North Carolina is losing offensive star power. They may have an off year, but contributor Parth Upadhyaya still thinks they can manage a six-win season.
Above, T.J. Logan rushes for a touchdown. Photo by the News & Observer.
North Carolina entered last season with a no. 22 preseason ranking and lofty expectations. The Tar Heels were coming off of an 11-win campaign, highlighted by an ACC championship game appearance, and they looked poised to take the ACC’s coastal title again. However, a vulnerable rush defense cost North Carolina games it should have won, leading to a mediocre finish to its year. UNC ended its season with a Sun Bowl loss to Stanford, finishing with a 8-5 (5-3, ACC) record.
This upcoming season for the Heels reeks with uncertainty. Six starters return on both sides of the ball, but UNC lost 10 current and former All-ACC selections, which is the most in the conference.
However, North Carolina brings in the 29th best recruiting class in the nation, according to 247 Sports. LSU graduate transfer quarterback Brandon Harris should be better than many anticipate. Fedora has always been able to get the most out of his talent on the offensive end — one of the main reasons why the Heels have the potential to finish the 2017-18 season with six wins and a fifth-straight bowl appearance even in an “off year” for the program.
Here’s how they can do it:
On offense, the passing game will heavily rely on the production of rising senior Austin Proehl. He is the only returner with at least 275 career receiving yards. Proehl stepped up last season, finishing with 597 receiving yards (third on the team), but he will need to take the next step in his game to ensure success through the air for the Tar Heels.
The Heels lost Mitch Trubisky and Elijah Hood to the NFL draft, and T.J. Logan, Ryan Switzer, Bug Howard and Mack Hollins all graduated.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Heels aren’t losing nearly as much talent. The group returns 11 of its top 13 contributors on the defensive line, as well as its top five linebackers. Rising junior defensive end Malik Carney — who led the team with 5.5 sacks per game in the 2016-17 season — is back. Rising senior linebacker Cole Holcomb, who led the team in total tackles last season, will also return for his final year. However, the Tar Heels allowed 227.3 rushing yards per game last season, finishing the year ranked 109th nationally in rush defense. Another year playing together should do wonders for the group, and lowering the number of rushing yards given up per game should go a long way in securing wins.
The defense did lose third team All-ACC defensive-tackle Nazair Jones — who ranked first on the team in tackles for a loss — to the NFL draft. Former defensive coordinator Gene Chizik also stepped down from the role in February, leaving to spend more time with his family. Linebackers coach John Papuchis is the Heels new defensive coordinator and will have his work cut out for him.
Although the ACC’s coastal division is usually “up for grabs,” UNC doesn’t appear to have enough returning talent and offensive firepower to be able to contend for a division title. The Heels’ offense has been its strength throughout the past five seasons and its defense has been a liability. This is something that will have to change in the 2017-18 season as much of the veteran talent will be on the defense.
It won’t be easy, but Larry Fedora and his established coaching staff provide reason to believe North Carolina will scrape together six wins and another post-season berth.
Wins: Cal, Old Dominion, Duke, Virginia, Pittsburgh, Western Carolina
Losses: Louisville, Georgia Tech, Notre Dame, Virginia Tech, Miami, N.C. State