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2012 North Carolina Football Preview: Potential And Other Predictable Platitudes

If you're not careful, you can talk yourself into North Carolina using all the same words that you used the last time: potential, Sleeping Giant™, et cetera. This team has potential in droves, but can the offense improve its consistency, and can the defense make a switch to a 4-2-5 after the departure of key pieces? And does it matter, since the Tar Heels are banned from the postseason? Related: North Carolina's complete 2012 statistical profile, including projected starters, year-to-year trends and rankings galore.

For more on the Tar Heels, visit North Carolina blog Carolina March.

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For obvious reasons, Penn State has dominated the Scandal Meter recently. Both the actions and their punishment are rather unprecedented in the college sports landscape.

But last week we got reminders that other schools still have their own NCAA issues with which they are still dealing. Late on Friday, Yahoo!'s Charles Robinson dropped his latest Miami-related bomb, asserting that Nevin Shapiro's "right-hand man" was used by new Miami coach Al Golden to "circumvent NCAA rules in the recruiting of multiple Miami-area players." Meanwhile, a few days earlier, we were reminded of North Carolina's issues. Hakeem Nicks, an all-time great UNC receiver, is alleged to have committed "academic fraud" while in Chapel Hill, and his receiving records were given huge asterisks in the record book. In no way will this result in further sanctions for the Tar Heels, who are already facing a 2012 postseason ban, but it was a refresher.

The ACC Episode by Shutdown Fullback

Nicks' case was also a reminder of the interesting contradictions in Chapel Hill right now. When Florida State was rumored to be talking to the Big 12 about leaving the ACC, people thought the rationale made sense: as the line went, the ACC is a basketball conference dominated by North Carolina and Duke. Of course, while UNC's basketball program is all sorts of solid, clearly they make an effort on the football field. If they didn't, they probably wouldn't have committed so many violations in search for wins, right? But I digress.

Sanctions aside, Larry Fedora inherits an intriguing situation in Chapel Hill. When you take on a new job, you would probably rather take on a roster stocked with somewhat underachieving former four-star recruits instead of hard-working two-star kids with defined ceilings. Recruiting rankings are obviously not always right, but Fedora's first UNC squad will feature four-star starters at quarterback, running back, at least two offensive line spots, and both linebacker positions in his 4-2-5 defense. More should find themselves in the rotation at receiver, defensive back and on the defensive line. A few have yet to truly play like four-star kids, but again, in terms of ceiling alone, this is a pretty impressive squad, one that could benefit from a new set of hands on the coaching staff.

Despite Sleeping Giant™ status, however, Fedora is playing down his team's immediate potential, and for good reasons. First, it's what coaches do. Second … even he probably doesn't know what this team is capable of yet. Good recruiting rankings or bad, North Carolina was mediocre in the trenches last year, was rather inefficient in the run game, couldn't really generate a pass rush, and relied on both passing downs and fourth quarter success to pull out seven wins last year. And there is still the matter of figuring out how to motivate a squad of players who already know they won't be playing in a bowl, or potentially the ACC Championship, this year.

Because of all the factors at play here, North Carolina is completely unpredictable in 2012. Just like they were in 2011.

Related: Check out North Carolina's statistical profile.

Last Year

Here's what I said about North Carolina last June:

We preview UNC's 2011 season without knowing who might still be deemed ineligible, what kind of punishment the Tar Heels can expect, and how long until the punishment takes effect. It is an odd game of limbo, and it clouds every word written in this piece. For now, however, we will move forward pretending like "NCAA death" isn't skulking toward the western tip of the Research Triangle. […]

There is an NCAA hearing in October, so the chances are this cloud will continue to follow the program around all season; and honestly, they deserve it. But it further blurs the projectability (that is now a word, by the way) of this squad. In a vacuum, without hearings and allegations and a potential new coaching search (you never know) getting in the way, this is a team with solid potential. The offense might be more hit-and-miss, but the hits could be lovely; meanwhile, the defense is deep and athletic and could benefit from the experience players generated in light of suspensions last year.

With seven home games and trips to East Carolina and N.C. State, the Tar Heels play nine games within the borders of their home state; and considering their toughest home games are against Louisville and Miami, they could very well rack up the wins this season in the aforementioned vacuum. But in reality, the distractions will be epic. The Heels handled them well last year, which was amazing considering the shuffling of personnel, but the cloud only gets darker this fall, and if the NCAA moves quickly enough, last year's Music City Bowl might be the last time North Carolina tastes the postseason for a while.

Unless Penn State is involved, the NCAA does not, in fact, move very quickly. So the 2011 team was not impacted by any sort of postseason ban. They won seven games and reached the Independence Bowl, though close losses precluded any sort of run at a division title (they were 0-3 in one-possession games in conference play), and a late tumble minimized the impact of a strong first half of the season. (It also precluded whatever chance interim coach Everett Withers had of retaining his job full-time.)

First Seven Games: North Carolina 31.3 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 27.3 (plus-4.0)
Last Six Games: North Carolina 28.4 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 28.0 (plus-0.4)

Quarterback Bryn Renner got hurt against N.C. State, which led to a particularly poor offensive performance. But the UNC offense definitely trailed off over the last half of the year. It typified the season as a whole, however -- even early in the season, they were capable of looking flawless for back-to-back drives, then prematurely ending numerous consecutive drives with silly mistakes. The offense was also pretty young, though. Experience and a head coach with a solid offensive background could help in that regard. We'll have to wait and see if the defensive personnel fits in the new 4-2-5, however.


When Tim Beckman took the Toledo head coaching job a few years ago, he did so as a former defensive coordinator. But his Toledo teams were known for explosive offenses and potentially leaky defenses. In Larry Fedora's last two years as Southern Miss' head coach, the opposite was true. A former offensive coordinator at Florida and Oklahoma State, Fedora won a Conference USA title in 2011 with a spectacular defense (16th in Def. F/+) and only a decent-to-solid offense (42nd in Off. F/+). It is a nice reminder both that assistants and resources matter a ton, and that we can't really make the generalizations about a new coach that we typically do.

Still, you have to like what UNC has going for it on the offensive side of the ball this fall. Fedora brings with him Blake Anderson, his offensive coordinator at Southern Miss, along with assistants like Gunter Brewer, who was once co-coordinator with Fedora at Oklahoma State. And he inherits some solid, experienced personnel.

We start with quarterback Bryn Renner, who put together a fascinating 2011 campaign, his first as UNC's starting quarterback. In his first two games as a starter, Renner completed 42 of 49 passes (an absurd 86 percent completion rate) for 550 yards; he also threw more interceptions (four) than actual incompletions (three). Through seven games, he had completed 75 percent of his passes, averaged 9.4 yards per pass attempt (not including sacks) and compiled a 14-to-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio. But his regression was a primary reason for the offense's regression over the last half of the season: in the final six games, he completed only 62 percent of his passes, averaged 8.3 yards per pass attempt and threw 12 touchdowns to seven interceptions. Part of that slip was probably good -- he learned to throw the ball away and cut down on his interceptions a bit -- but part of the problems also came from growing pains and opponent adjustments.

If Renner undergoes typical year-to-year improvement, he should be really fun to watch this fall. Southern Miss' Austin Davis threw 34 passes per game last year in a more high-paced Golden Eagles attack, and Renner should get plenty of opportunities to prove himself, as long as he has some receivers, anyway. Davis had four high-quality targets at Southern Miss; right now, the first string of UNC's preseason depth chart included Erik Highsmith (725 yards, 9.5 per target, 67 percent catch rate), who could be in for a great year, and two players who combined for more tackles (2.5) than catches (zero) last year. Oh yeah, and one was kicked off the team recently. Senior Todd Harrelson moved from cornerback to receiver this offseason, but we're not going to find out if he is actually any good or not because he apparently didn't do well enough in the classroom. Meanwhile, sophomore Sean Tapley, a reserve in 2011, had a good enough spring to overtake a couple of interesting, if flawed, receivers. Senior Jheranie Boyd has teased with his four-star potential for years, but he has never been consistent enough to see the field frequently; despite averaging over 20 yards per catch in 2011, he was only targeted 24 times. Meanwhile, sophomores T.J. Thorpe and Reggie Wilkins (combined: six targets, six catches, 123 yards) proved about as much as they could with their opportunities, but didn't earn many. Meanwhile, Fedora, Anderson and company did not really utilize the tight end position much at Southern Miss, but they inherit an interesting one in Eric Ebron, who caught 10 of 17 passes for 207 yards last year.

Renner definitely needs some little- or never-used receivers to step up, but he does still have running back Giovani Bernard. Bernard rushed for 1,261 yards (plus-11.3 Adj. POE) as a redshirt freshman last year despite a line that ranked just 74th in Adj. Line Yards, and he caught 45 passes (374 yards, 7.1 per target, 85 percent catch rate) as well. Do not underestimate his potential as a receiver in this offense; Southern Miss had no problem getting the ball into the hands of playmakers' in unique ways last year -- receiver Tracy Lampley got 91 carries, while running backs Jamal Woodyard and Kendrick Hardy were targeted with 40 passes. Bernard and backup A.J. Blue could play major roles in both the running and passing games in 2012.

Bernard could also have a better line at his disposal. Five players with starting experience return; they have combined for 93 career starts, one of the higher marks in the country. In other words, if you are in a college football fantasy league, Bernard might be worth your time. He could have an enormous season.


Defensive coordinator Dan Disch also comes to Chapel Hill from Hattiesburg. He was the engineer of what was a really fun, fast Southern Miss defense in 2011 (it was his first year there after six seasons at Illinois), and he's tasked with doing the same at UNC. Disch's lone year at Southern Miss was an enormous success -- the Golden Eagles improved from 59th to 16th in Def. F/+, from 70th to 23rd in Def. PPP+ (big play prevention), from 53rd to 20th in Rushing S&P+ and from 55th to 25th in Passing S&P+ -- but he also inherited personnel quite friendly to his system. We'll see if that's the case in Chapel Hill.

Disch's success in 2012 will likely be determined by some youngsters in the secondary. North Carolina shifts to a three-safety look despite losing two of its top four safeties (Jonathan Smith, Matt Merletti) from last year's squad. Senior Gene Robinson (37.5 tackles, 4.0 tackles for loss, three passes defended) takes over as the RAM hybrid, and junior Tre Boston (59.0 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, five passes defended) should be fine at strong safety. But only two other safeties played last year: former walk-on Pete Mangum (19.0 tackles) and junior D.J. Bunn (2.5 tackles), who was recently kicked off the team because of academics. Redshirt freshmen like Darien Rankin and Sam Smiley and walk-on Jeff Schoettmer will fill in the two-deep. If they are solid, the front six returns just enough to be solid as well.

We'll start with what North Carolina doesn't have up front. (The answer: quite a bit.) Ends Quinton Coples and Donte Paige-Moss both left school early, and tackles Tydreke Powell and Jordan Nix are gone; meanwhile, linebackers Zach Brown (last year's leading tackler by far) is now a Tennessee Titan, and Darius Lipford (29.5 tackles) is lost for the season with a knee injury. There is enough left over, however, to talk yourself into the unit if you are so inclined.

Senior tackle Sylvester Williams (38.5 tackles, 7.0 tackles for loss, four passes defended) could be, at 320 pounds, one of the nation's better space-eaters. He is a solid play-maker for his size, but he needs to do a little better job of occupying blockers instead of simply going for plays. Sophomore Shawn Underwood, also a projected starter, isn't exactly small himself (300 pounds), though he didn't get many opportunities last year. Big end Kareem Martin (7.0 tackles for loss, six passes defended) should be solid, while senior Dion Guy (8.5 tackles) will get the first crack at starting at the "BANDIT" position. Disch and Fedora use a couple of different hybrid positions (the Bandit is part end, part outside linebacker; the Ram is part safety, part outside linebacker) to confuse offenses and offer multiple looks, but nobody with any sustained experience is listed at the Bandit position.

At linebacker, former four-star recruits Kevin Reddick (6.0 tackles for loss, four passes defended) and Travis Hughes (8.5 tackles as a freshman) are the likely starters. They are both intriguing players, but the depth chart is pretty thin behind them. If players like Guy, Hughes and whoever wins the free safety job (as of now, it's Smiley) are able to make some plays, this defense could resemble what last year's was supposed to. But those are still "if's" right now.

Defining Success

Right now, North Carolina finds itself in Ohio State's role: playing spoiler in 2012 and building momentum for 2013. That makes it rather difficult to define success. That said, beating rival N.C. State for the first time since 2006 would be a good place to start. And with a schedule that includes home games versus Elon, East Carolina, Idaho and Maryland with winnable road trips to Wake Forest and Duke, there really won't be an excuse for winning fewer than about seven games. But as our friends at Carolina March have pointed out, the 2012 schedule "seems tailor-made for Tar Heel fans to abandon for basketball if things don't go well." So there's that.


Every time I start to talk myself into this North Carolina, I realize I'm using the exact same logic with which people have talked themselves into UNC for years: Sleeping Giant™, recruiting rankings, potential, potential, potential. I probably shouldn't go too far down this road without acknowledging that. Still, there is a lot to like about the no-bowl team of 2012, and depending on who stays at UNC following this season, there is a lot to like about 2013 as well.

Renner, Bernard, Highsmith and a very experienced line give Fedora and company quite a bit to play with on the offensive side of the ball; meanwhile, the defense is not awash in blue-chippers, but the starting lineup should be stocked somewhat with players who did reasonably well last year. If they were eligible, I would say UNC has a decent shot at a bid in the ACC title game, especially considering they get Virginia Tech (and the Hokies' rebuilt offense) at home. Instead, they're just trying to put a pretty good win total on the board, and the schedule should accommodate at least seven or eight wins.

For more on the Tar Heels, visit North Carolina blog Carolina March.

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