Philadelphia, PA – 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: A highly publicized and turbulent two-year span came to a an abrupt end last summer, when Butch Davis was finally relieved of his duties in Chapel Hill following a scandal that devastated the North Carolina football program.
Enter interim coach Everett Withers, who led the Tar Heels to an impressive 5-1 start to the 2011 campaign amidst a ton of uncertainty. The Tar Heels opened with three straight victories over James Madison, Rutgers and Virginia, before suffering a defeat at the hands of nationally-ranked Georgia Tech (35-28). The team bounced back though with back-to-back wins over East Carolina (35-20) and Louisville (14-7) and looked the part of an ACC contender.
The second half of the season told a different tale however, as UNC got beat by Miami-Florida (30-24) and nationally-ranked Clemson (59-38) in succession to fall to 1-3 in-conference. A blowout win over Wake Forest (49-24) was followed by tough losses to NC State (13-0) and nationally-ranked Virginia Tech (24-21), before closing out the regular season with a solid win over Duke (37-21).
Despite the sideshow heading into the 2011 campaign and a mere 3-5 ACC ledger, the Tar Heels earned seven wins and a spot in the Independence Bowl against Missouri, a game in which the Tigers proved too much in a 41-24 decision.
Prior to the bowl game with Missouri, North Carolina tabbed Larry Fedora as its 35th head coach. Fedora led Southern Miss to the 2011 Conference USA title and will be called upon to provide similar results in the ACC.
OFFENSE: With the ability to move the ball both on the ground and through the air last season and eight players returning to the offensive side of the ball, Fedora begins his stint in Chapel Hill with plenty of firepower and the spread offense that worked for him at Southern Miss should take flight relatively quickly with the personnel at hand.
Quarterback Bryn Renner had a strong sophomore season, his first as a starter, finishing 10th nationally in passing efficiency, completing just under 70 percent of his throws, for 3,086 yards and 26 TDs.
Fedora expects Renner to handle the offensive changes.
"Bryn is definitely a leader. He's well respected on our football team. He's a hard worker. So he has all the intangibles. Now its whether or not, how quickly he can learn that taking care of the football is going to be the most important thing he does."
Star wideout Dwight Jones (85 receptions, 1,196 yards, 12 TDs) played a big part in last year's success but has moved on. The receiving corps is a little thin, but still has some playmakers in 6-3 senior Erik Highsmith (51 catches, 726 yards, 5 TDs) and 6-2 senior Jheranie Boyd (14 receptions, five TDs).
The immediate impact of newcomer Giovani Bernard is what made everything work for UNC in 2011. The 5-10, 205-pound youngster earned Freshman All-American honors and was a First-Team All-ACC selection after rumbling for 1,253 yards and 13 TDs. He also added 45 receptions for another 362 yards and one score.
Continuity up front will also be a key factor for UNC this year, as 4 starters return to the offensive line, highlighted by the tandem of junior left tackle James Hurst (6-7, 310) and senior left guard Jonathan Cooper (6-3, 305), both Second-Team All-ACC selections in 2011.
A big offensive line isn't exactly what Fedora likes to have with his high- octane offense, but UNC's offensive front has the potential to be special.
"The size is not that big a deal. It's what you have inside of you. You're gonna have to have yourself in shape and you're gonna have to be able to go and sustain it throughout a game. Eventually, they will love the style they are in, because it will be easier for them in the long run."
DEFENSE: The Tar Heels lose six starters on the defensive side of the ball, including some serious star power with the departures of All-Americans Quinton Coples and Zach Brown. Despite the talent level, UNC was a mere 78th nationally in pass defense. Fedora has vowed to change that and hopes the new 4-2-5 system solves the problem.
The Tar Heels have been a revolving door of talent along the defensive front for some time and this season is no different, with talented senior tackle Sylvester Williams (54 tackles, 2.5 sacks last year) and junior rush end Kareem Martin (40 tackles, 4 sacks).
Senior Kevin Reddick (71 tackles, 5 TFLs) will man the middle and lead the way in the linebacking corps, while senior Gene Robinson (49 tackles, one INT) and junior Tre Boston (70 tackles, 3 INTs) will provide the same in the secondary.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Tar Heels missed the steady kicking of two-time All-ACC PK Casey Barth last season, as he missed most of the season with a leg injury. However, Barth returns after earning another year of eligibility and will once again hold down the job in 2012. Barth needs just five field goals to move past his brother Connor as the school's all-time leader. Sophomore Tommy Hibbard will once again handle the punting duties after walking on as a freshman in 2011. Hibbard averaged 39.2 yards per punt last year, downing 16 of his 51 punts inside the 20-yard line.
OUTLOOK: The Tar Heels are not eligible for postseason play this year, but that won't stop Fedora from pulling out all the stops. The Tar Heels will be one of the best teams in the conference and possess a schedule that suits them. The team has a chance to sweep its non-conference slate against the likes of Elon, Louisville, East Carolina and Idaho.
The team also benefits from a manageable ACC slate that includes four winnable road games at Wake Forest, Miami-Florida, Duke and Virginia. The toughest games come in Chapel Hill in the form of Virginia Tech, NC State, Georgia Tech and Maryland and North Carolina can play the role of spoiler each and every week.
Double-digit wins are within reach if everything goes according to plan and that could be just the springboard needed for Fedora as he begins his tenure in Chapel Hill.