CHAPEL HILL – Larry Fedora’s second full year with North Carolina resulted in the UNC’s first top-20 class since 2009, according to the rankings at Scout.com.
The Tar Heels Class of 2014 features four four-star recruits – running back Elijah Hood, tackle Bentley Spain, defensive end Jeremiah Clarke and quarterback Caleb Henderson.
Hood and Spain were two of 90 players selected for the U.S. Army All-American Bowl.
The haul gives Fedora nine four-star recruits in his two seasons here – on par with the 11 that Butch Davis recruited in the 2010-11 recruiting classes.
Fedora still hasn’t nabbed a Scout.com five-star recruit, but for every James Hurst, there’s also a Kiaro Holts. Holts, considered the No. 3 offensive tackle in the country when he arrived in 2011, couldn’t win an open competition at right tackle during training camp this year.
Then he didn’t even see the field after clipping South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney in the season-opener.
Talent Returns Next Season
If any number from the 2013 season should bring smiles to Carolina fans, it’s the number 26. The last 26 touchdowns from the regular season – and 42 out of 50 (84 percent) overall – were scored by players who will be returning next season.
It wasn’t just a few players, either.
Sophomore Marquise Williams scored five rushing touchdowns and one receiving touchdown in his four games after Bryn Renner’s season-ending injury. Sophomore Quinshad Davis found the end zone in eight different games, finishing with a team-high 10 touchdowns.
Freshman T.J. Logan scored four touchdowns (three rushing, one on a kickoff return) in one game against Old Dominion. Freshman Ryan Switzer had four punt returns for touchdowns while catching three others.
Other contributors to the total at receiver were red zone threat Bug Howard (four touchdowns), sophomore T.J. Thorpe (two) – who came back after missing all of last year with a foot injury – and freshman Khris Francis, who got in the end zone rushing and receiving.
The streak at the end of the season doesn’t even include touchdowns from sophomore Romar Morris, who had three in the first three games before he was limited by injuries.
Clearly, the production by the underclassmen bodes well for next year.
“It shows the talent we have in our class and where this program can go in the next couple years,” Switzer said.
The 26-straight touchdowns by returning players also means that, while junior tight end Eric Ebron was certainly the biggest weapon on offense, the Tar Heels might not miss him as much as it might seem. Ebron led the team in catches (55) and receiving yards (895), but he only had 11 receptions in his final four games once Williams became the starter.
It may also help to have a true dual-threat quarterback running Fedora’s offense. While Renner was one of the most accurate and productive passers in Carolina history, a history of foot injuries and a general lack of speed didn’t make designed runs an option.
But Williams led the team in rushing in six of the final eight games, ending with a career-high 104 yards on 16 carries against Duke.
“We want a dual-threat guy,” offensive coordinator Blake Anderson said. “We’ve made it work without him. There were games when we went up and down the field with Bryn as a pocket guy. So not that you can’t do it, but it is more natural with us to have a dual-threat guy. It’s what we try to recruit.
“It’s not an excuse for the offense not to work, but it does free up some things. A lot more of a challenge for the defense to deal with that, and it definitely makes you more balanced.”
No matter who wins the starting job going forward – Williams or Mitch Trubisky, who redshirted this year but was named Mr. Football in Ohio by the Associated Press and was rated the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in his class by 247sports.com – Fedora will continue to have a more versatile player behind center next season.
The youth movement also explains why UNC struggled to a 1-5 start before rebounding with a 5-1 finish. Early on, the Tar Heels hurt themselves on offense with self-inflicted wounds, whether it was busted protections on the line, penalties that resulted in touchdowns being called back in three straight games or misreads and dropped balls that stalled the passing game.
Those mistakes decreased as the season went along and an offensive line with three new starters continued to gel – although UNC still finished as the most penalized team in the ACC.
Presumably, Carolina can continue the momentum on to next season – especially if a fully healthy Logan or top recruit Hood can become a dependable every-game starter at running back.
It will also help that the offensive line gets everyone back except left tackle Hurst.
The defense will have much more rebuilding to do. The top player on almost every unit is moving on – defensive end Kareem Martin, defensive tackle Tim Jackson, cornerback Jabari Price and safety Tre Boston.
All 10 players who lined up against Duke in the linebacker and hybrid positions (ram and bandit) return, led by starters Travis Hughes, Jeff Schoettmer, Norkeithus Otis and Malik Simmons. The depth should also allow Jack Tabb to move back to offense full-time, where he should take over for Ebron as the starting tight end.
This year’s 6-6 campaign may be seen as a disappointment following last year’s 8-4 season. On the other hand, making a bowl game after a 1-5 start – Rutgers in 2008 was the only other BCS team to accomplish that feat since the 12-game schedule was implemented in 2006 – provides reason for optimism, especially considering how Renner missed five games.
Fedora’s 2-0 record against N.C. State balances out his inexplicable 0-2 record against Duke – giving the Blue Devils their first bowl appearance in 18 years last season and their first-ever Coastal Division title this season. UNC’s embarrassing lack of effort in a 55-31 loss to East Carolina will also be balanced out by the fact that the team didn’t quit at 1-5, and instead put together its longest winning streak since 2001.