2011 North Carolina Preview – Offense
North Carolina WR Dwight Jones
CollegeFootballNews.com 2011 Preview - North Carolina Tar Heel Offense
Preview 2011 - Offense
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What you need to know: It's the dawn of a new era on offense for North Carolina, as former hot-shot recruit Bryn Renner gets his first opportunity to be the quarterback. A year later than some would have liked, he's expected to replace T.J. Yates and give the Tar Heels a hurler to build around. The offense improved a year ago, yet still ranked in the bottom half of the ACC in scoring, an on-going problem in these parts. In terms of the skill positions, Renner will team up with an eclectic crew. Ryan Houston is a battering ram between the tackles, the favorite to be the workhorse in the running game after missing 2010. Led by Dwight Jones, the receivers are big, athletic, and capable of dominating opposing defensive backs. The key, as is often the case, will be up front. The Heels harbor some very talented parts, like the left side of G Jonathan Cooper and T James Hurst, but need to produce better results than the last few seasons.
Star of the offense: Junior G Jonathan Cooper
Passing: Bryn Renner
1-2, 14 yds, 0 TDs, 0 INTs
Rushing: Jheranie Boyd
10 carries, 62 yds, 0 TDs
Receiving: Dwight Jones
62 catches, 946 yds, 4 TDs
Player who has to step up and become a star: Senior RB Ryan Houston
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore LT James Hurst
Best pro prospect: Senior WR Dwight Jones
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Cooper, 2) Jones, 3) Houston
Strength of the offense: Short-yardage backs, playmaking receivers, the left side of the line
Weakness of the offense: Inexperience at quarterback, rebuilt running game, tight ends, production of the O-line, red zone scoring
State of the Unit: T.J. Yates is leaving a pretty sizable void behind center. Few saw that coming. An inconsistent and error-prone passer throughout his long career, he was a steady hand amid all of last season's turmoil, accounting for 22 scores and earning honorable mention All-ACC. Tougher to replace than originally anticipated, the Tar Heels still feel as if they can do much better at the position.
Renner or not, here we go. Entering his third year in the program, 6-3, 215-pound sophomore Bryn Renner is poised to take over at quarterback. One of the nation's top recruits of 2009, he throws a great ball, has good footwork in the pocket, and is a student of the game. With a resume that includes just a pair of passes in mop-up duty last fall, he's only short on experience, which out to come in September. He learned a lot as the No. 2 in 2010, and is poised to begin putting that knowledge to use.
The battle for the backup job pits 6-2, 230-pound sophomore A.J. Blue against 6-6, 215-pound junior Braden Hanson. The two couldn't much more different in their approaches. Blue is a terrific all-around athlete, a dual-threat who was used in some "Wildcat" packages two years ago before suffering a serious knee injury and sitting out all of 2010. Hanson, in contrast, is a pocket passer, a long lefty whose calling card is his accuracy and poise in the pocket.
Watch Out For .... the staff to employ the assets of both Renner and Blue during the season. Renner is going to be the man in Chapel Hill for the next three seasons, but it also makes sense to utilize Blue, a big and physical runner. He'll be especially valuable in a year when the Heels will be searching for a capable running back.
Strength: The future. Every quarterback on the roster has at least two years of eligibility remaining, and the favorite is just a sophomore. The program has recruited this position well in recent years, including landing blue-chipper Marquise Williams , who had his choice of schools to attend.
Weakness: Game reps. A year from now, this issue will have been solved. For now, however, Renner & Co. are extremely green, and their first important snaps are going to come when games matter. No one knows for certain how they'll handle pressure or manage the latter stages of tight games.
Outlook: The future may be very bright at quarterback for Carolina, but how about the present? A year after many locals were rooting for him to take over, Renner gets his first chance to fulfill those heightened expectations. While a learning curve is inevitable, he should be flashing his advanced skills at some point during his debut.
State of the Unit: Hard as it is to imagine, Carolina's self-proclaimed "Tailback U" hasn't produced a 1,000-yard rusher since Jonathan Linton did it 14 years ago. Don't bet on the futility ending in 2011. Last season's top three rushers have graduated, and the most productive returners are wide receivers. There's an opening in the backfield, but no sure-things for filling it.
The silver lining at tailback is that 6-2, 245-pound senior Ryan Houston is expected back in action after sitting out 2010. He was cleared in the NCAA investigation in October, opting instead to redshirt and get a full year in 2011. Essentially a fullback, he's a load to bring down, leading the team with 713 yards in 2009 and rumbling for 18 career touchdowns. He's a meat-and-potatoes runner looking to transcend the short-yardage tag and become an every-down back.
While not nearly as thick as Houston, 6-0, 210-pound junior Hunter Furr is another power back seeking more playing time. Mostly used on special teams up to this point, he carried five times for 29 yards a year ago. There's hope that 5-10, 205-pound redshirt freshman Giovani Bernard will be the future at the position. For now, though, he's just working on getting healthy. A mega-recruit from 2010, who was courted by numerous major programs, he tore his ACL last August and never played. Not a blazer, he has outstanding vision and just knows how to find the crease in a defense. Initially ruled permanently ineligible by the NCAA, 6-2, 250-pound senior Devon Ramsay has been reinstated. A powerful lead blocker, with surprisingly good hands, he's the first choice at fullback.
Watch Out For .... Houston to hover around four yards a carry and file up the touchdowns. The script may be different, but the back is similar to the one who carved out his niche from 2007-09. He's a bruiser, which means plenty of clouds of dust and plunges into the end zone.
Strength: Physicality. The Tar Heel backs can hurt you, lowering their shoulders and looking for someone to punish, preferably in the secondary. With Houston setting the tone, this offense should be effective in short yardage and near the goal line, deploying as many opposing air bags as possible.
Weakness: Big-play ability. This has been an annual problem in Chapel Hill, an inability to break the long run or consistently get to the outside. Sure, the line doesn't always do its part to make the unit more explosive, but which Tar Heel runner is going to break the other team's back with a 50-yard jaunt through the secondary.
Outlook: At this time, Carolina houses a marginal stable of backs, a blue-collar group that's unlikely to produce an All-ACC performer. Even if Houston gets the bulk of the carries, some form of committee will probably be utilized. While you know what you'll get from him, Bernard is an intriguing young runner, a potential "X" factor if the knee is fully healed.
State of the Unit: After going with youth over the last couple of seasons, Carolina is poised to present one of the ACC's more dangerous receiving corps. The wide receivers are stacked, losing little from 2010, but the tight ends and H-backs are going to get a makeover. With the competition expected to heat up, the biggest beneficiaries will be the quarterbacks, who'll have a wealth of capable targets.
With Greg Little suspended for the year, 6-4, 225-pound senior Dwight Jones took over as the team's best playmaker on the outside, making a Heel-best 62 catches for 946 yards and four scores. He has the size, speed, and large mitts to create mismatches with opposing defensive backs, out muscling them for balls in the air. More confident than ever and a favorite of QB Bryn Renner, he'll use 2011 as an audition for the NFL.
If he can locate a higher degree of consistency, 6-2, 190-pound junior Jheranie Boyd is capable of joining Jones in the starting lineup. Heck, this is the Tar Heel, who torched LSU in the opener for six grabs for 221 yards and the longest touchdown in school history. However, despite his blinding speed and leaping ability, only caught eight more balls for 81 yards and two scores the rest of the way.
Pushing for playing time is 6-3, 190-pound junior Erik Highsmith, who is second among returning receivers with 25 catches for 348 yards and three touchdowns. Another big target, he has the long stride to get behind a defense.
Among H-backs and tight ends, the Heels lost Zack Pianalto, Ryan Taylor, and Ed Barham to graduation.
Junior Nelson Hurst is bucking for the tight end job. A 6-4, 260-pound transfer from Mississippi State, he was mainly used as a blocker, but has the hands to be an effective pass-catcher. Is this the year 6-3, 250-pound senior Christian Wilson finally delivers on his potential? A former top recruit, he's had a quiet career, but figures to play with a sense of urgency. The future, potentially at either position, belongs to 6-5, 250-pound redshirt freshman Sean Fitzpatrick . A terrific all-around athlete, he has the highest ceiling of the group as a pure receiver.
Watch Out For .... the status of 6-4, 200-pound sophomore Joshua Adams and 6-2, 195-pound junior Todd Harrelson . Both missed spring, Adams to an auto-immune disorder that affects his kidneys and Harrelson to concentrate on academics. Adams, in particular, is a vital piece of the puzzle, starting four games and catching 19 passes a year ago.
Strength: Physical ability. It's hard not to be impressed by the triangle numbers of this group. Across the board, the wide receivers are big, fast, and agile, creating all kinds of matchup problems for defensive backs. On jump balls, they're almost impossible to stop, giving quarterbacks a bigger margin for error.
Weakness: Tight end and H-back. There's potential at the position, but not much of a track record to point to. That's a particular concern in a season when the quarterback is going to be young and unproven as well. Pianalto missed plenty of time during his career, but his absence is going to be felt.
Outlook: With each passing year, the Tar Heels continue to improve at wide receiver. The underclassmen are a season older and the upperclassmen are assuming more of a leadership role. Flanked by a quality supporting cast, Jones has a chance to be one of the ACC's top big-play receivers.
State of the Unit: Despite being down a couple of starters, the coaching staff is optimistic about the potential of this group. Butch Davis and his staff have done a good job of attracting talent on the line, which is going to really pay off in 2011. That said, the Heels have to do a better job at the point of attack following a mediocre performance last fall.
Leading the way up front for one final year will be 6-3, 310-pound junior LG Jonathan Cooper , a member of last year's All-ACC second team. Already the most experienced of the blockers, he led the team with 875 snaps, 55 knockdowns, and an 83% grade. He has the strength, agility, and know-how to continue to dominate and keep playing at the next level once his college career is over.
The favorite at the other guard spot, on the right side, is 6-7, 340-pound junior Travis Bond. A part-time starter last season, he's eyeing a full-time and a quick ascent into ACC notoriety. Built like a tackle, he's a massive individual, with surprisingly good feet. Topping off the interior is 6-2, 320-pound senior Cam Holland, back for his third year at the pivot. Tough and smart, he's arguably the strongest member of the unit and the kind of veteran teams crave at the position.
Along with Bond, Carolina has another rising star up front, 6-7, 310-pound sophomore James Hurst. A can't-miss prospect from Indiana, who could have gone to Georgia, Ohio State, Florida, or Notre Dame, he started the final 12 games at left tackle, tying Cooper for the highest grade on the unit. There's no telling how good he might be once he cleans up his fundamentals and his technique.
There's a void at right tackle that's expected to be filled by 6-7, 315-pound junior Brennan Williams. A better pass protector than run blocker, he could be ready to hit his stride after playing in 10 games and getting 108 snaps as a backup. The top reserve will be 6-5, 315-pound senior Carl Gaskins, a veteran with starting experience. One of the unit's best athletes, he was in the lineup at left tackle for the opener before getting passed by Hurst on the depth chart.
Watch Out For .... the evolution of the tackles. Hurst and Williams were two of the highest-rated linemen to ever sign with Carolina, 6-7 giants with upsides as long as their inseams. With both expected in the lineup at the same time, the program gets its first good chance to start realizing some dividends for winning grueling recruiting battles.
Strength: Footwork. In general, the Tar Heel front wall is home to some very athletic blockers, who move well and are in excellent shape. This is not your typical collection of plodding wide-bodies, who can get exposed outside the box or is huffing and puffing in the late stages of games.
Weakness: Pass protection. Considering all of those nimble athletes, Carolina should have done a much better job of pass protection in 2010. Instead, it ranked 11th in the ACC and 104th nationally in sacks allowed, failing to give T.J. Yates the time he needed to check down his receivers.
Outlook: On an individual basis, there are plenty of bright spots up front with a combination of solid veterans and budding talent. The goal will be to become a cohesive unit that does a better job of dominating at the line of scrimmage and springing the team's playmakers. Anything short of that is going to stunt the growth of the rest of the offense.
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