North Carolina Preview - Healing Time
North Carolina DT Sylvester Williams
North Carolina DT Sylvester Williams
Posted May 6, 2012

2012 North Carolina Tar Heels Preview - Healing Time

North Carolina Tar Heels

Preview 2012

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By Richard Cirminiello

Head coach: Larry Fedora
First year: 0-0
Returning Lettermen
Off. 17, Def. 20, ST 3
Lettermen Lost: 19
Ten Best North Carolina Players
1. RB Giovani Bernard, Soph.
2. QB Bryn Renner, Jr.
3. OT James Hurst, Jr.
4. OG Jonathan Cooper, Sr.
5. LB Kevin Reddick, Sr.
6. DT Sylvester Williams, Sr.
7. DE Kareem Martin, Jr.
8. WR Erik Highsmith, Sr.
9. PK Casey Barth, Sr.
10. SS Tre Boston, Jr.
2012 Schedule

Sep. 1 Elon
Sep. 8 at Wake Forest
Sep. 15 at Louisville
Sep. 22 East Carolina
Sep. 29 Idaho 
Oct. 6 Virginia Tech
Oct. 13 at Miami
Oct. 20 at Duke
Oct. 27 NC State
Nov. 10 Georgia Tech
Nov. 15 at Virginia
Nov. 24 Maryland

The dark clouds have begun to gradually move out of Chapel Hill.

Let the healing begin.

It's been a gut-wrenching couple of years for Carolina, both on the field and especially away from it. Following a 20-month NCAA investigation, the Heels were slapped in March with a series of penalties that include a postseason ban in 2012, a reduction of 15 scholarships over the next three seasons and three years of probation.

The bad news is rather obvious. The good news is that uncertainty will no longer be hanging over the heads of the school and its players, who spent last fall looking over their shoulders. Yup, Butch Davis' tenure as a Tar Heel, which began with so much promise in 2007, has set the program back considerably.

North Carolina finally knows the exact size of the hill it's facing. The man in charge of restoring some order to the football program is Larry Fedora, one of the game's up-and-coming offensive minds. Beyond implementing radically different systems on both sides of the ball, the objective for Fedora and his collection of coaches will be to keep the players, especially the seniors, focused now that a bowl game is no longer an attainable goal this fall. They'll talk about leaving a legacy, playing for pride and building something special that the underclassmen can carry forward into the future. Motivating will be just as important as teaching and coaching this fall.

Fedora inherits a team that certainly would have been talented enough to compete for a fifth straight bowl appearance, or even contend in the Coastal Division. The strength of the Heels will be on offense, a unit littered with all-stars and future pros. The backfield duo, in particular, of RB Giovani Bernard and QB Bryn Renner lends hope that the new up-tempo spread might not take as long to digest as originally feared.

The season ahead will be a year of transition for Carolina, which has a new coaching staff and a new reality. Now that the NCAA has given the Heels a well-deserved black eye, their first-ever such penalty in football, the program will look to regroup without the usual carrots that hang around in the preseason.

What to watch for on offense: Plays. Lots and lots of plays. Fedora's version of the spread offense calls for a rapid pace and no huddles, all designed to wear out and confuse opposing defenses. Whereas the Tar Heels averaged 60 plays in 2011, they'll be shooting for closer to 80 snaps this fall. Proper conditioning will be a major, as will the players' grasp on their playbook and assignments. With so little time between snaps, it's imperative that all 11 players know exactly where they belong, or else execution is going to be spotty in the early parts of the season.

What to watch for on defense: The maturation of the secondary. Pass defense will once again be Carolina's sorest spot on defense. The Heels will be using a fifth defensive back this fall, Gene Robinson, who'll roam the field from his newly-minted Ram position. They'll also be leaning heavily on sophomore Tim Scott and juniors Tre Boston and Jabari Price, who are on the verge of peaking in their development. After allowing 47 touchdown passes over the past two seasons, the program is looking to reduce that number down to the teens in 2012.

The team will be far better if … it gets markedly better on third downs. Carolina played relatively well in 2011, yet finished the season 2-5 in large part because it lacked efficiency. On offense, the Heels ranked 64th nationally in third-down conversions, too often calling upon P Tommy Hibbard. The much-heralded defense was far worse, finishing 95th in the country. If Carolina is unable to make stops this season, its questionable depth will be sorely tested.

The Schedule: Fedora's first season will be a challenge in several ways, but the schedule doesn't have too many landmines missing Florida State and Clemson from the Atlantic. There isn't a bigger break than getting both Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech at home, but the tough Coastal date with Miami is on the road. A week off to prepare for the Yellow Jackets is an even bigger bonus, especially with a trip to Virginia to follow. Elon is a nice non-conference scrimmage before diving into the ACC going to Wake Forest and Louisville in tough back-to-back road tests, but that's followed up by three straight home games against East Carolina, Idaho, and Virginia Tech.

Best Offensive Player: Sophomore RB Giovani Bernard. Junior QB Bryn Renner can stake a claim to this spot as well. However, Bernard wound up being a transformational figure in Chapel Hill as a rookie. Without a lot of warning, the 5-10, 205-pounder went from ACL rehab in 2010 to becoming the first Tar Heel in 14 years to rush for more than 1,000 yards. And the program's first freshman in nearly a quarter-century to be named First Team All-ACC. He runs like a pro, gobbling up yards with ultra-efficiency, and never stopping his legs when a play looks as if it's dead.

Best Defensive Player: Senior LB Kevin Reddick. A nagging injury prevented Reddick from fulfilling his potential last fall. Instead, he made 71 ho-hum tackles, failing to play up to his all-star ceiling. It's a new year, but the expectations are the same, especially since the senior is back at full strength. He's a 6-3, 240-pounder, with enough speed and instinctive ability to become a force against the run. Reddick also possesses the pass-rushing skills to entice the staff to use him on blitzes, or even as an end with his hand in the dirt.

Key players to a successful season: The wide receivers. The balance of power in Chapel Hill has shifted to the offense for the first time in a very long time. However, if Fedora's attack is going to be the catalyst in 2012, it's going to need more support from an undeveloped collection of receivers. The exception is Erik Highsmith, a senior headed toward a breakout final season on campus. After him, though, Carolina is light on sure-thing options on the outside. The staff has its fingers crossed that some combination of Todd Harrelson, Sean Tapley , T.J. Thorpe and Jheranie Boyd can provide Renner with a capable array of hands.

The season will be a success if ... the Tar Heels win eight games. Is 8-4 too aggressive considering all of the distractions and new adjustments? Not particularly. North Carolina will host Elon, East Carolina, Idaho and Maryland. Plus, road trips to Duke and Wake Forest are hardly insurmountable. Fedora's first team in Chapel Hill has the right mix of seasoned veterans and rising underclassmen, on both sides of the ball, to elevate well above the .500 mark.

Key game: Oct. 27 vs. NC State. Particularly in a year that there's no lure of a league title or a postseason game, no single weekend will be more important than when the rival Pack visits at the end of October. The Heels have lost five straight in the series, a nagging development that desperately needs to be reversed. For Fedora, what better way to accumulate new fans and supporters than by knocking off an in-state enemy that's had your number of late?

2011 Fun Stats:
- Third-down conversions: North Carolina 41% – Opponents 45%
- Yards per pass: North Carolina 8.9 – Opponents 6.9
- Red-zone touchdowns: North Carolina 71% - Opponents 48%

- 2012 North Carolina Preview | 2012 North Carolina Offense
- 2012 North Carolina Defense | 2012 North Carolina Depth Chart