There’s plenty to like about the North Carolina Tar Heels in 2014. Head coach Larry Fedora’s squad returns an experienced, dual threat QB, a plethora of running backs, and a solid group of receivers on offense and enough returning talent on defense, particularly with the linebacking corps, to suggest the Heels can continue the progression shown in 2013’s late season turnaround. The schedule is also fairly manageable for a team with an attainable goal of representing the Coastal division in the ACC title game.
Marquise Williams may not have eye-popping stats, but what the then-sophomore QB did in taking over for injured starter Bryn Renner mid-season and leading UNC to four wins in five games is impressive, nonetheless. While the dual threat option (1,698 passing yards, 560 rushing yards, 21 total touchdowns) still needs to ward off Mitch Trubisky and Kanler Coker, his experience should give him the edge to claim the start Week 1. The Heels’ backfield returns starting back T.J. Logan (533 rushing yards, four touchdowns), as well as 200-plus yard rushers Romar Morris and Khris Francis, as well as five-star incoming freshman Elijah Hood, who may be too good to deny playing time despite the experience ahead of him.
Despite losing the threat of TE Eric Ebron to the NFL, UNC should also have a reliable set of receivers. Quinshad Davis (730 receiving yards) formed a great tandem with Ebron, but will have a few guys who could step up to form a new reliable duo, with sophomore Ryan Switzer looking like that guy. The rest of the unit should provide capable contributors in Bug Howard, T.J. Thorpe and tight end Jack Tabb.
While the biggest questions involving the offense revolve around replacing All-ACC LT Jack Hurst (47 career starts) and center Russell Bodine (27 career starts), UNC has a few guys with returning experience (43 combined career starts) and has recruited very well up front.
UNC’s rush defense was a major issue in 2013 and could be again this season after the departure of star DE Kareem Martin, although fellow force Norkeithus Otis (43 tackles, 14 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks) is back in the fold. Now that he’s playing Batman though, he’ll need someone to step up to be his running mate, with a few younger players looking to be in the mix.
Although the defensive line has some question marks, the linebacking corps returns completely intact to help prevent the big play. Jeff Schoettmer and Travis Hughes head the unit with 123.5 tackless and 11 tackles for loss, but there are four other returning players with game experience, as well.
The Tar Heels’ secondary is going to miss playmaking free safety Tre Boston, who held things together, but do return safeties Dominique Green (46.5 tackles, three interceptions) and Tim Scott (43 tackles, two interceptions), who combined for 13 passes defended and 3.5 tackles for loss. CB Jabari Price is also gone, but Brian Walker (19.5 tackles, one interception) showed plenty of promise as a freshman to suggest he can be a steady contributor in year two of his college career. If the defense needs the backfield to bail them out routinely, however, the losses of Boston and Price could prove to be too big to overcome.
The Tar Heels’ season will be decided in a four-game stretch, starting with tough road non-conference game at East Carolina and ending with a trip to Notre Dame. With just two games to prepare for it (plus a bye week), the stretch will either send UNC to the middle of the Coastal pack for the remainder of the season, or catapult them into the ACC title game. Can the Heels take the next step?