2012 North Carolina Preview – Offense
North Carolina QB Bryn Renner
CollegeFootballNews.com 2012 Preview - North Carolina Tar Heel Offense
Preview 2012 - Offense
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What you need to know:Goodbye, pro-style offense. Hello, spread. With the arrival of head coach Larry Fedora comes an up-tempo, no-huddle attack that aims to wear out defenses with its pace, intensity and perpetual motion. However, all spreads being different, Fedora and his staff will be installing a system that won't abandon the ground game or the tight end. A frenetic form of balance is the goal. The Tar Heels have the personnel to pull it off, provided they can digest the playbook, formations and pace in time for the opener. There are few glaring holes on this unit. The backfield tandem of QB Bryn Renner and RB Giovani Bernard ranks among the best in the ACC. Erik Highsmith is poised to supplant Dwight Jones as the Renner's go-to, big-play receiver. And the O-line, headed by the left side of OT James Hurst and OG Jonathan Cooper, will begin the year with 93 career starts. The talent is in place, but the comfort level with an entirely new system won't come overnight. Flattening the learning curve will be this offense's biggest hurdle to success in 2012.
Star of the offense: Sophomore RB Giovani Bernard
Passing: Bryn Renner
239-350, 3,086 yds, 26 TDs, 13 INTs
Rushing: Giovani Bernard
239 carries, 1,253 yds, 13 TDs
Receiving: Erik Highsmith
51 catches, 726 yds, 5 TD
Player who has to step up and become a star: Senior WR Todd Harrelson
Unsung star on the rise: Senior WR Erik Highsmith
Best pro prospect: Junior LT James Hurst
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Bernard, 2) Hurst, 3) Senior LG Jonathan Cooper
Strength of the offense: The quarterbacks, the backs, veteran O-line, red zone offense
Weakness of the offense: Proven receivers, turnovers, third down conversions
Last season was a pretty good one to be a Carolina quarterback. Not only did T.J. Yates lead the Houston Texans to their first-ever playoff victory, but his successor, junior Bryn Renner, delivered one of the best seasons ever for a Tar Heel hurler. The can't-miss recruit from 2009 was terrific in his debut as the starter, completing 239-of-350 passes for a school-record 26 touchdowns, 13 picks and 3,086 yards. He led the ACC in passing efficiency, and was 10th in the country, showcasing his accuracy, soft touch and outstanding footwork in the pocket. A clutch performer and a student of the game, Renner raised the level of his play on third down and in the red zone, throwing 15 touchdown passes and just one interception deep in enemy territory.
Hot on the heels of Renner is the gem of the 2011 recruiting class, 6-2, 220-pound redshirt freshman Marquise Williams. The 16th-ranked quarterback a year ago is seemingly an ideal for Larry Fedora's attack, which puts a premium on athletic passers. He has a big arm to go along with the scrambling ability of a tailback. If he can be patient, he could be the franchise in 2014.
Watch Out For .... how well Renner digests Fedora's new-look offense, which moves at a frenetic, up-tempo pace. Both of the quarterbacks looked comfortable running the system in March and April, but the stakes and the challenges are going to be amped up once Elon visits on Sept. 1.
Strength: Talent. Although neither Renner nor Williams has begun to fulfill all of his potential, the pair gives Carolina its best one-two punch behind center in a long, long time. The starter is emerging into a top-flight hurler, with a career in the NFL, and his caddy is busting at the seams with long-term potential. The two should push each other to new heights over the next two seasons.
Weakness: Proven backup. Hey, everyone who's been around Williams loves where he's headed, but there's no replacement for live game action. And his next snap will be the first one of his college career. He's still predictably raw, and not quite ready for primetime in the event that Renner gets knocked out of a game or more.
Outlook: Fedora inherited an ideal situation at quarterback, one of the many reasons he leapt at the opportunity to relocate to Chapel Hill. Although Renner still needs to prove he can flourish in a very different offensive attack, he possesses the passing skills and intangibles of a budding star. In an ideal world, he'll hit the ground running with this system, fueling enough blowouts for Williams to get his feet wet in low-pressure situations.
The program knew it had a special player in Giovani Bernard, but it didn't anticipate him being so good, so fast in Chapel Hill. The 5-10, 205-pounder was last season's breakout star for Carolina, rushing 239 times for a school freshman-record 1,253 yards and 13 touchdowns. He was the first Tar Heel to rush for 1,000 yards since Jonathan Linton did it in 1997, and the first rookie since Amos Lawrence in 1977 to be named First Team All-ACC. While no burner, he's a patient runner, who'll wait for his blocks before quick-stepping into daylight. Bernard is a north-south operator who's much tougher to bring down than he looks. He's also an effective outlet on screens and dump-offs, catching 45 balls for 362 yards and a touchdown.
There's an interesting two-man battle to be Bernard's primary backup this fall. Junior A.J. Blue was a quarterback when he arrived, but was moved to running back a year ago. He'll be the bruiser of the trio, a 6-2, 230-pounder who does not lumber when he picks up a head of steam. He can be used in a number of different ways, from short-yardage running and receiving to the occasional pass play.
Redshirt freshman Romar Morris created quite a stir in his first spring with the team. A very different complement than Blue, he's a 5-10, 180-pound jackrabbit with track speed. He gets to top gear in an instant, and has very soft hands for such a young player, giving the coaching staff numerous ways with which to get him in space.
Watch Out For .... the backs to catch a lot of passes in this offense. Oh, they'll run it plenty as well, but Bernard and Morris, in particular, are too dangerous not to be given opportunities to exploit opposing defenses out in space as receivers. Morris caught a pair of touchdown passes in the spring game in what might be a harbinger of things to come.
Strength: Bernard. He's the feature back that the Tar Heels have craved for over a decade. Now two years removed from a serious knee injury, the sophomore gives the offense much-needed balance by carrying the ball 20-25 times per game. Averaging more than five yards a carry, he controls the tempo of a game, while keeping the sticks moving.
Weakness: Proven backups. Bernard does have the injury history, so it's important for the team to have an emergency plan in place in the event that the worst possible scenario strikes again. While there's a lot of excitement surrounding Blue and Morris, the backups are a one-time quarterback and a redshirt freshman, respectively.
Outlook: As long as Bernard is healthy, Carolina has a terrific situation in the backfield. He's already a polished all-around runner who'll be able to operate behind a skilled veteran offensive line. And unlike a year ago, when Ryan Houston was a glorified short-yardage fullback, the Heels boast a couple of reserves capable of stealing a few reps a game from the incumbent.
Go-to receiver Dwight Jones may be off to the NFL, but last season's next five most productive pass-catchers remain in Chapel Hill. The objective of the staff in the offseason will be to develop enough reliable targets for an attack that'll regularly go three and four-wide. The most likely breakout star of the corps is senior Erik Highsmith, who caught a career-high 51 passes for 726 yards and five touchdowns in 2011. He's a fundamentally-sound receiver, using his large and sticky mitts to snatch the ball far away from his body. At 6-3 and 190 pounds, he also has the long and agile frame needed to elevate high above defenders to become a particularly dangerous weapon near the end zone.
Highsmith is expected to be joined in the starting lineup by another senior, 6-2, 195-pound Todd Harrelson. He's had a very quiet career in Chapel Hill, catching just three career passes, and will be trying to put it all together in his final year of eligibility. Doing so requires him to become more than just a good athlete.
Rounding out the post-spring starters among the wide receivers is 6-1, 185-pound sophomore Sean Tapley, a little-used letterman in his debut. He's young, but not raw, a natural pass-catcher who does a lot of the little things at the position well.
Where does 6-2, 190-pound senior Jheranie Boyd fit into the picture? He clearly has dynamic physical skills, from track speed to the hops to elevate high above defensive backs. However, he also lacks consistency and polish, a key reason he's currently running behind Harrelson on the depth chart. The equivalent of a big-play situational pass rusher, he's turned 40 career catches into 816 yards and a dozen touchdowns.
The Heels are hoping to work 6-0, 190-pound sophomore T.J. Thorpe into the mix a bit more in his second year. A dynamite return man in his debut, he has the quickness and speed to take a short hitch, bust a seam and turn it into long gainer.
The battle at tight end pitting sophomores Jack Tabb and Eric Ebron will continue in the summer. Both players are a bit undersized for traditional tight ends, looking more like H-backs. The 6-3, 240-pound Tabb might have the best combination of skills, and is an extremely quick study, a plus as a new offense is being installed. The 6-4, 230-pound Ebron is a tremendous all-around athlete at the position, turning 10 catches into 207 yards and a touchdown in his debut.
Watch Out For .... Highsmith's draft grade to be on the uptick. Now that Jones is making his own journey to the NFL, No.88 has his best opportunity to date to be the go-to guy in the passing game. The senior's numbers will be improved, complementing game film that has already begun to impress pro scouts.
Strength: The measurables. It's easy to be impressed by the size, speed and quickness of this collection of pass-catchers. As a rule of thumb in Chapel Hill, the wide receivers are big, fast, and agile, creating potential matchup problems for defensive backs. On jump balls, the 6-2 and 6-3 leapers will be difficult to stop, giving QB Bryn Renner a bigger margin for error.
Weakness: Consistency and proven depth. Highsmith ought to be terrific, a legit All-ACC contender, but who'll step up and become Renner's No. 2 guy now that Jones is gone? Harrelson and Tapley don't have much of a track record up to this point, and Boyd has yet to show he's capable of bringing it on every down.
Outlook: Highsmith is the unabashed leading man of the receivers, but he's going to need a lot more help in 2012. Heck, so, too, will Renner. With the Heels moving to a three-wide attack, it'll be incumbent upon the ancillary pass-catchers to rise to a new level of production. Don't dismiss the importance of the tight ends, Tabb and Ebron, who have the athleticism to be very effective in this system.
With four starters—and a pair of all-stars—back up front, Carolina could boast one of the sneaky-good offensive lines in the country. The left side, in particular, will be fantastic. At tackle, 6-7, 310-pound junior James Hurst is carving out the kind of career that's going to get him drafted in 2014. The former blue-chip prospect from Indiana has started the past 25 games, earning a team-high grade of 88% last fall. A Second Team All-ACC pick in 2011, he possesses the long arms and light feet needed to keep the pocket clean.
Next to Hurst at left guard will be 6-3, 305-pound Jonathan Cooper, a two-time Second Team All-ACC selection. He was second on the team with a grade of 86%, while racking up a Tar Heel-best 47 knockdown blocks. The senior—and veteran of 35 career starts—possesses the necessary skill set to be among the first few guards drafted next April, including the upper body strength to overpower opponents and the quick feet needed to get to the second level in a hurry.
Cooper's partner at right guard will once again be 6-7, 345-pound senior Travis Bond, who's entering his third year as a starter. He's a powerful blocker, who can envelope his man on occasion. However, because of his enormous frame, he'll also give away leverage to shorter, quicker tackles who can get under his pads.
Returning to right tackle will be 6-7, 315-pound Brennan Williams, a 13-game starter in 2011. He fared relatively well in his debut as a regular in Chapel Hill, improving his fundamentals and technique as the season progressed. The senior still needs to improve his footwork in order to attract the attention of NFL scouts.
The newcomer of the line is 6-4, 305-pound sophomore Russell Bodine, Cam Holland's replacement at center. He's a talented young recruit, who earned his first letter and first two starts in 2011. Tenacious and very quick off the snap, he's a natural to become a three-year starter at the pivot for the Heels.
Junior Peyton Jenest will be an important component to the line, even if he doesn't start a single game. He's vying for the backup job at left guard and center, the only upperclassmen among the offensive linemen with any relevant experience at this level.
Watch Out For .... Bodine to be the newest member of the starting lineup, but not look like it. Just because the sophomore was a backup in 2011 doesn't mean he lacks upside potential. In fact, he's one of the top young centers in America. This fall, No. 60 will learn from his elders. Next year, he and Hurst will be the leaders of this group.
Strength: The left side. Carolina might not have the best left side in the country this season, but it belongs in the discussion. Hurst and Cooper are a couple of reigning All-ACC blockers, with the potential to vie for All-American contention. Both players figure to be playing on Sundays within the next two years.
Weakness: Production. The parts may be terrific, but the whole still has, well, holes. The Tar Heels should be a little more dominant at the point of attack than they were in 2011, ranking eighth in the ACC in sacks allowed, while blocking for a ground game that averaged only four yards a carry.
Outlook: If the Tar Heels don't put it all together in the trenches in 2012, it'll go down as a lost opportunity. The projected opening day lineup has combined for a whopping 93 career starts, as the recruiting efforts of former head coach Butch Davis' have really started to bear fruit. Carolina has as much talent up front as anyone in the ACC. Now, the blockers just have to go out and act like it.
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