|UNC Opens Season Saturday Against Elon|
|Written by Ken Cleary|
|Friday, 31 August 2012 11:31|
For the third consecutive year, North Carolina opens the football season under the leadership of a new head coach. Larry Fedora, who guided Southern
Miss to a 12-2 mark and a conference championship a year ago, will be the man in charge when the Tar Heels kick off their 122nd college football season against Elon on Saturday, Sept. 1 at 12:30 p.m. The game will be televised by the ACC Network.
Just 13 months ago, Butch Davis was the head coach at Carolina and was coming off an 8-5 mark in 2010, including a win over Tennessee in the Music City Bowl. Days before the start of the 2011 training camp Davis was dismissed and defensive coordinator Everett Withers was named interim head coach. Withers piloted Carolina to a 7-6 mark and a fourth-consecutive bowl game in the Independence Bowl. With uncertainty surrounding the program, new athletic director Bubba Cunningham conducted a national search last December and landed Fedora, who in addition to his four seasons at Southern Miss also had experience at football powers Oklahoma State and Florida. He arrived in Chapel Hill with incredible enthusiasm for the job and is anxious to start his first season.
“It will be a new experience for all of us,” he says of coaching his first game in Kenan Stadium. “The kids don’t know how we coach in a game, we don’t know how they’ll react and it will be a learning process for all of us. We’ve had a good training camp, and I’m looking forward to Saturday’s game.”
A native of College Station, Texas, Fedora’s most important goal is to bring stability to a football program that has advanced to four consecutive bowl games despite NCAA issues. The program is under a one-year postseason ban and reduced scholarship numbers for the next three seasons.
“I don’t understand why people have such a fear of adversity,” says Fedora. “It can bring out the best in people. I tell our kids that adversity is going to hit you in all areas of your life at some point. You’ve got to grab it by the throat and choke it out. Adversity shows you what you’re made of.”
Fedora’s coaching philosophy is to attack in all three parts of the game. His version of the spread offense places an emphasis on the running game as much as it does an up-tempo passing attack. He’s also installed a new 4-2-5 defensive scheme that is designed to confuse offenses with multiple fronts.
The Tar Heels return seven starters on offense, including record-setting players Bryn Renner at quarterback and Giovani Bernard at tailback. Renner threw for a single-season school record 26 touchdown passes and Bernard had a UNC freshman record 1,253 rushing yards. Four of the five starters on the offensive line return, including second-team All-ACC performers Jonathan Cooper (OG) and James Hurst (OT).
On defense, tackle Sylvester Williams and linebacker Kevin Reddick highlight a group of five returning starters. Williams was a standout in his first season with the Tar Heels in 2011 and Reddick finished second on the team in tackles despite missing some playing time due to injury.
On special teams, Casey Barth returns after missing most of last season with a groin injury. He was granted a fifth year of eligibility and enters the 2012 season just four field goals shy of becoming the school’s all-time leader in field goals. Punter Tommy Hibbard also returns after a solid freshman season in which he averaged more than 38 yards per kick.
Series notes with Elon
Saturday’s game is the first meeting between Elon and Carolina. The two schools are separated by just over 35 miles down Interstate 40.
• Elon is the eighth Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) team Carolina has faced in the last nine years. It also marks the fifth time in the last six years the Tar Heels have opened the season against an FCS opponents.
In Fedora’s first year, the Tar Heels play a seven-game home schedule that includes contests against in-state opponents East Carolina (Sept. 22) and NC State (Oct. 27). The home slate also features ACC opponents Virginia Tech (Oct. 6), Georgia Tech (Nov. 10) and Maryland (Nov. 24) and non-conference games vs. Elon (Sept. 1) and Idaho (Sept. 29).
The Tar Heels go on the road to face Wake Forest (Sept. 8), Louisville (Sept. 15), Miami (Oct. 13), Duke (Oct. 20) and Virginia (Thursday, Nov. 15). Carolina faces a quick turnaround from its home game against Georgia Tech on Nov. 10 to travel to Charlottesville for its first road Thursday night game at Virginia since 2006. The Virginia game will be televised nationally by ESPN.
• This is the first time Carolina has faced Maryland since 2008 and the first time the two teams have met at Kenan Stadium since a 16-13 UNC victory in 2007. This is the first time Carolina and Maryland have met in the final game of the regular season. It is the first time Carolina has played an opponent other than Duke or NC State in the final game of the year since playing at Virginia Tech in 2005.
• This is the first year the game at Duke has not been played on the final weekend of the regular season since 1998. That year, the Tar Heels played NC State in Charlotte on Nov. 28.
• The Tar Heels play five opponents from the state of North Carolina - Elon, Duke, NC State, Wake Forest and East Carolina - for the first time since the 1940s.
• Carolina and East Carolina will meet for the fifth time in the last six years. The Tar Heels are 3-1 in the four previous meetings, including a 35-20 win in 2011 and a 42-17 win in 2010.
• Carolina travels to Louisville for the third time in school history and the first since 2005. The series with the Cardinals is tied at three following the Tar Heels’ 14-7 win in Chapel Hill last year.
• The meetings with Elon and Idaho are the first in school history.
Tailback: Giovani Bernard returns for his sophomore season after earning consensus freshman All-America honors in 2011. The Davie, Fla., product rushed 239 times for 1,253 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2011, an average of 5.2 yards per carry and 96.4 yards per game. He also had 45 receptions (third on the team) for 362 yards and a score.
Bernard finished first nationally among freshman rushers while ranking third in the league and 28th in the country overall. Bernard became the first Carolina player to rush for 1,000 yards in a single season since Jonathan Linton in 1997. He rushed for 100-plus yards seven times in 2011, breaking the previous UNC freshman mark of six set by Amos Lawrence in 1977.
After Bernard, the depth chart is thin as only junior A.J. Blue has any game experience. Blue rushed for 138 yards and scored once in 2011. Redshirt freshman Romar Morris is a speedy back who ran for 40 yards, had 35 yards receiving and scored three touchdowns in the 2012 Spring Game.
Quarterback: Quarterback Bryn Renner enters his junior season as one of the nation’s most efficient quarterbacks. He ranked first in the ACC and 10th in the nation in pass efficiency with a 159.4 rating as a sophomore. He completed 68.3 percent of his attempts and was 239 for 350 for 3,086 yards and a single-season school record 26 touchdowns.
Renner, who operated a version of the spread offense in high school, had surgery immediately after the 2011 season to remove bone spurs in his ankle. He admittedly struggled in the first week of the spring, but has become increasingly comfortable with the offense. In the Spring Game, he completed 23 of 28 attempts for 295 yards and two TDs.
Renner enters the fall as the starter, but will be pushed by redshirt freshman Marquise Williams of Charlotte, N.C. Williams also ran a spread offense in high school, but has yet to see any game action in college.
Wide Receiver: Erik Highsmith headlines a group of receivers returning in 2012 that must increase its production to make up for the loss of senior Dwight Jones. Jones accounted for nearly a third of Carolina’s receiving yardage and scored nearly half of the team’s receiving touchdowns. Highsmith enters 2012 with 112 career catches. He finished second on the team a year ago with 51 receptions for 726 yards and five touchdowns. In the Independence Bowl vs. Missouri, he had a career-high eight catches for 77 yards and a score.
Jheranie Boyd has had some highlight moments in his career, yet enters his senior season with just 40 catches. Remarkably, 30 percent (12) have gone for touchdowns. Boyd has averaged 20.4 yards per catch in his career, and his 97-yard reception vs. LSU in 2010 is the longest catch in UNC history. The Tar Heels will look to exploit his open field speed this season.
Sophomore Sean Tapley should flourish in the wide open offense after seeing sparse duty a year ago. Reggie Wilkins and T.J. Thorpe were expected to compete for significant playing time this fall, but both were injured in training camp and no timetable for their return has been announced.
Tight End: Although he had just 10 catches a year ago as a true freshman, tight end Eric Ebron showed he has the ability to become an offensive threat. He had 207 receiving yards (20.7 avg) and one touchdown, but four of his receptions were 20 yards or longer.
Fellow sophomore Jack Tabb had two receptions for 14 yards last year, but has all the tools to be an every-down tight end. He’s an excellent blocker who continues to improve in the passing game. Sophomore Sean Fitzpatrick continued to improve this spring and should find a role in the passing game.
Offensive Line: With four starters returning, the offensive line is arguably the strength of the entire team, provided it stays healthy. That health was shaken this offseason when senior guard Jonathan Cooper had shoulder surgery, tackle Brennan Williams had knee surgery and center Russell Bodine hurt his knee. All three missed the Spring Game but were able to return for fall training camp. Cooper, a Phil Steele preseason All-America selection, is joined on the left side of the line by junior tackle James Hurst. Second-team All-ACC picks in 2011, Cooper and Hurst opened many holes for Bernard to become the first 1,000-yard rusher at UNC in more than a decade.
Guard Travis Bond anchors the right side of the line as he enters his third year as a starter, while Williams is right tackle.
Bodine is in line to replace departed starter Cam Holland. Holland started for three years and was a two-time Rimington Award candidate. Bodine started two games in 2011 and saw significant playing time as the Tar Heels’ employed several six-man offensive line formations.
Linebackers: A preseason All-America candidate, Kevin Reddick is a three-year starter who fought off a couple of nagging injures (ankle, abdominal strain) in 2011 to post 71 tackles, 6.0 tackles for losses, one sack and one fumble recovery. Reddick has the ability to be one of the league’s top defensive playmakers and should thrive in the new attacking defense.
At the weakside linebacker Travis Hughes appears to have won the battle to start on opening day. As a true freshman last year, Hughes started at Georgia Tech and saw significant time on special teams, registering 13 tackles.
A former walk-on from Miami, Tommy Heffernan provides the only experienced depth.
As part of the changes to its defensive scheme, the Tar Heels have created the “bandit” position, a hybrid between a linebacker and a defensive end. According to the coaching staff, this player will have the ability to play as a down lineman in a 4-3 scheme or play off the line in a 3-4 look. Senior Dion Guy is the top candidate heading into the season, and will face competition sophomore Norkeithus Otis and true freshman Shakeel Rashad.
Junior Kareem Martin returns at defensive end where he had 40 tackles, seven tackles for losses and four sacks a year ago. Martin was outstanding through the first six games of the 2011 season, and is a good pass rusher. He will face competition this year from junior Tim Jackson, who is more adept at stopping the run.
Secondary: Since settling into the safety position, Tre Boston has been one of Carolina’s top defensive playmakers. Last season, he finished third on the team with 70 tackles and tied for the team lead with three interceptions. Boston takes chances at times, but should fit well in the 4-2-5 scheme with his ability to play the run and cover.
Sophomore Tim Scott and junior Jabari Price are the two starting cornerbacks entering the season. As a true freshman in 2011, Scott started eight games and had 43 tackles, one interception and six pass breakups. After a productive freshman campaign in 2010, Price injured his hand in last season’s training camp and was limited to just eight games, posting 16 tackles and two pass breakups.
Redshirt freshman Sam Smiley won a starting spot at safety during the spring, but will face competition from Darien Rankin and Kameron Jackson.
• Place-kicker Casey Barth returns after his 2011 season was cut short due to injury. He was limited to three games due to an injured groin and was granted a medical hardship waiver from the Atlantic Coast Conference. The waiver allows Barth to play a fifth year in 2012. A native of Wilmington, N.C., Barth made all 11 extra points and one field goal - a 46-yarder vs. Rutgers - in the first two and a half games this season before the injury. He has made 51 of 63 career field goal attempts and a school-record 82 consecutive extra points. He needs just four field goals to surpass his brother Connor’s school-record total of 54.
With Barth out for the year, walk-on place-kicker Thomas Moore made 6 of 10 field goal attempts in 2011, and converted 38 straight extra points.
T.J. Thorpe headlines the return specialists, although he is out for an undetermined amount of time with an injury. A year ago, the Durham, N.C., native led the ACC and ranked 13th in the nation with a 26.7 yard kickoff return average. He set a single-season school record with 960 kickoff return yards, including a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown at Clemson.
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