North Carolina coach Larry Fedora cannot remember a time he had to rebuild an offense to this extent, but then again, that is not something he spends much time thinking about.
To those outside the program trying to figure out who will replace every single significant offensive playmaker, the task looks bleak. To Fedora and his staff, the task is challenging, yes, but not impossible. Not in the least.
“We have been working the past four years, so we do have some players,” Fedora said in a recent phone interview. “Now we get to see who emerges.”
The Tar Heels lose nearly 90 percent of their offensive production from last year’s team, as starting quarterback Mitch Trubisky, top running backs Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan, and top receivers Ryan Switzer, Mack Hollins and Bug Howard are all gone. Among them, Hood was the surprise departure for the NFL draft, after initially announcing he would return for his senior year.
Fedora had already begun planning the offense around Hood when the back changed his mind. As to why, Fedora said, “That’s something you’d have to get from Elijah. The last I knew he was coming back and then all of a sudden the next time I talked to him he was leaving. He really didn’t give me an explanation, and I really didn’t push him on one.”
So the Tar Heels are moving on with open competitions at virtually every position on offense when spring practice opens Tuesday. Five starters return. The most experienced is starting left tackle Bentley Spain (23 career starts). The most experienced skill position player? Receiver Austin Proehl, with six career starts.
“I’ve never looked at it where, ‘Oh my gosh, these guys are gone, what are we going to do?’” Fedora said. “You lose guys every year and so you adjust. That’s what we do as an offensive staff is we decide what’s going to be best for this team going forward. We know that if we take care of the football we’ve got a chance to win, so we want our turnover margin to be extremely good. The margin of error is much smaller.”
North Carolina opens spring with a wide open competition to replace Trubisky between Nathan Elliott, Chazz Surratt and Logan Byrd. They will split the reps equally until somebody emerges from the group.
“I think we have enough talent to be successful with the guys we’ve recruited,” Fedora said. “They’re just young and inexperienced, so our job is going to be to put them in as many situations as possible this spring and during camp to get them prepared. I’ve played with young quarterbacks before. I know what the pitfalls are. I do understand there’s good things that come with it and bad things. We’ve got to be able to ride the good things and overcome the bad things that happen. I do think we’re talented at that position, and whomever emerges as the guy will be a good player for us.”
Fedora prefers to keep competitions open as long as possible, so he wouldn’t put a timetable on a decision. Plus, there could be a grad transfer enter the mix in the offseason, a time when an increasing number of quarterbacks decide they need to find a new home.
Along with a new quarterback, Fedora hopes young players like Jordon Brown, Jordan Cunningham, Anthony Ratliff-Williams, Rontavius Groves and Juval Mollette emerge this spring. And with youth across the board comes a different way to run the offense.
“We may not be able to do everything we were doing offensively because the quarterbacks don’t have enough experience to handle everything Mitch was able to handle or we may not be able to do something protection wise because the running back isn’t going to be able to handle what T.J. Logan and Hood were handling last year,” Fedora said. “Same thing at receiver. For us, this is where coaching becomes involved, where we’ve got to figure out what these guys can do in the spring, what their strengths are and what their weaknesses are and then we’ve got to mold the offense around that.”
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