Losing quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and 11 other starters will be a challenge for North Carolina this fall, especially in a Power 5 Conference such as the ACC.
Head coach Larry Fedora has some major holes to fill.
“We know that we’re going to need a lot of that depth next season,” he said. “So we’re excited about where we are with this team right now and understand that we’ve got still a long way to go.”
The loss of quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, will be the toughest hole to fill. In his only year as a starter Trubisky threw for 3,748 yards and 30 touchdowns with just 6 interceptions.
The battle to replace Trubisky has been primarily between last year’s backup Nathan Elliot and redshirt freshman Chazz Surratt. After the spring game it looked as if Nathan Elliot was best fit for the position throwing for more than 200 yards and 3 touchdowns, but Fedora is still nowhere near picking a starter.
“That is where we’re basically starting over,” Fedora said. “We’ve got a bunch of young guys that don’t have much experience. We’ve got some talented guys, so I’m excited about the talent level that we’ve got there. I’m excited about what they’re going to bring to the table.
“We’ve just got a lot of work to do with them. We’ve got to try to tailor the offense to each one of them and what they can do once we decide on who it is, and then make sure we minimize mistakes.”
The loss of tailback Elijah Hood is also a big loss for UNC. He was the Tar Heels leading rusher with 858 yards and 8 touchdowns. Early enrollee Michael Carter and veterans Jordan Brown and Jacob Schmitt have all been competing for the running back position.
As if losses at quarterback and running back did not hurt, North Carolina also lost both of its starting receivers in Ryan Switzer and Bug Howard, who combined for nearly 2,000 yards last season and 14 touchdowns. They also lost Matt Collins.
“I think I read somewhere that we lost 90 percent of our offensive production, and that hadn’t been done in something like 12 years since they’ve been keeping that stat,” Fedora said. “We did lose a lot, but spring was really good for us, so we had guys like Austin Proehl, who’s played a lot for us. We had guys like Thomas Jackson, Rontavius Groves, a new kid that redshirted the year before who stepped up and really did some nice things. We’ve got Jordan Cunningham.
“So we’ve got other receivers that are there and ready to become the next guy. They just were playing behind some really good players and didn’t have the opportunity that those other players had because they hadn’t established themselves yet. That’s common.”
On the defensive side of the ball the Tar Heels lost some key starters. They also lost defensive coordinator Gene Chizik, who decided to retire from football. He was replaced with John Papuchis, who served the last two seasons under Chizik at UNC.
Before coming to North Carolina, Papuchis spent seven seasons at Nebraska, his last three as defensive coordinator.
“It was really nothing new for (the defense) because J.P. has been with us for the last two years,” Fedora said. “There was not much transition for them even with the new coaches on staff because they had worked with J.P. and in the system before, so it was a really smooth transition.”
As for the personnel, Nazair Jones is gone. He had 70 tackles at the defensive tackle position. They also lose cornerback Des Lawrence and safety Dominque Green. Both have been pivotal parts of the team the past few seasons totaling 39 career starts each.
However, the Tar Heels do return their three leading tacklers in linebackers Cole Holcomb and Andre Smith and safety Donnie Mills. All three had over 100 tackles last season.
Returners on the defensive line include Malik Carney and Aaron Crawford, while Dejuan Drennon, Tyler Powell and Jeremiah Clarke are all expecting snaps after having solid springs.
At Corner M.J. Stuart has thrived this spring on his side of the field as he did last season. Competition has been heated on the other side with Patrice Rene, K.J. Sails and early enrollee Tre Shaw competing for playing time.
The last open position in contention is at the other safety position, where sophomore Myles Dorn has seemed to take over.
“I thought those guys progressed really quite well throughout spring, and I’m excited about where they are,” Fedora said.