Notre Dame Football 2014 Off-Season Preview: North Carolina Tar Heels

Streeter Lecka

The Tar Heels come to South Bend this fall as the 2nd ACC team on the schedule.

NORTH CAROLINA TAR HEELS

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2013 Record: 7-6

F/+ Rank: 38

Wins: Middle Tennessee, Boston College, NC State, Virginia, Pittsburgh, Old Dominion, Cincinnati

Losses: South Carolina, Georgia Tech, East Carolina, Virginia Tech, Miami, Duke

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Season Recap

The Tar Heels lost 5 out of their first 6 games and looked dead in the water by late October. However, they came to life and won 6 out of their last 7 games while averaging 40.5 points per contest down the stretch. Although North Carolina didn't beat a major conference team that won more than 7 games their hot end to 2013 has put them on the Surprise Team for 2014 list for many folks.

Series: 16-2-0 Notre Dame

Both of the Irish losses in this series have occurred in Chapel Hill. North Carolina was a fairly common opponent from 1949 to 1975 when they played Notre Dame 16 times but the only other meetings were a home-and-home series back in 2006/2008. You may recall the last meeting in '08 when Notre Dame had a lead after halftime but a pick six from Jimmy Clausen immediately turned the momentum in UNC's favor.

Coach Resume: Larry Fedora (15-10, 3rd Year)

Fedora has been treading water at North Carolina's recent historical win percentage since his arrival. Amazingly enough, over the past 6 years UNC has won either 7 or 8 games No more, no less. Fedora won 8 games in 2012 and slid back to 7 games last year. He'll be an interesting coach to watch over the next few years. He's already sneaky old at 51 years old (a year younger than Brian Kelly) and is entering only his 7th season as a head coach at this level.

Linemen Situation: Quite Strong

The Tar Heels are only losing left tackle James Hurst from last year's starting lineup. Three other players (center Russell Bodine*, right guard Landon Turner, and right tackle Jon Heck) all return after making every start last season. What's more, left guard Caleb Peterson also returns after missing just one start a year ago.

*Bodine did not come back and was a 4th round pick by Cincinnati.

On the other side of the ball UNC isn't in quite as good of shape, but still solid. Defensive end Kareem Martin (82 tackles, 21.5 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks, 14 QBH) is gone and leaves a fairly big hole. Defensive tackle Tim Jackson also leaves after making 13 starts a year ago although his stats were pretty limited.

Ethan Farmer returns at tackle after making 30 tackles as a starter last year. The talent level in the rising ranks doesn't look awfully talented but there are enough bodies for solid depth. Also, North Carolina gets a lot of pass rushing from their Bandit linebacker Norkeithus Otis who is back after totaling 50 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks, and 9 QBH.

Returning Quarterback: No, but Yes

Bryn Renner came into 2013 having started for two years and looking to build off an impressive redshirt junior campaign. Unfortunately, he fell victim to the Tar Heels poor start and ended up having major shoulder surgery following their 7th game. In stepped Marqise Williams who would go on to start 6 games and finish with a 4-2 record on the season.

Williams did pretty well throwing the ball (1698 yards, 58.1% accuracy, 15 TD, 6 INT) but really offers UNC a lot more athleticism at the quarterback position. In fact, he had 5 games in which he carries the ball at least 15 times and actually led the entire team in carries (111), yards (536), and touchdowns (6).

Biggest Problem for 2014: Finding a New Tight End

North Carolina's roster is looking very solid for 2014, which along with their hot finish last year, is going to feed a lot of hype for the future. One guy who will be very tough to replace is tight end Eric Ebron (top tight end picked in the NFL Draft) who leaves behind 112 receptions, 1,805 receiving yards, and 8 touchdowns in his career.

Biggest Strength for 2014: Running Game

The Tar Heels had a decent run game last year (1,928 yards, 3.93 per rush, 19 TD) and should be much improved in 2014 with a full year of the athletic Marqise Williams at quarterback. Even better, UNC only loses A.J. Blue (3 starts, 74 rushes, 298 yards, 1 TD) and returns 84.5% of their rushing yardage from last year.

They have rising sophomore T.J. Logan who should be a great player. The highly touted recruit totaled 533 yards at an impressive 5.73 yards per carry and led all UNC backs in carries last year. Don't forget North Carolina also has former Irish commit Elijah Hood to add depth and he was enrolled early this spring.

Offensive Scheme: Balanced Spread

Aesthetically the Fedora offense looks a lot like Brian Kelly's except with more bells and whistles. With Renner under center it was a lot like Dayne Crist at Notre Dame, with Williams it's more like Golson. Most of their packages are out of shotgun with some Pistol and Diamond formations plus plenty of motion. The Tar Heels also aren't shy about using tempo.

Special Teams: 4/4

Punter Tommy Hibbard will be coming into his fourth year starting and has been All-ACC second team for the past two seasons. Place kicker Thomas Moore is also entering his senior season and was the team's primary place-kicker last year after seeing some action in parts of 2011 and 2012. He hit 14 of his 19 field goal attempts last year.

A trio of players handled kickoff returns last year and they all return, including Logan and receiver T.J. Thorpe who combined to take almost 80% of the returns. The talented Logan took 2 kicks back for touchdowns in 2013.

Rising sophomore receiver Ryan Switzer is the starter at punt returner following a late-season explosion that saw him take back 5 punts for scores over UNC's final 5 games.

Famous Alum: Davis Love III

The professional golfer was a three-time All-American at North Caroliina. Born in Charlotte, he turned pro in 1985 and has won 20 events on the PGA Tour, including the 1997 PGA Championship. As of his latest event in 2014 Love has amassed nearly $43 million in career earnings.

Random Stat: 544

This was North Carolina's punt return yardage from last year which led the nation. Somewhat shockingly (or maybe not) is that Notre Dame has only totaled 521 punt return yardage since the beginning of the 2009 season. As noted above Ryan Switzer scored 5 punt return touchdowns and he did so on scores of 85, 65, 61, 64, and 86 yards. With Switzer totaling 502 of UNC's yards that means he gained 71.9% of his production on five runs. His other 19 returns went for a total of 141 yards.

Summary

If there's a game on the schedule this year outside of the usual suspects (FSU, Stanford, USC) that looks like it could be a loss I'd guess North Carolina is at or near the top of the list. Including Marqise Williams as a returning starter the Tar Heels have 14 total starters returning and are poised to enter 2014 with a great mix of veterans and young talent.


It also makes matters worse that this game is sandwiched between Stanford and Florida State. With a win over Stanford we're looking at a classic let down game against a quality North Carolina team. With a loss to Stanford we could be looking at a possible 3-game losing streak with a road trip to Tallahassee following this UNC game.

So let's get used to the talk about not underrating this Tar Heel team.

One good thing from Notre Dame's point of view is that North Carolina won't have an easy schedule leading up to our game. The Heels have to travel to pesky East Carolina in week 4, back on the road at Clemson the next week, and host Virginia Tech before coming to South Bend.

If UNC can figure out a couple things on defense--most notably replace a couple starters on the line and in the secondary--and find greater consistency from the quarterback position I absolutely believe this team has 10-win potential. Even with 6 losses last year they still finished inside the Top 40 in F/+ which is a good indicator this is not a club to be taken lightly.

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