North Carolina opens spring practice Sunday, eyeing a return to the ACC championship game. Here are three questions facing the Tar Heels.
1. Quarterback. Marquise Williams is gone, and the heir apparent is Mitch Trubisky. But coach Larry Fedora told the Raleigh Sports Club earlier this week that Trubisky was not quite a lock. "I don't know who told you Mitch is our starter," Fedora said. "He may be. He has to earn it." Fedora is no stranger to creating competition at the position during spring and fall practice. Williams had to hold Trubisky off the last two years to keep his starting job. But given the edge he has in experience over the other quarterbacks on the roster, it is difficult to see him as anything but the starter barring injury or suspension.
2. Linebacker. The Tar Heels are losing two of their best players in linebackers Jeff Schoettmer and Shakeel Rashad, who combined for 223 tackles a year ago. That leaves them really green at the position. Andre Smith, Dan Mastromatteo and freshman Jonathan Smith will compete for the middle linebacker spot. On the outside, Cayson Collins has the most returning experience. He is in the mix, along with Ayden Bonilla, Cole Holcomb, Hunter Crafford and junior college transfer J.B. Copeland.
"The good news is at least they've been here for a year," defensive coordinator Gene Chizik said. "Defensive football is about playing fast and aggressive and last year we started out playing slow simply because they were learning everything new. We still should have a step up in terms of playing faster, being aggressive in the defense because they've been in it for a year. Now they have to gain the experience."
3. Shoring up the run defense. Let's just say North Carolina wishes it had a do-over in the final two games of the season. The Tar Heels gave up 964 yards rushing combined in losses to Clemson and Baylor (645 for the Bears). Chizik said they will work on more eight-man front structured defenses to improve in this area.
"Run defense is going to be a product of first and second down, so on those early downs being able to pressure and play eight-man structures more is going to be our focus in the spring," Chizik said. "It wasn't that there was no clarity on the defense in terms of where to fit. It was schematically something we can improve, and the physicality of playing stout run defense starting with the front four and the linebackers are really the two main things."