CHARLOTTE — Questions surround the North Carolina football team ahead of the 2017 season, but Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora remains adamant about the program’s mission.
“No matter what the expectations are on the outside, we still expect to compete for a Coastal Division championship,” Fedora said on Friday during the Atlantic Coast Conference’s preseason media event in Charlotte.
The Tar Heels are set to lose most of their offensive production from last season, including quarterback Mitch Trubsiky, who was taken by the Chicago Bears with the No. 2 pick in April’s NFL draft.
UNC has won 19 games over the past two seasons, including a Coastal Division title in 2015. Despite the roster turnover, the Tar Heels’ sixth-year head coach expects more of the same success this season.
For, perhaps, the first time during Fedora’s tenure, UNC’s strength will be its veteran defense. The Tar Heels return their top three tacklers in linebackers Cole Holcomb, Andre Smith and safety Donnie Miles.
But the defense will have to do it under new defensive coordinator John Papuchis, the former linebackers coach who replaced Gene Chizik. Chizik resigned in February.
Veteran cornerback M.J. Stewart described the transition as “smooth,” citing the similarities of both coaches. He also said the team was “hungry” to prove it can stand up to the challenge of competing after losing so much on the offensive side of the ball.
“I would consider it an honor that the team is relying on the defense this year,” said Stewart, who last season led the Tar Heels with 11 pass breakups and recovered three fumbles.
“To be the backbone of a team, like I said, it’s an honor. So we’re going to take that head on, and we use that as motivation defensively to show people that we’re one of the best defenses in the nation.
Fedora sees the offensive questions as an opportunity.
“I think it’s around 18 years of running this offense (and) I’ve never experienced this. It’s a little bit unknown for me,” he said. “We’re going to find out. I think our staff has done a good job of recruiting. I think there’s a lot of guys that you may recognize their name from recruiting but you’ve never seen them on the field.
“It’s time for them to step up. It’s time for them. It’s their opportunity to become a household name.”
Brandon Harris, a graduate transfer frm LSU, is the favorite to replace Trubisky at quarterback. Chazz Surratt, Logan Byrd and Nathan Elliott, who served as Trubisky’s backup last season, are also competing for the starting job.
“The guy that’s going to win that job is going to be a guy that can lead our football team, one,” Fedora said. “He’s got to be able to make good decisions and take care of the football, and if he does those things — keeps moving those chains beyond the white lines — then he can be a guy that can help us be successful.”
The Tar Heels will also be replacing their top three running backs — Elijah Hood, T.J. Logan and Khris Francis — and three of their best receivers — Ryan Switzer, Mack Hollins and Bug Howard.
Austin Proehl, the team’s senior receiver, returns as the most experienced and productive offensive player. As a junior, Proehl finished as UNC’s third-leading receiver with 597 yards and three touchdowns.
“It’s hard any time you lose guys of that caliber, but it’s something that we do in college football every year,” Fedora said. “You have a group of seniors that leave, so you hope you’ve done a good job of recruiting. You hope you’ve done a good job of establishing your culture so that the kids understand what it means to be a Tar Heel, what the expectation level is.”
And as a senior leader, Stewart embraces and understands Fedora’s expectations.
“There are so many questions surrounding our team, quarterback situation, the production that left, the defense, how we’re going to hold up and be the backbone, so many questions. And you know, we use that as a team to motivate us, and we have people saying we’re going to be under seven wins. I think the prediction was like fifth in the Coastal Division.
“We just use that as motivation, and I constantly remind the guys that we are a team that needs to be reckoned with in the ACC, and the guys really take that on, and they work hard and we work hard all summer. And we’re going to continue to work hard through training camp and be one of the best teams in the ACC and in the country.”
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.