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Talking yourself into UNC football is an annual tradition. Is 2015 the year?

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One of these years, convincing yourself North Carolina is a sleeping giant will actually pay off. Just keep saying it!

Confused? Check out the advanced-stats glossary here.

1. An annual tradition

This is my fifth year writing this offseason preview series. This six-month ritual becomes like a road trip; you end up with benchmarks, be they go-to rest stops or this part of the Penna Turnpike where there's always construction. Once you hit a benchmark, you know how much of the trip you have left, down to the minute.

Each year, this series contains "talking about how good Mark Hudspeth is after another nine-win season for UL-Lafayette," "desperately looking for a reason to give EMU fans hope," "bringing up Dan Lefevour in every MAC preview," "pointing out how well Marshall recruits compared to everybody else in Conference USA," "expressing love for Utah State's Chuckie Keeton," "screaming to the high heavens that BYU should be treated as a major-conference program," and "predicting about nine wins for Nebraska."

When we get to the ACC, there's one reliable mile marker: "talking yourself into North Carolina even though you know better." If I'm convincing myself this is the year North Carolina puts everything together, it must be mid-June, and there must be about 12 weeks left in the offseason.

It's not hard to see why this happens. UNC seems to always return last year's two deep and is always welcoming a new top-30 class. Since 2010, the 247Sports Composite has only once graded UNC's class outside of that range.

Meanwhile, since 2008, the Heels have won between six and eight games every year and have ranked between 33rd and 57th in F/+ all but once. They are stable despite in no way resembling a stable program. No matter who's coaching, they're competitive, athletic, and never particularly good.

The formula changed a little bit last year. The offense, threatening to break through for three years (35th in Off. S&P+ in 2011, 38th in 2012, 27th in 2013) turned into a top-25 unit. The defense, meanwhile, disintegrated. The Tar Heels ranked 29th in Def. S&P+ in 2013, lost the engines of an excellent pass defense (end Kareem Martin, safety Tre Boston, corner Jabari Price), and crumbled to 99th. The result was a 6-7 record and a No. 70 F/+ ranking, the Heels' worst since going 4-8 and ranking 71st in 2007, Butch Davis' first season.

Larry Fedora's first two seasons unfolded as you would have expected: a first-year reset (57th in F/+) followed by a second-year breakthrough (33rd). But his Heels handled neither turnover nor adversity well, and after looking like they were ready for a second-straight late-season breakthrough, they folded. Want to spend a lot of goodwill in a short time? Lose by 28 points to rival NC State at home, then get pantsed in your bowl.

And here's where I talk myself into the Heels regardless. The offense that started to break through returns almost everybody. The defense welcomes back almost every lineman and defensive back and brings in Gene Chizik, one of the best coordinators on the market.

All you have to do is ignore the letters on the helmet and that pretty Carolina blue, and you'll be talking yourself into the Heels, too.

2014 Schedule & Results

Record: 6-7 | Adj. Record: 8-5 | Final F/+ Rk: 70
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Percentile
Performance
Adj. Scoring
Margin
Win
Expectancy
30-Aug Liberty N/A 56-29 W 64% 8.4 95%
6-Sep San Diego State 76 31-27 W 81% 20.8 72%
20-Sep at East Carolina 61 41-70 L 42% -4.8 3%
27-Sep at Clemson 14 35-50 L 57% 4.1 8%
4-Oct Virginia Tech 33 17-34 L 41% -5.1 13%
11-Oct at Notre Dame 34 43-50 L 51% 0.4 16%
18-Oct Georgia Tech 8 48-43 W 80% 19.5 61%
25-Oct at Virginia 39 28-27 W 82% 21.7 83%
1-Nov at Miami 31 20-47 L 7% -34.4 0%
15-Nov Pittsburgh 43 40-35 W 66% 9.5 33%
20-Nov at Duke 51 45-20 W 97% 45.3 100%
29-Nov N.C. State 55 7-35 L 10% -29.5 0%
26-Dec vs. Rutgers 81 21-40 L 18% -21.5 1%

Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
S&P+ 35.7 25 33.6 99
Points Per Game 33.2 38 39.0 119

2. A late-year surge ... and a late-year collapse

One of the clearest reasons for optimism heading into 2014 was how the Tar Heels finished 2013. While we take bowl performances far too seriously, the way a team plays over a season's final four to six games can tell us how it might play the following year, especially if the reasons for a late-season surge return.

Late in 2013, North Carolina was about as good as anybody. And while the defense had to replace key cogs, the offense looked like it might be good enough to offset regression.

It didn't happen. UNC allowed 70 -- SEVENTY -- points to ECU in Week 3, then perhaps even more egregiously allowed 34 to Virginia Tech. The Heels scored 43 points on Notre Dame but still managed to lose.

However, it looked like the same late-year surge was building. UNC knocked off a strong Georgia Tech in a shootout, then looked decent in beating a better-than-you-thought Virginia on the road. Things were looking up ... until the Heels got smoked by Miami.

UNC looked good against Pitt and spectacular against Duke. Things were looking up ... until the Heels got outscored by NC State and Rutgers by a combined 75-28.

Two attempted surges failed to get off the ground. The Heels' three worst performances came in the final five games. So much for either carry-over or a new surge. And yet, here I am, telling you to buy in regardless.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 0.79 101 IsoPPP+ 108.9 47
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 44.7% 39 Succ. Rt. + 114.0 25
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 27.7 23 Def. FP+ 108.1 4
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 4.7 37 Redzone S&P+ 123.2 12
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 23.9 ACTUAL 23 -0.9
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 48 36 23 47
RUSHING 83 42 26 60
PASSING 28 31 23 45
Standard Downs 37 31 41
Passing Downs 37 9 63
Q1 Rk 65 1st Down Rk 41
Q2 Rk 38 2nd Down Rk 32
Q3 Rk 27 3rd Down Rk 24
Q4 Rk 3

3. Just throwing darts

In terms of ratings, this was UNC's best offense in at least a decade. Marquise Williams threw for more than 3,000 yards and rushed for nearly 1,000 (not including sacks). A trio of backs combined to rush for 1,100. Four receivers had at least 40 catches and 450 yards. UNC operated quickly and efficiently ... on average. But predicting whether UNC was going to do well or poorly was a fool's errand.

The Tar Heels averaged 6.1 yards per play and scored 35 points on a deadly Clemson defense, one that ranked second in Def. S&P+. They averaged 5.9 per play against Virginia (19th) and 6.1 against Notre Dame (43rd) as well. Meanwhile, against three defenses that ranked worse than 80th in Def. S&P+, they failed to top 5.6 yards per play.

  • Yards per play (vs. Def. S&P+ top 40): 5.2
  • Yards per play (vs. No. 41-80): 6.0
  • Yards per play (vs. No. 81-plus): 5.2

In terms of yards per play, UNC's four worst performances came against No. 64 NC State (3.3), No. 26 Miami (3.7), FCS Liberty (4.8), and No. 10 Virginia Tech (4.9). In no rational universe does that make sense. Granted, the performance against Liberty was impacted by UNC scoring 56 points and hitting the brakes, but that's still strange. And it makes it difficult to figure out what to expect.

That said, if inexperience was part of the reason for these ups and downs, they should cease to be a reason. This unit will be as experienced as they come.

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2015 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Marquise Williams 6'2, 220 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8931 270 428 3073 21 9 63.1% 26 5.7% 6.3
Mitch Trubisky 6'3, 215 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.9135 42 78 459 5 4 53.8% 2 2.5% 5.6
Kanler Coker 6'4, 220 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8332
Caleb Henderson 6'3, 215 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9165
Anthony Ratliff-Williams 6'1, 195 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8791

4. What could Good Marquise do over a full season?

UNC's inconsistency can be explained in part by the quarterback.

When Marquise Williams was dialed in, almost no quarterback was better. Against Duke, Williams completed 18 of 27 for 276 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions and rushed for 98 yards and two scores. Against Clemson's awesome defense, he might have been even better: 24-for-38, 345 yards, four scores, one pick. On three occasions, all in ACC games, he produced a passer rating of at least 168.9.

Meanwhile, Williams produced a 78.0 rating against NC State (11-for-22, 97 yards, one pick, 11 rushing yards) and a 90.7 against East Carolina (14-for-25, 127, one pick, 37 rushing yards).

Marquise Williams is maddening -- the good version is so good that you never want it to go away. And it goes away for a couple of weeks at a time. (I guess you could say he is the quintessential UNC player.) If Williams puts the pieces together, remains healthy (he was battling a hip injury late in the year), and plays well for most of his senior season, he should crush the 3,000/1,000 mark.

Every running back returns to line up next to him, and each of last year's top four wideouts is back to catch his passes.

On top of that, all five starters return up front, including three (tackle Jon Heck, guards Landon Turner and Caleb Peterson) entering their respective third seasons on the first string. This plane is absolutely loaded, and if the pilot's ready, the Heels' offense could be devastating.

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Opp.
Opp.
Rate
Fumbles Fum.
Lost
Marquise Williams QB 6'2, 220 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8931 167 989 13 5.9 5.1 49.1% 11 4
T.J. Logan TB 5'10, 185 Jr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9251 119 582 3 4.9 3.3 42.0% 0 0
Elijah Hood TB 6'0, 220 So. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9760 67 259 4 3.9 3.3 31.3% 1 1
Romar Morris TB 5'10, 190 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8675 65 278 4 4.3 3.3 38.5% 1 1
Charles Brunson TB 5'11, 205 Jr. NR NR 12 77 2 6.4 4.3 50.0% 0 0
Khris Francis TB 5'9, 200 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8576 12 26 0 2.2 0.7 25.0% 0 0
Mitch Trubisky QB 6'3, 215 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.9135 9 45 0 5.0 4.2 44.4% 1 0
Ryan Switzer WR 5'10, 185 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8706 8 29 0 3.6 3.6 25.0% 2 1
Ty'Son Williams RB 6'0, 220 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.9000







Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
%SD Yds/
Target
NEY Real Yds/
Target
RYPR
Ryan Switzer WR 5'10, 185 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8706 86 61 762 70.9% 17.7% 66.3% 8.9 38 8.4 98.5
Mack Hollins WR 6'4, 210 Jr. NR NR 67 35 613 52.2% 13.8% 64.2% 9.1 171 8.8 79.3
Quinshad Davis WR 6'4, 210 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8928 64 41 470 64.1% 13.2% 57.8% 7.3 -26 7.3 60.7
Bug Howard WR 6'5, 210 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8753 61 42 455 68.9% 12.6% 60.7% 7.5 -46 7.5 58.8
Jack Tabb TE
46 26 257 56.5% 9.5% 56.5% 5.6 -65 5.5 33.2
T.J. Thorpe WR
33 16 237 48.5% 6.8% 57.6% 7.2 32 7.2 30.6
T.J. Logan TB 5'10, 185 Jr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9251 30 26 144 86.7% 6.2% 63.3% 4.8 -155 4.8 18.6
Romar Morris TB 5'10, 190 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8675 26 21 178 80.8% 5.4% 42.3% 6.8 -66 6.5 23.0
Kendrick Singleton WR 6'2, 205 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8324 21 13 153 61.9% 4.3% 52.4% 7.3 -5 7.5 19.8
Austin Proehl WR 5'10, 175 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8033 17 15 106 88.2% 3.5% 88.2% 6.2 -66 3.7 13.7
Damien Washington WR 6'1, 190 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8231 7 6 76 85.7% 1.4% 57.1% 10.9 7 10.8 9.8
Khris Francis TB 5'9, 200 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8576 7 5 28 71.4% 1.4% 71.4% 4.0 -31 3.9 3.6
Jordan Cunningham (Vanderbilt) WR 6'3, 175 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8969 7 4 27 57.1% 2.1% 42.9% 3.9 -22 4.0 3.3
Jordan Fieulleteau WR 6'3, 210 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8597 5 2 29 40.0% 1.0% 60.0% 5.8 2 5.7 3.7
Brandon Fritts TE 6'4, 240 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8500
Devin Perry WR 6'2, 195 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8600
Josh Cabrera WR 6'3, 205 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8498
Juval Mollette WR 6'4, 205 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8727
Carl Tucker TE 6'2, 225 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8612

5. A few more big plays wouldn't hurt

If we ignore the inconsistency and focus only on the full-season numbers, we find a team that was efficient (25th in Success Rate+) but lacking in explosiveness (47th in IsoPPP+).

Granted, receiver Mack Hollins was one of the ACC's better big-play guys -- he had eight catches for 242 yards in the first three games of the year, then had two for 120 against Virginia. But the other three primary receivers combined to average just 11.7 yards per catch, and while UNC boasted a couple of former blue-chippers in the backfield (T.J. Logan and Elijah Hood), neither had many explosive moments. UNC had just 13 rushes of 20-plus yards (89th in the country) and four of 30-plus (106th).

Of course, Logan and Hood were underclassmen. If experience gets them untracked, and if Quinshad Davis returns to his 2013 form (when he averaged 15.2 yards per catch with 10 scores), we'll feel silly questioning this unit's big-play capability. But neither of those are guaranteed.

This should be an efficient unit, but big plays save you from having to make a few mistake-free plays in a row to score.

Offensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 105 3.06 2.34 41.9% 65.4% 21.4% 143.2 4.6% 4.6%
Rank 48 50 123 33 82 97 23 65 20
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Career Starts Honors/Notes
Landon Turner RG 6'4, 325 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9298 28
Jon Heck RT 6'7, 300 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8339 24
Caleb Peterson LG 6'5, 300 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8767 23
John Ferranto LT 6'6, 295 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8081 13
Lucas Crowley C 6'3, 290 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8557 13
Kiaro Holts RT
3
Will Dancy LG 6'4, 310 Sr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7533 2
Jared Cohen RG 6'3, 305 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8771 2
Arien Smith C
1
Bentley Spain LT 6'6, 300 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9433 0
Brad Henson RG 6'5, 295 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8593 0
R.J. Prince RT 6'6, 320 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8810 0
Caleb Samuel OL 6'5, 290 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8643
William Sweet OL 6'7, 285 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9067
Tommy Hatton OL 6'3, 285 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9215
Mason Veal OL 6'5, 290 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8772

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Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 0.90 93 IsoPPP+ 84.4 111
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 48.6% 122 Succ. Rt. + 95.6 85
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 30.7 52 Off. FP+ 101.0 51
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 5.3 128 Redzone S&P+ 89.5 108
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 19.8 ACTUAL 23.0 +3.2
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 120 108 88 112
RUSHING 120 101 90 99
PASSING 104 108 82 116
Standard Downs 88 87 90
Passing Downs 120 102 124
Q1 Rk 104 1st Down Rk 106
Q2 Rk 110 2nd Down Rk 88
Q3 Rk 92 3rd Down Rk 108
Q4 Rk 104

6. Super Gene

Athletic defense loses its way and gets whipped back into shape by a big-name coordinator. That doesn't sound implausible, does it?

Gene Chizik was once one of the most sought-after assistants in the country. He was Tommy Tuberville's right-hand man when Auburn rolled to an undefeated season in 2004. He moved to Texas in 2005 and helped shore up a unit good enough to get out of Vince Young's way. From 2002-06, teams employing Chizik went 53-12.

Of course, it's been nearly a decade since Chizik was a coordinator. From 2007-12, he put together one of the strangest coaching résumés imaginable, going 38-38 overall -- 14-0 in 2010 and 24-38 otherwise. He was fired two years after winning the national title at Auburn, and after two years as a TV guy, Chizik is back. And while he's no longer an SEC head coach, he's making SEC money -- at $750K per year, he's one of the most well-paid coordinators in the country.

Chizik isn't the only addition. Fedora overhauled his entire defensive staff, bringing in young UT-Martin line coach Tray Scott and Nebraska transplants John Papuchis (linebackers) and Charlton Warren (defensive backs).

The game has changed a lot since the last time Chizik was a coordinator -- hell, it's changed in the two years since he was a coach -- but if we are to assume he still knows what he's doing, he's got quite a bit to work with ... on paper.

His line returns seven of last year's top eight, including four who made at least five tackles for loss. His linebacking corps boasts two experienced seniors and a big-hitting sophomore, plus high-three-star youngsters. His secondary returns eight of last year's top nine, including three with at least 2.5 tackles for loss and five with at least three passes defensed. It also has experience -- six of the top eight were either freshmen or sophomores in 2014.

But this aggressive unit ranked 99th in Def. S&P+ last year. Middle Tennessee ranked 98th. UNC allowed an inexcusable 6.5 yards per play and at least 7.3 on five occasions. Opponents crossed the 40-point mark in more than half of last year's 13 games.

It's Super Gene to the rescue. Can he save the Heels' defense? Can it be saved by anybody in one year?

Defensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 99.5 3.22 3.81 43.2% 67.8% 17.9% 105.4 3.1% 8.3%
Rank 64 107 113 114 67 88 57 100 48
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Ethan Farmer DT
13 32.0 4.2% 6.0 2.5 0 0 0 0
Nazair Jones DT 6'5, 300 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8747 13 27.5 3.6% 7.5 2.5 1 4 1 0
Junior Gnonkonde DE 6'4, 260 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8559 13 26.5 3.5% 5.0 1.0 0 2 1 0
Dajaun Drennon DE 6'4, 250 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.9013 13 26.5 3.5% 5.5 2.0 0 1 0 0
Justin Thomason DT 6'4, 290 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8281 13 22.5 3.0% 5.0 1.0 0 0 1 0
Mikey Bart DE 6'3, 270 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8267 13 10.5 1.4% 1.0 1.0 0 1 1 0
Tyler Powell DT 6'4, 290 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8347 12 9.0 1.2% 1.0 1.0 0 0 0 0
Jessie Rogers DT 6'4, 270 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8482 13 8.0 1.1% 6.0 5.5 0 0 1 0
Devonte Brown DT
10 7.5 1.0% 2.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Jeremiah Clarke DT 6'5, 310 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8850
Robert Dinkins DE 6'1, 270 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8631
Jalen Dalton DE 6'6, 260 Fr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9727
Aaron Crawford DT 6'1, 310 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8726
Jason Strowbridge DE 6'4, 250 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8702








Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Jeff Schoettmer MIKE 6'2, 235 Sr. NR NR 13 59.0 7.8% 6.0 0.0 2 4 0 0
Travis Hughes WILL
12 49.5 6.5% 3.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Norkeithus Otis BANDIT
12 27.0 3.6% 5.5 4.0 0 1 1 0
Cayson Collins WILL 6'1, 235 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8665 13 27.0 3.6% 0.0 0.0 0 0 2 1
Nathan Staub MIKE
13 21.5 2.8% 1.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Shakeel Rashad LB 6'2, 245 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8743 13 14.5 1.9% 2.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Joe Jackson LB 6'2, 225 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8681 8 5.0 0.7% 1.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Tyrell Tomlin LB 5'11, 230 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8661 10 3.5 0.5% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Dan Mastromatteo LB 6'2, 235 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8460 12 2.5 0.3% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Malik Carney LB 6'3, 220 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8275
Andre Smith LB 6'0, 235 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8681
Jonathan Sutton LB 5'11, 220 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8758








7. The breakdowns were BREAKDOWNS

As you would expect from a unit that made a respectable 72 tackles for loss (70th in FBS) and defensed 55 passes (67th) but still ranked poorly, UNC gave up a lot of big plays. The Heels allowed 84 gains of 20-plus yards, most in the country by a defense not named New Mexico (93). Sixty-one were through the air, most in the country.

Against UNC, offenses still had the advantage on passing downs. Of all of the Heels' weaknesses, the biggest (124th in Passing Downs IsoPPP+) came in allowing opponents to not only catch back up to the chains on second- or third-and-long, but to blaze right past the chains altogether.

This was the core of UNC's awful numbers. The Heels were decent in short-yardage and put together an average pass rush. They got contributions from youngsters -- end Dajaun Drennon, tackle Nazair Jones, linebacker Cayson Collins, safety Donnie Miles, and corner M.J. Stewart saw significant time as freshmen -- and if Chizik can install some level of structure in this experienced unit, improvement is a guarantee.

UNC's average Def. S&P+ ranking from 2008-13 was 41st; until proved otherwise, last year was the outlier.

Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Tim Scott FS
13 65.0 8.6% 1 0 1 7 1 1
Des Lawrence CB 6'1, 185 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8628 12 58.5 7.7% 3.5 0.5 1 3 0 0
Sam Smiley SS 5'11, 190 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7867 13 42.0 5.5% 0.5 0 1 3 0 1
Donnie Miles RAM 5'11, 205 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8603 12 42.0 5.5% 4 1 0 1 0 0
Brian Walker CB 5'11, 185 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8885 12 35.0 4.6% 1.5 0 3 5 1 0
Dominique Green SS 5'11, 190 Jr. NR NR 12 33.0 4.4% 0 0 0 2 0 1
Malik Simmons RAM 5'11, 190 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8394 12 28.5 3.8% 2.5 0 0 3 1 0
M.J. Stewart CB 5'11, 200 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8715 12 20.0 2.6% 0.5 0 2 4 0 0
Allen Artis FS 6'1, 205 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8660 13 10.5 1.4% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Ryan Mangum RAM
11 5.5 0.7% 0 0 0 1 0 0
T.J. Jiles CB 5'11, 180 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8664 12 5.5 0.7% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Kedrick Davis CB 5'10, 180 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8544 10 5.0 0.7% 0 0 1 1 0 0
Alex Dixon CB 6'0, 195 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8740 2 3.0 0.4% 0 0 0 0 1 0
Kameron Jackson S
5 2.5 0.3% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Cameron Albright S 6'1, 210 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8610
Ayden Bonilla S 6'1, 210 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.7985
Mike Hughes CB 5'11, 185 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8777
J.K. Britt S 6'0, 190 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8563

8. Plenty of playmakers

If the pass rush improves as Jones and Drennon get more reps, that will help UNC's cause on passing downs.

So will stability in the back seven. Among all the other issues, the Heels couldn't keep the same lineup on the field. Two of the top three linebackers missed time, and while eight DBs made at least 20 tackles, only two played in all 13 games. There were few long-term injuries, but there was no continuity.

In theory, that means Chizik has plenty of options. But he'll have to figure out the right balance between aggression and stupidity. Last year's top three cornerbacks (Des Lawrence, Brian Walker, and M.J. Stewart) combined for 5.5 tackles for loss and 18 passes defensed ... and played a key role in UNC giving up more big pass plays than anybody else.

Stewart is particularly intriguing. When a corner has a low number of tackles (20) with quite a few passes defensed (six), I tend to say that he's either a really good cover guy or an awful tackler. With Stewart, that might not be either/or.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Tommy Hibbard 64 41.1 3 29 25 84.4%
Nick Weiler 6'0, 190 Jr. 3 35.7 0 3 1 133.3%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Nick Weiler 6'0, 190 Jr. 73 64.1 42 0 57.5%
Tommy Hibbard 3 62.0 1 0 33.3%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2015
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Nick Weiler 6'0, 190 Jr. 35-37 5-7 71.4% 0-1 0.0%
Thomas Moore 17-17 1-3 33.3% 0-2 0.0%
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Returns Avg. TD
T.J. Logan KR 5'10, 185 Jr. 16 25.3 0
Damien Washington KR 6'1, 190 Sr. 13 20.6 0
Ryan Switzer PR 5'10, 185 Jr. 37 4.6 0
Category Rk
Special Teams F/+ 109
Field Goal Efficiency 127
Punt Return Efficiency 107
Kick Return Efficiency 73
Punt Efficiency 67
Kickoff Efficiency 12
Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency 68

9. Special teams and the law of averages

For his career, Ryan Switzer has averaged 11 yards per punt return with five touchdowns. For a player two years into his career, that is spectacular. Switzer's late-2013 hot streak, however, skewed expectations to a historic degree.

In his first 11 returns, he averaged a decent 8.5 yards. In his next 13, he averaged 31.4 yards and scored five times. He started 2014 with seven returns for 70 yards against Liberty, then averaged 3.4 a pop the rest of the year. Opponents were mindful of kicking directly to him, and he got more risky. He didn't get many clean opportunities, and he made some mistakes.

Combined with seven misses in 13 field goal attempts, Switzer's struggles made for a pretty iffy special teams unit. One assumes a bounceback, not only because Switzer will likely find a rhythm, but also because Nick Weller stabilized UNC's place-kicking. This unit probably won't rank in the 100s again.

2015 Schedule & Projection Factors

2015 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk
3-Sep vs. South Carolina 31
12-Sep N.C. A&T NR
19-Sep Illinois 63
26-Sep Delaware NR
3-Oct at Georgia Tech 19
17-Oct Wake Forest 89
24-Oct Virginia 46
29-Oct at Pittsburgh 38
7-Nov Duke 54
14-Nov Miami 28
21-Nov at Virginia Tech 26
28-Nov at N.C. State 48
Five-Year F/+ Rk 7.1% (51)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 25 / 22
2014 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 0 / -4.1
2014 TO Luck/Game +1.6
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 17 (10, 7)
2014 Second-order wins (difference) 4.9 (1.1)

10. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Scouting the enemy

Only one Chapel Hill opponent is projected better than 46th. Three of five road opponents are projected in the 30s or 40s. Seven of eight ACC opponents are between 28th and 54th.

The ACC has a glut of decent-to-good teams. If the Tar Heels are one, a mediocre non-conference slate and visits from Wake Forest, Virginia, and Duke should assure UNC of the customary seven to eight wins.

But if the defense improves to mediocre and the experienced offense takes another step forward, this team could be much better.

Butif the offense continues its flakiness and a new coordinator doesn't fix the defense, UNC's going about 4-8.

Because the offense is tantalizing, and because the defense was so bad, just about any outcome is conceivable, from a dud that gets Fedora fired to a division title that gets him an extension.

UNC wrecks my expectations every season, and there's no reason this year should be different. The downside is obvious, but the thought of a healthy Marquise Williams and a duct-taped defense are too much to resist. I absolutely see a division contender, even if I'll have likely reversed course by halftime of the opener against South Carolina.

Picking North Carolina to do great things is like eating spicy food -- you can't help yourself, and you instantly regret it -- but sign me up for another 12 insanity wings.

[looks at calendar] Yep, 12 weeks till the season starts.