Rant Sports 100 in 100 College Football Previews: No. 51 North Carolina Tar Heels

The countdown to the 2012 college football season marches on.  Today we preview the No. 51 team on the Rant Sports 100 in 100 college football preview series, the North Carolina Tar Heels.

North Carolina enters the 2012 campaign following a 7-6 finish last season, good for fourth-best in the Coastal Division of the ACC. It was a tough year for the Tar Heels off the field; losing head coach Butch Davis due to the investigations by the NCAA into academic fraud, impermissible benefits, and talking to agents in the 2010 season. The day after Davis was dismissed defensive coordinator Everett Withers was named his interim replacement. Despite being a talented team, the Tar Heels struggled in ACC conference play, posting a 3-5 record. The three wins came against the Virginia Cavaliers, RS No. 74 Wake Forest Demon Deacons, and RS No. 81 Duke Blue Devils. North Carolina ended their season with a 21-41 loss to the Missouri Tigers in the 2011 AdvoCare V100 Independence Bowl in Shreveport, LA.

With 14 total starters returning, new head coach Larry Fedora will have a lot of elite athletes to work with on both sides of the ball. Fedora had success with the RS No. 70 Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles, capping off his final season as head coach in 2011 defeating the RS No. 68 Houston Cougars 49-28 for the Conference USA championship and winning the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl 24-17 over RS No. 67 Nevada Wolf Pack.

Impact Players

Offense

During the press conference announcing Fedora as the Tar Heels 34th (full time) head coach, he promised to implement an aggressive philosophy on both sides of the ball, bringing his wide-open spread offense to Chapel Hill. The offense will return eight starters, with junior QB Bryn Renner and sophomore RB Giovanni Bernard highlighting the unit.

Last season, Renner was second in the conference in passing with 3,086 yards. He threw 26 touchdowns to 13 interceptions, and had a completion percentage of 68.3%. The aerial attack is a key to Fedora’s offense, and Renner is more than capable to carry it out. The downfield passing game will keep defenses on their toes, and allow running lanes to open up for Bernard.

As a freshman in 2011, Bernard was third in the ACC with 1,253 yards on the ground, trailing only David Wilson and Lamar Miller, both of whom are now in the NFL. Bernard was second in rushing touchdowns with 13, and 362 yards for a score on 45 receptions.

North Carolina will be without their leading wide receiver from a year ago, Dwight Jones, but will return the team’s second leading receiver, Erik Highsmith. As a junior last season, Highsmith had 51 receptions for 726 yards and five TDs, and will become Renner’s top target in 2012.

UNC loses center Cam Holland, but returns an offensive line with a combined 93 starts – good for 14th most in the FBS. Tackle James Hurst and guard Jonathan Cooper were both named to the 2011 All-ACC Second Team, and the opposite side of the line will return two seniors in OT Brennan Williams and OG Travis Bond.

North Carolina has never had trouble producing elite offensive athletes for the next level (Greg Little, Alge Crumpler, Hakeem Nicks), but it hasn’t been able to translate on Saturdays. With a new offensive scheme and plenty of talented upperclassmen, the Tar Heels will look for a better finish in the ACC standings, even if they can’t participate in the postseason due to a one year Bowl ban stemming from  the NCAA investigation.

Defense

Just like the offense is the defense is facing its own major coaching overhaul. Fedora brought Dan Disch with him from Southern Miss where he spent last year as Fedora’s defensive coordinator. Disch will be joined by assistant head coach for defense Vic Koenning. After Ron Zook was fired last November from the RS No. 55 Illinois Fighting Illini, then-defensive coordinator Koenning coached Illinois to a 20-14 victory over RS No. 63 UCLA Bruins in the 2011 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.

The Tar Heels lost arguably two of their best defensive players from last season, DL Quinton Coples and LB Zach Brown to the NFL but will return several players who are expected to have productive seasons in the new blitz-happy defensive packages. Senior DT Sylvester Williams and junior DE Kareem Martin will be the anchors of the line, while senior Kevin Reddick returns to the middle of the linebacking corps.

In 2011, Reddick didn’t live up to preseason expectations, recording only 71 tackles (39 solo), 27th most in the conference. This season, he will be asked to do much more.

Koenning comes from a 4-2-5 background, and Disch ran an off shoot of the defensive scheme at Southern Miss, but UNC will more of a 3-3-5/4-2-5 hybrid. They also may throw some traditional 4-3 and 3-4 looks in as well.

As is the case with the offense, the defense has a solid upperclassmen unit to guide the incoming freshman. They will most assuredly be looking to improve on last year’s production which ended the 2011 campaign seventh in the ACC in both total defense (365.2 ypg) and scoring (24.8 ppg), and 10th in passing (241.3 ypg). Against the run, the Tar Heels finished third, allowing an average of 123.92 yards per game.

Schedule

For back-to-back seasons North Carolina will avoid perennial ACC favorites, the Florida State Seminoles. They will, however, face Big East contenders Louisville Cardinals for the second straight year.

Aside from U of L, the non-conference schedule will all be played at Kenan Stadium and will feature a season opening contest with the Elon Phoenix, an annual matchup with instate rivals ECU Pirates in week four, and the Idaho Vandals the following week.

In conference play, UNC will host Virginia Tech Hokies week six, NC State Wolfpack week nine, Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets week 11 (homecoming), and RS No. 73 Maryland Terrapins to end the season.

They travel on the road to take on Wake Forest week two, RS No. 61 Miami (FL) Hurricanes week seven, Duke week eight, and Virginia week 12.

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