Five Burning Questions: North Carolina Tar Heels

North Carolina quarterback Marquise Williams came 144 yards shy of 4,000 total yards last season.

Rick Osentoski/Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

At his introductory news conference back in 2011, Larry Fedora, aside from threatening to physically confront adversity, promised the North Carolina program a wild ride. "You’d better buckle your seat belts," the Red Bull-fueled coach said at the time, one of those one-liners that populate such events and send fans rushing to message boards with anticipatory remarks.

Bringing along a high-octane offense and an impressive coaching resume to match, Fedora was expected to bring the Tar Heels into the modern era with uptempo tactics employed by national powers like Oregon and Baylor. And, in peripheral ways, he has. While scoring has dipped since his first season, North Carolina has improved its offensive efficiency every season under his watch despite NFL-caliber personnel losses (Giovani Bernard, Eric Ebron). The offense has never been the issue.

The problem: North Carolina’s overall record has gone in reverse.

After winning eight games in Fedora’s first season in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels fell to 7-6 in 2013 before posting a 6-7 record, Fedora’s first losing season as a head coach, in 2014.

Now, with a coaching staff shake-up and loads of returning talent, can the Tar Heels finally break through the school’s glass ceiling of eight wins — a mark the team hasn’t surpassed since Mack Brown was running the show — in Year 4 of Fedora’s wild ride?

The Tar Heels’ defense, barring a solid showing against archrival Duke, was a train wreck in 2014. Ranking 119th out of 128 FBS teams nationally in scoring defense, whatever North Carolina accomplished on offense was basically a moot point. The Tar Heels held just four opponents under 30 points. They gave up 120 combined points against East Carolina and Clemson … in consecutive weeks. Offseason changes were in the cards by Week 4.

That’s where the optimism begins for North Carolina’s defense.

UNC did not replace former defensive coordinator Vic Koenning with just any name: It brought in a national championship-winning coach with a reputation as one of the top defensive minds around. Former Iowa State and Auburn head coach Gene Chizik, who has been working in television since being replaced by Gus Malzahn on The Plains, steps in to lead a North Carolina defense that boasts plenty of returning talent. The program was not messing around. The Tar Heels agreed to make Chizik one of the highest-paid coordinators in the country ($750,000 annually) to churn out a top-tier defense.

There’s little reason to believe Chizik will not pay immediate dividends, both in recruiting (he’s serving as the top recruiter on many of UNC’s top defensive targets in the 2016 class) and on the field. As SBNation’s Bill Connelly noted in his UNC season preview, Auburn and Texas posted a 53-12 record from 2002 to 2006 — years spanning Chizik’s time serving as defensive coordinator at the two powerhouses. So is a quick turnaround realistic?

When Chizik took over Auburn’s defense in 2002, the Tigers were coming off a 7-5 season in which they allowed 23.4 points per game — downright stingy compared to UNC in 2014 — with a young defensive corps. Chizik, assisted by rising stars like Karlos Dansby and Carlos Rogers learning through experience, delivered results. The ’02 Tigers held opponents to 17.8 points per game, highlighted by limiting three top-10 opponents (LSU, Alabama, Penn State) to single digits. He then took over an already strong defense at Texas in 2005, improving the Longhorns’ scoring defense marginally to help Vince Young & Co. win the national title.

Numerous factors go into turning offenses or defenses around in one year — system fit, inherited talent, offensive style and tempo, injuries, etc. — but Chizik has been up to the task before.

"Gene is in charge of (the defense)," Fedora said on the ACC teleconference in April. "I mean, he’s installing his style of coaching, his style of way, the way he wants those guys to play. Yeah, I’m just excited about seeing the end result once the season gets here."

North Carolina returns seven of its top nine defensive linemen, three starting-caliber linebackers and their top backups and, essentially, all but safety Tim Scott in the secondary. The staff has not landed much elite high-school talent, but a collection of three- and four-star recruits fills out the roster. Chizik has his hands full, but if his new defense can take away big plays, there could be a significant improvement on that side of the ball.

Senior quarterback Marquise Williams posted 296.6 yards per game of total offense last season, the 19th-best mark in FBS play and the sixth-best among returning players, while occasionally splitting time with redshirt freshman backup Mitch Trubisky. He led the Tar Heels in passing and rushing, accounting for 34 touchdowns in the process. In North Carolina’s only two games against ranked opponents, he looked like an All-America candidate, putting up 805 total yards and nine touchdowns.

That was Williams’ first season as the full-time starter.

And yet, due to the senior’s health and up-and-down play, the Tar Heels’ quarterback situation is still considered a work in progress. Williams underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left hip back in February, causing him to miss spring practice. As a result, Trubisky received the bulk of the first-team reps, and though Williams has reportedly made a faster-than-expected recovery, he’s not making the top QB lists that his gaudy numbers suggest he should.

Williams needs to cut down on his turnovers (14) and provide more consistency for Fedora’s offense in 2015. While his efforts against Clemson and Georgia Tech were phenomenal, he disappeared in games against East Carolina, Miami and North Carolina State, all losses for the Tar Heels. If UNC can make the necessary adjustments defensively — even going from horrible to adequate — the Tar Heels’ chances in the Coastal likely rest on their quarterback’s play.

"I think right now we’ve got some great competition right there, which we’re trying to establish, and we are. We’ve got some depth there," Fedora said of his quarterback situation. "Marquise is our starting quarterback, and I’m looking forward to watching those guys compete in fall camp, but Marquise — I anticipate Marquise taking that first snap against South Carolina and getting after it."

When healthy and clicking, Williams has the ability to become the seventh player in FBS history to post 3,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards in a single season.

The flip side of Williams leading the team in rushing: Is that a good thing?

Since losing Bernard to the NFL Draft, Fedora has taken a running-back-by-committee approach to balance his offense, distributing carries among the likes of A.J. Blue, T.J. Logan and Romar Morris. Elijah Hood, the only former five-star recruit on the roster, received 67 carries in an injury-shortened freshman season last year. Part of this has to do with the uptempo nature of Fedora’s attack, running fresh legs in and out of games, but it’s also a product of no running back separating himself from the pack. Logan, Hood and Morris essentially produced at the same rate in 2015.

However, as Fedora proved with Bernard, he’s not philosophically opposed to feature backs. The question is if there is one on the roster.

Logan enters his junior season as the team’s most consistent and productive back. A former four-star recruit, he posted back-to-back 500-yard seasons as an underclassman. Hood is arguably carrying a heavier weight of expectations after being named the top high-schooler in the state of North Carolina and a consensus top-10 back in the 2014 class. He held offers from nearly every major FBS program. His freshman year offered brief flashes of potential, including scoring touchdowns in three straight games, but he missed four games due to injury and was limited late in the season.

If Logan and/or Hood can develop into a more potent 1-2 punch, it would take some of the pressure off Williams (or whoever else is playing quarterback). Also of note: The entire starting offensive line returns intact.

North Carolina has not been a true national force on the recruiting trail since the Butch Davis era, but the Tar Heels have largely kept pace with their division’s top recruiting powers. Only Miami, with its built-in advantage of championship tradition, has consistently out-performed UNC on the recruiting trail in recent years. Here’s a look at the four-year average of national recruiting rankings from 2011 to 2014 (247 composite):

There is not an overwhelming talent gap between teams in the Coastal — unlike the Atlantic, where Florida State and Clemson, respectively, have dominated on the recruiting trail. Two teams outside that recruiting list (Georgia Tech, Duke) have taken the Coastal crown in recent seasons. Performance becomes a matter of coaching and player development.

North Carolina practically returns its two-deep roster. The Tar Heels were one of three ACC teams to not lose a single player to the NFL Draft. Depth should not be an issue.

The ACC first held its conference championship game in 2005, when the league expanded to 12 teams, and since then North Carolina is arguably the second-most surprising team to never make an appearance.

Miami was expected to take the league by storm — and counterbalance the likes of FSU and Clemson — but has yet to make the title game. The Hurricanes hold the top spot, without equals. UNC, however, falls into the second-tier of disappointing ACC teams over the past decade, joining the likes of NC State and Virginia in search of their first ACC Championship appearance. In the meantime, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech have owned the Coastal division race while even rival Duke has played for the conference title.

It’s an unwanted streak that both North Carolina and Miami are looking to snap in 2015.

(Of course, UNC won the division in 2012, Fedora’s inaugural season, after posting a 5-3 conference record and beating Miami and Georgia Tech in tiebreakers. The NCAA-sanctioned postseason ban stripped the Tar Heels of an opportunity to play Florida State for the conference title. They ordered Coastal champ rings anyway.)

It shouldn’t take an otherworldly effort to end that streak, either. In each of the past three seasons, the Coastal division champion lost at least two conference games. With North Carolina avoiding cross-division opponents Florida State, Clemson and Louisville, the schedule will rarely look this manageable.

So, much like Miami, that’s where the bar is set for North Carolina: Win the division.