ACC Football: North Carolina preview
By Aaron Beard
CHAPEL HILL— The North Carolina Tar Heels know no matter how many wins the get under new coach Larry Fedora they won’t play in a bowl this season.
An NCAA investigation of the program hovered over training camp the past two seasons, but now the results are in for the Tar Heels and the former Southern Mississippi coach.
Still, defensive tackle Sylvester Williams said the Tar Heels have a plan.
“At the end of the year, if we’re 12-0, we’ll know we should’ve been ACC champs and we’ll be all right going home with that,” Williams said. “Stuff in the past, you’ve just got to kind of put that behind you and move on.”
And there certainly is a lot the Tar Heels would love to leave behind.
Two years ago, they were unsure of how many players would be available for the opener and beyond due to the NCAA probe into improper benefits and academic misconduct. Last year, they had an interim coach after the abrupt firing of Butch Davis just before preseason practice began.
The Tar Heels (7-6, 3-5 ACC) started 5-1, but stumbled down the stretch and looked disinterested in a 41-24 loss to Missouri in the Independence Bowl.
New North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham — whose arrival was also a product of the NCAA probe — turned to Fedora, a former assistant at Florida and Oklahoma State who spent four years with the Golden Eagles and led them to last year’s Conference USA championship.
Fedora, 49, has been aggressive in recruiting, meeting with school supporters and reaching out to university faculty turned off by the program’s reputation-damaging troubles. He also speaks frankly about holding players accountable for their actions, down to installing a rule prohibiting players wearing hats or earrings in the football building.
“I don’t know if they’ve embraced it the same way, but you don’t have much choice with rules,” Fedora said. “When you’re trying to change habits that guys have, it doesn’t happen overnight. I’ll still see a guy with a hat on and he forgets. They’re kids. … They’ll see me and see if they’ve got (earrings) in. They don’t even know. But I know they’re thinking about it.”
When asked whether the players were embracing those changes, senior linebacker Kevin Reddick was blunt.
“Absolutely, because they have no choice,” he said. “He instills that in us: you have no choice. Either you get aboard or you get left behind.”
Fedora’s staff also pushed the players to practice at a faster pace through spring drills as they turn to a no-huddle spread offense and a 4-2-5 defense.
The offense seems positioned for a strong year. Four starters return to the offensive line to open holes for sophomore Gio Bernard, who ran for more than 1,200 yards last year to become the first Tar Heel to crack the 1,000-yard mark in a season since 1997.
In addition, junior Bryn Renner is preparing for his second full season as the starting quarterback while senior Erik Highsmith returns to lead the receivers.
There are more questions on the defense with only five returning starters, though North Carolina should be solid up front with Williams and Kareem Martin, and with Reddick at linebacker.
The Tar Heels are also getting a boost with the return of kicker Casey Barth, who was granted a medical hardship waiver to play a fifth year after playing just three games last season due to an injured groin.
In addition to the bowl ban, the NCAA in March imposed a 15-scholarship reduction over three years, with the first five coming this fall. Fedora said he thinks everyone associated with UNC football is “tired” of talking about the past and doesn’t want to hear about it anymore. His players seem to agree.
“People are always going to scrutinize you but we’re used to that,” senior offensive tackle Jonathan Cooper said. “We’re just playing for one another. We’re excited to start over and do the best we can.”