North Carolina was an enigma in 2013, opening the season 1-5 before finishing as one of the nation’s hottest teams. The Tar Heels look to keep that momentum going as they open spring practice Wednesday. We talked with head coach Larry Fedora about what’s in store for North Carolina as the players return to the practice field for 2014.
You won six of your last seven games, including the bowl. How can that strong finish to 2013 help you as you kick off spring practice this year?
Larry Fedora: It enables you to go into the offseason with a lot of excitement and a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of young kids are understanding now what it takes to win. It took us a while just to learn. We were so young last year with nine seniors on the team, it took us a while for those young kids that were playing to understand what it truly took to win at this level.
So many young players made a big impact in your turnaround last season. Can you see a difference in them this offseason?
Fedora: They realize the success they had because of how hard they worked, so you can push even harder at this point in the offseason. Nobody wants to start out 1-5 again. A lot of guys learned some great lessons throughout the season and grew up and it makes us very excited about this upcoming season.
Fedora: Marquise started six games for us, took us to a bowl game and won. He has the advantage because he’s been there, been in the fire. But we still want to have to earn everything we get at every position -- not just his. We have returning starters, and he would be one of them. But you want to have competition at each position. We’re not there yet, but we’re building there. We’re building depth, so guys compete. And if they’re competing, they’ll be that much sharper, play that much better.
You bring in Kanler Coker and Mitch Trubisky and allow them to compete with Marquise. Both are similar to Marquise. All three of them run very well. They all can throw the football. All fit this style of offense well, including Marquise. So we’re excited about the competition we’re having at that position.
Ryan Switzer made such a big impact on special teams last year. How can you try to get him more involved offensively in 2014?
Fedora: There were a lot of ways to get the ball in his hands last year; it’s just that he was one of those young guys that the light didn’t really come on until five or six games into the season. When he settled down and started realizing "I’ve been doing this for a long time, and it just happens to be my first year in college doing it," then he really exploded.
We don’t have to design other ways to get him the ball. Within our offense, we have plenty of ways to get the ball in playmakers’ hands. He’s proven he’s a playmaker and he will get more balls.
The running game struggled at times last year, but you’ve got a good stable of runners returning. How do you see that dynamic shaking out?
Fedora: We were really disappointed in our production in the running game last year, so we’ve really challenged all of those guys at that position. We’ve got to get much more out of them. Start off with T.J. Logan, who was another of those young guys who, as the season went on, he got much better. He had an injury and didn’t really play until the sixth game, and so by the end of the year, he was probably where he would’ve been about midseason. So we’re excited what he’s bringing back.
Khris Francis was another true freshman that played at that position that has a lot of talent that we’re excited about. Romar Morris is back. He probably has the most experience of everybody. Then you bring Elijah Hood into the mix.
Eric Ebron was a unique talent. How can you replace that production offensively? Can one player pick up all the slack?
Fedora: That was a comfort level for our quarterbacks, knowing that you could put the ball up to Ebron and he was probably going to bring it down. Jack Tabb will most likely step into that role. We’ve got Brandon Fritts, an incoming freshman, that is here. We have Eric Albright there; Tyler Alberts is moved into that position. We’re going to have some good competition there this spring. We’re going to have a tight end on the field. Jack has the opportunity to be just as productive as Ebron was, and this enables other receivers on the field to get more balls also.
The defense really struggled against the run last season, but like the rest of the team, it seemed to improve as the season went along. How much better can the run defense be this year?
Fedora: We were a young football team, and we’ve got guys that are going to now have some experience. We’re going into our third year of the defense, and we’ve had stability on that side. Our guys know what’s going on; they know what’s expected of them. We’ve got to be much better against the run. When you look at it and break it down, you’ll see early on we had some missed tackles that really hurt us, and we gave up some big plays. If we can eliminate those things and get much better in those areas, we’re going to be a much better defense.
As you’ve monitored the offseason thus far, are there a few players you’re particularly excited to get a closer look at this spring?
Fedora: You’ve got M.J. Stewart, who is a young kid that’s come in. Allen Artis is another one on defense. Those guys in the secondary are here. Desmond Lawrence and Brian Walker got quite a bit of playing time last year. T.J. Jiles in the secondary will have to step up. Sam Smiley, who missed the whole season with an injury. Dominique Green was a true freshman who started at safety for us the entire season. We’re going to be so much better in that back end with Tim Scott back, Malik Simmons. These are all young guys who have played quite a bit.
Linebacker with Travis Hughes back with a lot of experience. Norkeithus Otis had a great year last year and I expect him to be even better his senior year. Darius Lipford. Inside, we’re going to count on guys like Ethan Farmer and Shawn Underwood and Justin Thomason that have some big shoes to fill.
We mentioned Switzer’s impact as a punt returner, but it’s tough to repeat a performance like that now that teams are aware of what a weapon he is. How’s he preparing for 2014 on special teams?
Fedora: There’s no doubt. He works hard and he wants to be the best. But he knows now, and I’ve tried to prevent him -- there’s going to be some frustration involved this year until we find out exactly what teams are going to do. The majority of them probably won’t kick to him, and that’s going to cause some frustration. But we’re going to have to find ways to combat that.