OVERVIEW: North Carolina is counting on its talented line and receiving corps to make up for the lack of experience in the backfield. The Tar Heels' biggest challenge is replacing T.J. Yates, their starting quarterback for the past four seasons. Bryn Renner is the clear-cut replacement at quarterback, and he will be throwing to a talented receiving corps. But the inexperience at quarterback means North Carolina must upgrade a rushing attack that ranked 10th in the ACC and 94th nationally.
AN INSIDE LOOK
THE LINGERING QUESTION: Are the distractions finally over? UNC headed into 2010 with legitimate BCS aspirations that disintegrated before the Tar Heels ever played a game. An NCAA investigation resulted in suspensions that decimated the Heels' roster and never gave them a realistic chance of winning the ACC title. UNC once again has a star-studded defense and figures to head into this season at full strength. But even though the Heels don't have to worry about widespread suspensions, they do have possibility of NCAA penalties hanging over their heads. A fast start would allow the attention surrounding North Carolina to focus on the actual games, at least for the next few months. But if more news about the investigation comes out this fall, the Heels could have a tough time remaining focused.
THE BEST-CASE SCENARIO: QB Bryn Renner is a capable replacement for T.J. Yates, while E Quinton Coples leads a dominant defense. North Carolina capitalizes on a fast start and wins the Coastal Division title after pulling an upset in Blacksburg. And as long as the Heels reach the ACC championship game, why couldn't they win it? They'd certainly be playing in front of a friendly crowd in Charlotte.
THE WORST-CASE SCENARIO: UNC fails to capitalize on that soft early-season schedule and splits its first six games. The Heels then stumble down the stretch, lose to N.C. State yet again and finish 5-7. The combination of a losing season and pending NCAA penalties cause the Heels to pull the plug on the Butch Davis era.
STAT TO KEEP AN EYE ON: North Carolina hasn't run the ball particularly well throughout Davis' tenure in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels ranked 107th nationally in rushing in 2007, 89th in 2008, 79th in 2009 and 94th last season. Their highest average per carry during that stretch was 3.71 last season. Can the Heels upgrade that ground attack even after losing their top three rushers from last season? At least the line looks talented.
BACKFIELD: The time is now for Renner, a former four-star prospect who was the No. 5 pro-style quarterback in the 2009 recruiting class. Renner has attempted only two passes in his career. UNC struggled to run the ball last season and now must replace its three leading rushers from last season. The Tar Heels need a big season from senior Ryan Houston, who rushed for 713 yards and nine touchdowns in 2009 before redshirting last season. Houston was involved in the NCAA investigation into the football program last year and wasn't cleared until five games into the season. At that point, Houston decided to sit out the rest of the year. The Heels also return an experienced fullback in senior Devon Ramsay.
RECEIVERS: Dwight Jones is a rising star who caught 62 passes for 946 yards and four touchdowns last season. Jones had a 233-yard game against Florida State, a 198-yard effort against Virginia and an 11-catch, 121-yard day against Duke. But he also was held below 55 yards in nine of North Carolina's 13 games. If Jones can gain consistency this season, he should emerge as one of the ACC's top receivers. Erik Highsmith should develop into a solid complementary receiver this fall after catching 25 passes for 348 yards and three touchdowns. The Tar Heels also like the potential of Jheranie Boyd (14 catches, 310 yards, three TDs) and Joshua Adams (19-202-2), though Adams sat out spring practice with a kidney problem.
LINE: North Carolina has two potential stars on the left side in sophomore T James Hurst and junior G Jonathan Cooper. Hurst, a former five-star prospect, moved right into the starting lineup as a true freshman last season. Cooper is a third-year starter who earned second-team All-ACC honors a year ago. The Tar Heels also welcome back third-year starter Cam Holland at center. Travis Bond made four starts last season and should open as North Carolina's starting right guard. Junior Brennan Williams is the favorite to take over at right tackle.
OVERVIEW: North Carolina once again boasts a defense that features plenty of future NFL players. The difference this season is that most of those prospects should be able to play the entire season. Quinton Coples emerged as a star in the absence of Robert Quinn and Marvin Austin last season. He leads one of the nation's top defensive lines; Joe Robinson, who had held the same position at LSU, is the Heels' new line coach. The Tar Heels also seem in good shape at linebacker, but the inexperienced secondary is a major concern. There is excellent speed in the front seven, which enables coordinator Everett Withers to take some chances.
LINE: There might not be a better front four in the nation. The best of the bunch is Coples, who recorded 15.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks last season while playing tackle. Coples will be back at his natural position at end this season. The other starting end is junior Donte Paige-Moss, who had 13.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks a year ago. Both are potential first-round picks. Senior T Tydreke Powell gives North Carolina three returning starters on the line, while senior Jordan Nix is the favorite to start at the other tackle spot. The return of junior T Sylvester Williams should give the Heels plenty of depth up front.
LINEBACKERS: North Carolina must replace second-round draft pick Bruce Carter and sixth-round selection Quan Sturdivant, but the Tar Heels still have plenty of talent at this spot. The Tar Heels return their top two tacklers from last season in junior Kevin Reddick and senior Zach Brown. Reddick, who made 74 stops in 2010, has led the Tar Heels in tackles for two consecutive seasons. The speedy Brown delivered 72 tackles last season and has been mentioned as a potential first-round pick. The Tar Heels will rely on a first-year starter on the strongside, where sophomore Darius Lipford exited spring practice atop the depth chart.
SECONDARY: UNC needs that exceptional front seven to provide a pass rush because the Tar Heels lack experience at the back end of their defense. The Tar Heels don't return a single player in the secondary who made more than four starts last season. North Carolina's most experienced defensive back is senior CB Charles Brown, who made 22 career starts before sitting out the 2010 season for his role in the NCAA investigation. Brown had three interceptions, nine pass breakups and 66 tackles in 2009. The other likely starting cornerback is sophomore Jabari Price, who started four games last season as a true freshman. Senior Mywan Jackson, who made five starts last season, also should be in the hunt for playing time. Sophomore Tre Boston is competing with senior Brian Gupton at free safety. Seniors Jonathan Smith and Matt Merletti and junior Gene Robinson are battling for the starting spot at strong safety.
The Tar Heels return senior K Casey Barth, who went 19-of-22 on field-goal attempts with a long of 49 last season. It's worth noting that Barth only attempted three kicks from at least 40 yards out a year ago. North Carolina also brings back punter in C.J. Feagles, though he averaged only 37.5 yards per attempt last season. His dad, Jeff, was a longtime NFL punter. The Heels ranked 116th in net punting a year ago. UNC must find a new return man now that Da'Norris Searcy has completed his eligibility. The Heels also need better coverage units. North Carolina ranked 86th in kickoff coverage and 92nd in punt coverage last season.
THE RECRUITING SIDE
Average national ranking past five years: 21st
Buzz: The job Butch Davis did for North Carolina in the last recruiting cycle could be the best in the country, considering the NCAA issues he and his staff were battling. The Tar Heels secured two of the best linemen in North Carolina in DT Devonte Brown and G Jarrod James, and they also landed in-state athletes T.J. Thorpe and Norkeithus Otis. The biggest get was in-state QB Marquise Williams, a must-get at the position. This year won't be as strong for UNC in the state, but the Heels seem set to do well out of state and already have commitments from South Carolina TE Justin Meredith and Florida LB Shakeel Rashad. This cycle might not be as special in recruiting, but UNC still is in good position to finish in the top half of the ACC. - MIKE FARRELL
UNC's lack of experience and depth at tight end could allow true freshmen Eric Ebron and Jack Tabb to compete for a starting spot right away. Ebron caught 28 passes for 682 yards and 10 touchdowns at Greensboro (N.C.) Smith, while Tabb had 21 receptions for 458 yards and five touchdowns at Red Bank (N.J.) Catholic. True freshman WR T.J. Thorpe could contribute immediately on the return units, while redshirt freshman LB P.J. Clyburn should earn plenty of playing time.
North Carolina has an excellent chance to get off to a fast start. Each of the first three games (James Madison, Rutgers and Virginia) are at home; then comes winnable road contests against Georgia Tech and East Carolina, followed by an intriguing home game with Louisville. It's conceivable that UNC could carry a 6-0 record into its Oct. 15 home game with Miami. The schedule gets a little trickier in the second half, with visits to Clemson, N.C. State and defending ACC champion Virginia Tech. The trip to Blacksburg is on a Thursday night, though the Heels are off the weekend leading up to that game. The annual showdown with North Carolina State traditionally takes place in late November, but this year that game moves to Nov. 5. The Heels won't have to face preseason ACC favorite Florida State unless the teams meet in the conference championship game.
North Carolina's chances of having a special season likely depend on the performance of the new-look offensive backfield. All the other elements are in place for the Tar Heels to make a serious run at their first ACC title since 1980. UNC has a solid offensive line and a dynamic receiving corps. The Tar Heels' plethora of talent on the defensive line and at linebacker should make up for the inexperience in the secondary. The Coastal Division may be a little more up for grabs this season now that Virginia Tech must replace Tyrod Taylor, Ryan Williams and Darren Evans. But none of that will matter if Renner struggles or if the Heels can't run the ball effectively. And who knows how the Heels will respond if news about the NCAA investigation breaks at a critical point in the season? We're guessing North Carolina's defense is good enough to give the Heels a fourth consecutive eight-win season, but they won't exceed that total unless that offensive backfield outperforms expectations.