A year ago, North Carolina scored 30 points or more eight times, but the Tar Heels were just 5-3 in those games. Larry Fedora returns 10 starters to his offense but has revamped the D. Fedora brought in Gene Chizik to shake things up, but it’s a big task for a unit that finished last in the ACC by virtually every statistical measure in 2014.
Best-case scenario: Chizik works a miracle, injects new life into a unit that too often played lackadaisically last year, and helps the Heels turn into a competent defensive team. It’s not entirely likely, but even if UNC moves to the middle of the pack defensively, a 10-2 campaign wouldn’t be out of the question.
Worst-case scenario: If the defense isn’t drastically improved, there’s a good chance 2015 looks awfully similar to the previous two years, with up-and-down performances that make predicting UNC from week to week an impossibility. There are probably still enough wins on the schedule to reach a bowl, but it’s tough to assume anything with UNC.
Most important player: Middle linebacker Jeff Schoettmer was already UNC’s most consistent defender, but Chizik’s Tampa 2 scheme should utilize his skill set nicely. The crux of the scheme’s success will be in Schoettmer’s ability to hold up in coverage and the unit’s ability to tackle well. He’s the on-field leader of the group, and that puts him front and center in this rebuilding job.
Breakout player: The Heels return all five starters from last year’s offensive line, but it was a unit that struggled with consistency at times in 2014. This spring, Bentley Spain moved to the top of the depth chart at left tackle, and that could be the move that pushes the unit to another level. On the defense, look for Nazair Jones to take a big step forward on UNC's defensive line, too.
Most important game: Oct. 3 at Georgia Tech. A year ago, the Heels upended the Yellow Jackets 48-43 in Chapel Hill, but they’d already dug such a deep hole in the standings it didn’t really matter. This season, the trip to Tech opens ACC play, and a UNC win could set the tone for the Coastal race.
Class of 2015 signee to watch: It's all about improving the defense for the Tar Heels, and that means defensive end Jalen Dalton and inside linebacker Andre Smith are the two names to watch. With defensive line and pass rushing being imperative for the Tar Heels this season and beyond, Dalton is the pick. Having been in Chapel Hill for spring practice and adding some 30-40 pounds of muscle mass and good weight, the edge player with long arms will undoubtedly make an impact from Day One. -- Gerry Hamilton
Class of 2016 storyline: This is all about the chance to keep the two best defensive prospects in state: five-star and No. 8-ranked Dexter Lawrence and No. 40 Keion Joyner. With Gene Chizik now running the defense in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels have better than a fighting chance for the potential difference-makers. A third defensive prospect with difference-making ability in state whom North Carolina is after is defensive end Nick Coe, who is considered an Auburn lean. -- Gerry Hamilton