After coaching his team to 15 wins in his first two seasons as the head coach at North Carolina, Larry Fedora looks to lead the Tar Heels to another winning record in Year 3. With 15 returning starters between the offense and defense, the program is in position to make another bowl run in 2014, but whether or not UNC contends for a division title will be dependent upon the trenches.
Just two years separated from an offense that produced 5,827 yards in 12 games, five different faces occupy the Heels’ offensive line. Three of the starters from Fedora’s first year in Chapel Hill were selected in the 2013 NFL draft, and at least one of the other two will hear their name called in next week’s event. On top of that, two talented starters will also be departing from the defensive line.
While the quarterback position appears to be in good shape to go along with three returning starters at receiver, North Carolina’s offense will need capable replacements up front if it’s going to compete for a top spot in the Coastal. Lucas Crowley will take over at center after seeing significant action in the second half of his freshman season, and John Ferranto appears to be the front-runner to take over the left tackle position with James Hurst graduating.
As for the other side of the ball, defensive tackle Ethan Farmer and bandit Norkeithus Otis are back after combining for 23 starts last season, but defensive end Junior Gnonkonde and nose tackle Shawn Underwood will be expected to contribute a lot more this fall. They will be filling in the holes left by Kareem Martin and Tim Jackson, who both started for the majority of their four-year careers.
Although Fedora’s offense finished last year strong after a slow start, the offense cranked out 293 fewer yards than the previous season despite playing an extra game. The offensive line’s struggles played a role in the decline, with quarterback Bryn Renner forcing throws with extra pressure, and the running game had trouble getting things going. The team could face similar growing pains in 2014 with two more NFL-caliber O-linemen heading to the pros, as strong defenses from the likes of Clemson and Virginia Tech could bother UNC.
North Carolina’s defense as a whole also faced challenges during the first half of last season, and the losses of Martin and Jackson won’t make things easier this year. The Tar Heels were No. 83 in the nation in rush defense in 2013, and this year the team will face some of the ACC’s top running backs in Miami’s Duke Johnson and Virginia’s Kevin Parks.
With multiple key pieces back for next year, the potential is there for UNC to make a run in Fedora’s third year, but skill players alone won’t get it done. When it comes to 2014, the Heels will only go as far as their offensive and defensive lines will take them.