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How quickly can UNC bounce back after a mulligan year?

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Larry Fedora’s Tar Heels shouldn’t have to wait long to rebound after a 2017 debacle, but 13 suspensions won’t help.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at North Carolina State
Larry Fedora
Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

[Note: Since the publication of this preview, 13 UNC players have been suspended, mostly across the season’s first four games, for selling team-issued Jordans. They include potential starting QB Chazz Surratt and top returning tackler Malik Carney, a defensive end. While nobody got suspended for more than four games and the NCAA let UNC stagger suspensions at the same position, the Heels have a lot to overcome as the season begins.]

If you’re going to get wrecked by injuries and bad bounces, you might as well do it the same year you’re undergoing a rebuild anyway. That’s just sound planning.

Larry Fedora killed two birds with one stone; he had to play a jarring amount of youth, and he unloaded a bunch of bad injury karma. The damage:

  • Freshman quarterback Chazz Surratt led the team in passing with 1,342 yards, a little bit ahead of sophomore Nathan Elliott (926).
  • Sophomore running back Jordon Brown and freshman Michael Carter combined for 1,171 rushing yards and 337 receiving yards.
  • With senior Austin Proehl missing half the season, sophomore receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams led with 630 receiving yards. Three freshman wideouts (Dazz Newsome, Beau Corrales, Roscoe Johnson) combined for 460 more yards.
  • Not a single offensive lineman started all 12 games. Three sophomores and a freshman combined for 17 of the team’s 60 starts.
  • Linebacker Andre Smith (84.5 tackles in 2016) missed 10 games, cornerback Corey Bell Jr. missed nine, tackle Jordon Riley missed seven, safety Donnie Miles missed six, etc. No linebacker made it all 12 games.
  • Nine linemen, seven linebackers, and 10 defensive backs made at least six tackles each.

The offense was already looking at a total retooling after losing quarterback Mitch Trubisky, its top two running backs, five of the top six receiving targets, and a pair of all-conference linemen. Fedora brought in a few transfers to stem the tide and set an experienced defense up to succeed. But those experienced pieces couldn’t stay on the field.

So UNC fell from 21st to 94th in S&P+ — from 26th to 83rd on offense and from 44th to 92nd on defense — and saw their win total drop from eight to three.

If there was a silver lining, it’s that the team improved at the end.

UNC in 2017

Category First 3 games Next 5 games Last 4 games
Category First 3 games Next 5 games Last 4 games
Record 1 W, 2 L 0 W, 5 L 2 W, 2 L
Avg. score UNC 39, Opp 35 Opp 34, UNC 11 UNC 35, Opp 25
Avg. yards per play Opp 6.7, UNC 6.0 Opp 5.4, UNC 4.3 UNC 3.9, Opp 5.8
Avg. pecentile performance 53% (76% off, 44% def) 20% (14% off, 43% def) 43% (52% off, 42% def)
Avg. performance vs. S&P+ proj. +2.0 PPG -16.8 PPG +12.7 PPG

Surratt got hurt midway through, and LSU grad transfer Brandon Harris bombed, leading to a dreadful midseason funk that saw the Heels lose to Duke and Virginia at home and fall to Georgia Tech, Notre Dame, and Virginia Tech by a combined 125-24. But starting with the Miami game, Elliott took over. He torched Pitt and Western Carolina and ran well enough with Brown to scare Miami. You could see a pretty interesting team again.

It’s hard to glean anything useful from UNC’s 2017. The lineup changed weekly, the level of quality changed almost drive to drive ... the whole thing played out like a training camp for 2018.

In theory, the Heels now have a lot to work with. Fedora and coordinator Chris Kapilovic have to decide on a quarterback (neither Surratt nor Elliott separated themselves in spring ball), but they’ll have a pair of solid backs and a high-ceiling receiving corps. And the defense loses only a couple of pieces on the line and in the secondary.

UNC went 19-8 with an ACC Coastal title and back-to-back S&P+ top-30 finishes in 2015-16. Fedora was just beginning to prove this program’s upside. I can’t imagine this is a top-30 team this time around, but top-50? I could maybe talk myself into that.

Offense

2017 UNC offensive radar

From Bryn Renner to Marquise Williams to Trubisky, UNC was pretty solid at QB under Fedora until last season. But Trubisky’s early departure for the NFL and a transfer (Caleb Henderson left for Maryland) knocked the Heels off course.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Georgia Tech
Chazz Surratt
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Surratt beat out Harris and Elliott and flashed massive potential. He completed 12 of 14 for 168 yards in a near-upset of Louisville in week two (he left early with injury), then took apart a bad Old Dominion defense. But from the moment Proehl left the Duke game with a broken collar bone, the offense disappeared. The Heels scored just 17 against Duke, then failed to top 14 in any game for a full month. Surratt’s completion rate was 70 percent after three games, then 52 percent thereafter.

NCAA Football: Miami at North Carolina
Nathan Elliott
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Elliott’s late-season audition went pretty well, but that made things awkward for 2018, as there is no clear-cut starter.

UNC QB tale of the tape

Category Chazz Surratt Nathan Elliott
Category Chazz Surratt Nathan Elliott
Completion rate 58.5% 51.4%
Yards per completion 12.5 12.3
INT rate 1.6% 3.4%
Sack rate 7.1% 5.8%
Marginal efficiency plus-2.5% plus-3.3%
Marginal explosiveness plus-0.22 plus-0.06
Yards per non-sack carry 4.62 5.08
Marginal eff. (rushing) plus-0.2% plus-5.3%
Marginal expl. (rushing) minus-0.07 minus-0.35

Elliott had the slightest of efficiency advantages, but Surratt was more explosive and less INT-prone. Surratt also had a bit more of a sample to work with and more time for opponents to adjust to him; plus, he beat out Elliott last fall, which suggests he was better in practice.

Whoever wins is going to be reasonably talented and exciting. And there’s major potential in the supporting cast.

  • Ratliff-Williams struggled at first in Proehl’s absence, catching just eight balls in the four games after the senior got hurt. But he caught fire with Elliott, catching 15 passes for 294 yards in his last three games. He had five for 131 against NC State.
  • Dazz Newsome and Beau Corrales emerged as decent options late in their freshman seasons; they combined for seven catches for 96 yards in the first seven games, then 20 for 274 in the last five. Another freshman, Rontavius Groves, wasn’t around for a breakout — the former high-three-star prospect was lost for the season in September.
  • Tight end Carl Tucker was on his way to a big year, catching six passes for 100 yards in the first three games, before he, too, was lost with injury. Brandon Fritts finished with 25 catches, though his didn’t really go anywhere (7.1 yards per catch).

The skill corps could be fun, but the line is facing a rebuild, as four players with 22-plus career starts each are gone. But because so many players saw action last year, the cupboard isn’t bare. Juniors Charlie Heck, William Sweet, and Nick Polino and sophomore Jay-Jay McCargo have starting experience, and all were high-three-star recruits at minimum.

The Fedora system is a pretty high-tempo, pass-first attack. That worked well when Trubisky was running the show, and Fedora and Kapilovic didn’t change too much with last year’s new QBs — UNC went from running 51.5 percent of the time on standard downs (106th in FBS) and 25.3 percent on passing downs (110th) to 54.8 percent (88th) and 29.4 percent (97th), respectively. So some combination of Surratt/Elliott, Ratliff-Williams, Newsome, Corrales, and Tucker/Fritts will drive in 2018.

The Heels will still get the backs involved, too, though, and UNC’s are pretty good. Brown proved himself to be a lovely check-down option — he averaged only 8.2 yards per catch but had a plus-12 percent marginal efficiency, which means he was great at keeping drives on schedule.

Carter averaged 1.3 more yards per carry than Brown (both of them plumped up their averages against ODU and Western Carolina), and he had breakout performances against Cal (11 carries for 84 yards) and Virginia (13 for 157). It’s easy to see this pair working, with Carter being the first- and second-down guy and Brown doing work on third.

But we haven’t yet talked about Auburn transfer Stanton Truitt or big redshirt freshman Antwuan Branch. This backfield is impressive, and I’m curious if or how they get a larger number of guys involved.

NCAA Football: Virginia at North Carolina
Michael Carter
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

2017 UNC defensive radar

2017 was a semi-unexpected transition year. First, the Heels lost coordinator Gene Chizik in February, replacing him with former Nebraska DC John Papuchis. Then came the injuries.

Perhaps not surprisingly, they weren’t good at much. Papuchis wants to be aggressive, and UNC did allow only a 55 percent completion rate for the season (53 percent after the first two weeks) with average disruption up front (69th in Adj. Sack Rate, 67th in stuff rate). But the run defense was a sieve, and the secondary gave up quite a few big plays to go with the plays it was making.

Plus, the Heels were unlucky from a turnovers standpoint — they defensed 59 passes, and national averages would suggest that about 13 of those should be interceptions, but they reeled in only seven picks. You think an extra six takeaways might have helped a team that went 1-3 in one-possession games?

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Georgia Tech
Malik Carney (53)
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

There are plenty of intriguing returnees, and outside of the line, few are seniors. The line is pretty seasoned, though. Senior end Malik Carney led the team in tackles for loss (12) and sacks (5.5), and a quartet of upperclassman tackles — seniors Jeremiah Clarke and Jalen Dalton and juniors Jason Strowbridge and Aaron Crawford — returns after combining for 23 TFLs. Dalton led the way with eight TFLs despite missing three games.

Throw in a couple of exciting sophomore ends (Tomon Fox and Tyrone Hopper combined for five sacks among their 24.5 tackles), and it seems like the line is set. I expect an increase in disruption, though that only matters so much unless they get better at standing up to run blocking. Strowbridge (235 pounds), Fox (245), Hooper (235), and Strowbridge (270) are all undersized for their positions.

Having a stable linebacking corps can make up for some run issues, but somehow, despite so many guys seeing the field, only two particularly experienced LBs return: senior and former walk-on Cole Holcomb and junior Jonathan Smith. Youngsters like sophomore Malik Robinson and redshirt freshman Jeremiah Gemmel will have to play roles sooner than later.

North Carolina v North Carolina State
K.J. Sails
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

It’s easy to talk yourself into the secondary, at least. The Heels do have to replace corner M.J. Stewart (five TFLs and 12 passes defensed) and safety Donnie Miles, but safeties Myles Dorn and J.K. Britt (combined: 96 tackles, four TFLs, nine PDs) return, as do four corners who all saw a lot of the field as youngsters: juniors K.J. Sails and Patrick Rene and sophomores Myles Woolfolk and Tre Shaw. Sails got picked on quite a bit but broke up 13 passes along the way. The depth is strong, and considering the number of plays the Heels made last year with a mostly young unit, experience could look really good on this secondary.

Now it’s up to the front to force opponents to pass.

Special Teams

UNC’s special teams unit wasn’t quite as good as the 2016 iteration, which ranked ninth in Special Teams S&P+. But 33rd ain’t bad. Punters Tom Sheldon and Hunter Lent were both pretty awesome (UNC ranked 21st in punt efficiency), and big-legged Freeman Jones was efficient in the kickoffs department.

If Jones can make a few more of his longer kicks (he was 3-for-7 on FGs over 40 yards), this should be a top-25 unit again, especially considering Ratliff-Williams’ explosiveness in kick returns (26.3 average, two scores).

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep at California 65 -0.1 50%
8-Sep at East Carolina 125 16.4 83%
15-Sep UCF 17 -7.6 33%
22-Sep Pittsburgh 45 1.7 54%
27-Sep at Miami 13 -16.1 18%
13-Oct Virginia Tech 21 -5.2 38%
20-Oct at Syracuse 71 1.9 54%
27-Oct at Virginia 73 2.1 55%
3-Nov Georgia Tech 53 2.8 56%
10-Nov at Duke 40 -4.4 40%
17-Nov Western Carolina NR 25.9 93%
24-Nov N.C. State 37 -0.9 48%
Projected S&P+ Rk 51
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 43 / 58
Projected wins 6.2
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 5.8 (40)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 25 / 26
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -6 / 2.1
2017 TO Luck/Game -3.4
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 73% (77%, 70%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 3.7 (-0.7)

S&P+ is not designed to take injuries into account, so when you see that it’s projecting the Tar Heels 51st overall this year, after they fell to 94th last year, realize that might be a bit artificially low. With this amount of returning production and solid recent recruiting, odds are good that UNC will be decent.

The magnitude of the bounce back, though, will depend on how well they operate in close games. Because my goodness, are there a lot on the schedule. UNC is projected to dispose of ECU and WCU and is projected to lose by 16 at Miami. Every other game is projected within a touchdown. With iffy execution and some bad breaks, you could be looking at 4-8 or so. Strong execution, plus a little bit of improvement beyond the projection, could mean 8-4 or better.

If you’re a superstitious UNC fan, though, you have to feel pretty good about the karma. The Heels got a ton of bad breaks and bad bounces out of the way last year.

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