College Football Preview 2016-2017: 16. North Carolina Tar Heels
Conference: ACC (Coastal)
Location: Chapel Hill, North Carolina
2015-2016 Record: 11-3 (8-0 ACC)
Bowl Result: Loss in Russell Athletic Bowl
Breakout Player: QB Mitch Trubisky
Heisman Hopeful: RB Elijah Hood
X-Factor: DT Nazair Jones
Recruiting Rundown (via Rivals)
Not a whole lot was expected of UNC entering 2015-2016. The Tar Heels were coming off a disappointing 6-7 mark, and there was pressure around fourth-year head coach Larry Fedora. A season-opening loss to South Carolina (who would finish 3-9) seemed to indicate the Tar Heels were headed for a rough season. Instead, the Heels' offense was explosive and their defense saw vast improvements under new defensive coordinator Gene Chizik, helping UNC win 11 straight and earn an ACC Coastal crown. UNC went right down to the wire with the best team in the nation in Clemson in the ACC Championship Game, but the bowl loss to Baylor showed the team still has room to grow. While several pieces are missing from last year's surprise, this is still a deep enough and talented enough team that a second straight ACC Championship Game appearance is a real possibility.
Receivers: Perhaps no team in the ACC has as talented of a receiver corps as the Tar Heels. Clemson, Florida State and plenty of others have an abundance of playmakers, but even they may pale in comparison to the experience and potential that UNC has at the position. The most distinguished returning receiver is senior Mack Hollins, who had a strong 2015. Hollins may have caught just 30 passes but proved he could break open games, with 745 yards in total. He averaged nearly 25 yards every reception, and ACC defenders will have headaches trying to contain his blazing speed and playmaking ability. Also returning is another senior, Bug Howard, who also put on a show a season ago. Howard recorded 29 receptions for 488 yards (an average of about 17 yards per catch) along with four touchdowns. Howard will have to play an even larger role, as reliable Quinshad Davis graduated. Also back with Hollins and Howard is the explosive Ryan Switzer. Switzer is well known as a special teams demon who has set numerous records in that respect. He has grown as a receiver throughout his time with the Tar Heels, and is still improving. Switzer has impressive speed and home run ability, but still struggles with drops. Switzer had 54 receptions and 693 yards, numbers that should continue to rise as he improves as a route runner and without Davis. Junior Austin Proehl is also back after having a productive '15, with 225 yards a season ago. Tight end could also be a position of strength for the Tar Heels. Despite being extremely young last year, sophomore Brandon Fritts put together a strong campaign. Fritts recorded 16 catches, 203 yards and also gave UNC a consistent weapon in the red zone, with four touchdowns. Fritts is still improving as a pass-catcher but he looked good in the spring and UNC's deep threats could open up lanes for him to work with underneath. The Tar Heels are not particularly deep at the position, however, which could be a problem. Beyond Fritts, the most likely No. 2 guy is redshirt freshman Carl Tucker or a pair of incoming freshman in Garrett Walston and Noah Turner. Walston and Turner are both three-star prospects that could be okay helpers. While the depth and inexperience at the position could pose some issues, UNC doesn't rely on the tight end spot as much as others, which is a good sign.
Offensive Line: Helping out the Tar Heels' playmakers at their skill positions will be an experienced offensive line that is anchored by one of the ACC's best blockers, Caleb Peterson. Peterson earned plenty of NFL interest but opted to play it smart and return for his senior season in Chapel Hill. Peterson, a guard, is among the most established run blockers in the entire nation. The veteran will most likely be plugged in at the left guard position, where Hood and Logan will do most of their damage. Joining Peterson on the left side of the unit will another veteran, junior Bentley Spain. Spain also offers great size ad should be even better this season, as he occasionally struggled against finesse pass rushers. The Tar Heels also possess an established blocker at the right tackle spot, as senior Jon Heck is back. Heck earned All-ACC honors after putting together a productive year last season. Heck is another guy that will tower over defenders (6'7", 300-plus pounds) and offers fabulous footwork and mobility. Up the middle, expect senior Lucas Crowley to shut down opposing pass rushers attempting to stir chaos in the heart of the unit. The only position that should not be a notable strength is the right guard slot, where Landon Turner is gone. There are a wide variety of options that take over the void. Junior Brad Henson is a strong pass blocker that could flourish, while senior John Ferranto has slightly more experience. Larry Fedora is a very underrated recruiter, and he hauled in a strong number of offensive linemen that have bright futures at UNC and beyond. Jay-Jay McCargo has the potential to be a superstar as four-star pickup. A pair of other offensive linemen, Tyler Pritchett and Luke Elder, could have a high ceiling. Pritchett was an especially impressive gain, as the Auburn, Alabama prospect denied his hometown school and a number of other big-time SEC programs to land with the Tar Heels.
Defensive Line: Offensively, North Carolina was as dangerous as any team in the nation. They were incredibly balanced and averaged nearly 487 yards per game in 2015-2016. The defense was a bigger issue, although it did make major improvements in the first year of Gene Chizik as defensive coordinator. The offense should once more be very dangerous, so the defense will once more have plenty of pressure on it, and that starts with the defensive line. The D-Line will have to get great push and pressure on opponents in order for them to have success. The good news is that a solid crop of contributors return to the unit, namely junior Nazair Jones. Jones was a proven run stopper last season, racking up 40 tackles along with four tackles for loss. He proved that he could use his great size and wide frame to stuff up gaps, and disrupt opponents' flow. He will play a very important role in 2016. He will have to prove himself as North Carolina's top rush defender, which is important for a team that struggled to stop the rush last year. The Tar Heels were downright mediocre against the rush, and their bowl loss was mainly built around their inability to stop the run, as Baylor ran for a whopping 645 yards despite being slightly banged up. Along with Jones in the interior of the line is going to be sophomore Jalen Dalton or Robert Dinkins. Although both are very inexperienced, they can still make plays at the position. The defensive end spots should be pretty quality, even though UNC doesn't have an elite pass rusher. Senior Mikey Bart did have 6.5 sacks last season, proving that he had extremely deceptive speed off the edge. Blockers will attempt to focus on Bart, but UNC does have other guys that could step up and make plays. Junior Dajuan Drennon had a strong showing a year ago, with 39 tackles and five tackles for loss. He should continue to grow as both a run stopper and pass rusher. Sophomore Malik Carney has a very high ceiling and flashed great potential in the spring. Huge things are expected of UNC's big gem of their 2016 recruiting class, defensive end Tomon Fox. A four-star prospect coming from Georgia, Fox has the athleticism and the size to be unstoppable at the next level. Beyond Bart, Drennon and Carney, UNC is pretty thin a the end spot, which could push Fox to play a much larger role than originally anticipated. He will need time to adjust to the faster and tougher collegiate game, but by the end of the year he could be starting and making plays. Three-star pickup Allen Carter is another high quality gain from Georgia that could see some action.
Linebackers: While improvements from the front seven will be critical for North Carolina, the Tar Heels will also lean heavily on their linebacker corps. It doesn't help that the linebackers group was hit heavily by graduation and is pretty inexperienced. That doesn't mean there isn't talent in it, however. Sophomore Andre Smith has to be looked at as the most likely star in the unit. Smith recorded 53 tackles a season ago, and proved he could make plays from sideline to sideline. He should provide plenty of stability and playmaking potential at the middle linebacker spot. Also back is junior Cayson Collins, who didn't start last season, but still played a pretty large role. Collins had 38 tackles and three tackles for loss, proving to be a great run defender off the edge. Collins has a nose for the ball and brings excellent versatility to the table. The other outside linebacker slot opposite of Collins is likely going to be Ayden Bonilla. Bonilla was little used last year, recording just six tackles, but he has excellent size and could put together a big season. Sophomore Cole Holcomb is also returning and could fight for snaps at either of the linebacker slots. Holcomb saw slightly more action than Bonilla last year, with 15 tackles. UNC is thin at the inside linebacker spot, so expect newcomer Jonathan Smith to fight for action. It was important for North Carolina to keep Smith inside the state, as a number of other bigger programs were hunting for the talented linebacker. Fellow linebackers Dominique Ross and Tyrone Hopper will also fight for action, likely at the outside linebacker spot.
Secondary: The strength of UNC's defense will almost certainly be their secondary, which has plenty of experience and playmaking ability. Inside an ACC that has a strong cast of signal-callers, having a good pass defense will be key. UNC is especially strong at the cornerback position, headed by junior M.J. Stewart. Stewart led the way with 62 tackles and four interceptions in 2015, en route to his All-ACC showing. Stewart's incredible ball skills are very important to the Tar Heels, and he will face down a large number of ACC receivers. Joining Stewart at the corner spot will be senior Des Lawrence, who also impressed a season ago. Lawrence displayed a wide range of versatility, with 59 tackles in run support and also proved he could be disruptive, picking up 14 pass deflections. His great frame and long arms enable him to get his hands in passing routes and stop big plays. North Carolina is also very strong at the safety position, where junior Donnie Miles is back. Miles is a tackling machine and while he has other limitations, put on a show last year, with 128 tackles. He proved that he was an excellent tackler in space, picking up 76 of those tackles solo. Fedora and Chizik will look for Miles to continue growing as a defensive back, particularly in coverage. At the other safety spot, UNC does lose their starter, but has a guy back with good experience. Senior Dominique Green appears to be the clear-cut favorite to lock down the free safety spot. Chizik will allow Green to roam around and make plays and he showed he could make plays, recording 41 tackles and two interceptions a year ago. Much like Miles, UNC will hope Green continues to improve and round out as a defender. Sophomore Corey Bell Jr. could compete for starting snaps behind Lawrence or Stewart. Bell appeared in just two games last season, but he has wonderful athleticism and a great bloodline (his dad, Myron, played for the Pittsburgh Steelers). Fedora and staff also landed a large number of defensive backs that could support the Tar Heels. Chief among them has to be Patrick Rene, who comes in as a four-star prospect haling from Virginia. Rene has impressive versatility and he could play a variety of roles. Charlotte product Myles Dorn has wonderful potential and he could find a way to see action at either safety slot.
Special Teams: Special teams is sure to be a considerable strength this season for the Heels. Both kicker Nick Weller and punter Joey Mangili are back after solid campaigns last year. Also returning is Switzer, who may be the most dangerous returner in the entire nation. He averaged 13.7 yards per return and had two touchdown returns last year after a disappointing 2014.
It is all too common for teams to struggle after a breakthrough season. While the Tar Heels do lose Williams and some solid contributors to their defense, this team has no indications of having a hangover after their big 2015. Trubisky, Hood, Switzer and Hollins will lead an offense that could do special teams and while the defense will have plenty of pressure on them, Chizik has proven that he can work some magic. Also working out is a pretty favorable schedule: the Tar Heels may have a tough opener in Georgia and have a cross-division meeting on the road against Florida State, the Coastal is a lot easier this year than last season and they get a couple of their tough conference opponents at home. That Georgia game should serve as a perfect measuring tool for the Tar Heels; a win could prove that they have the potential to be a sneaky Playoff threat (much like last year), while a loss could prove they still have plenty of work to do. Either way, UNC is extremely talented and if their defense steps up in a big way, an ACC Championship is very likely.