before they push the defensive backs to embrace the new system, they must first embrace a restrained mindset. Otherwise, expect a lot of deep balls thrown against the Heels.
Without the postseason as an incentive, the 2012 season could go one of two ways for North Carolina. Either they let it weigh them down and play below their obvious talent level (not necessarily different from the past half-decade, really). Or, they use it as motivation and go scorched-earth on everyone. I’m tempted to believe it’s option one, but the “bottom” may not be as low as years’ past. Obviously this is a deep roster built on speed and finesse on both sides of the ball, with the gameplans operating through a choice few individuals. Reddick, a star already in his own right, will have an opportunity to play that up on a national scale as he prepares for the NFL Draft. Bernard and Renner — hot names in the conference preseason hype cycle — can either live up or burn out. Regardless of the result, though, Fedora’s got the building blocks for something great here at North Carolina. The 2012 season may just be a test run, but the rest of the league should prepare themselves, and soon.
Prediction: (7-5) (4-4); no bowl due to postseason ban