In 2014 the Coastal Division is wide open and one of Miami’s main challengers for the throne will be the North Carolina Tar Heels. Canes Warning teamed up John Bauman, the editor of FanSided’s UNC blog, Keeping It Heel, to give both blogs’ readers some background on a key Coastal opponent. John was kind enough to answer some questions for us about the 2014 Tar Heels, including why they struggled to beat good teams last year, which newcomers we can expect to make a meaningful impact and if he thinks Carolina can win the Coastal. You can see my answers to similar questions about the Hurricanes over on Keeping It Heel by clicking here.
CW: Last year, the Tar Heels finished 0-6 against Top 50 opposition (South Carolina, GT, ECU, VT, Miami, Duke), including a couple of painful close losses. What held the Tar Heels back against their best competition last year and can it be corrected this go around?
JB: Sometimes when you lose, a team is more talented than you (South Carolina) or just plays harder and wants it more (ECU). But sometimes, it’s a few key plays between two even teams that decide the winner. In the four conference losses mentioned above, UNC was on the wrong side of those key plays each time. Against Virginia Tech, Ryan Switzer had an 81 yard punt return called back for an illegal block. If that penalty flag never gets thrown, who knows what happens in a game in which Carolina only lost by 10? Against Miami, as I’m sure Canes fans remember, the Heels just couldn’t get a stop on the Hurricanes final drive. They also couldn’t pick up a first down when they needed one to ice the game in the fourth quarter, and a botched time out didn’t help the cause. What if UNC gets one more first down in the fourth quarter of that Thursday night game?
What held the Heels back was little things done wrong that became the difference in the game. Be it coaching errors, secondary miscommunications, penalty flags or interceptions, Carolina had a lot of bad breaks last year. But those things tend to even themselves out over time. A young 2013 Carolina team becomes more experienced in 2014. Hopefully that added experience can help the Tar Heels be on the right side of those key plays more often this upcoming season.
CW: After filling in solidly for Bryn Renner last season, what do UNC fans expect from Marquise Williams in 2014?
JB: Marquise Williams filled in admirably for Bryn Renner, stepping in and giving new life to an offense that had stalled out far too many times in the first half of the 2013 season. What dual-threat QB Williams did was give the Tar Heel attack another dimension, which helped open up the entire offense. Williams’s ability to execute the read-option or scramble for eight yards on third down gave defensive coordinators one more thing to think about. However, for all that Williams adds to the Tar Heel offense on the ground, he isn’t a perfect fit when the offense attacks through the air. He struggled throwing the deep ball and hitting his receivers at times last season, and those misses really hurt, especially in the Duke game. Williams has gone to work this offseason to improve on his passing, heading to the Manning Passing Academy to work on his throws, so Heels fans hope that he adds an improved arm to his already strong legs in 2014.
CW: Who can step up to replace the production of Eric Ebron (a name Hurricanes fans are all too familiar with) from last season?
JB: Of all the departures of seniors and NFL bound prospects, Eric Ebron is actually the one that I worry least about heading into this season. The loss of Russell Bodine and James Hurst will hurt a lot on the offensive line, as the Heels don’t have much experience to turn to when looking to replace them. We will focus on the defensive players in the next question, but the other players UNC lost last season were all key cogs that will be really hard to replace. That’s not to say Eric Ebron wasn’t important or good last season, because he was both of those. I just feel really comfortable with the options North Carolina has to replace his production.
Quinshad Davis is set for a breakout season in 2014 after solid freshman and sophomore seasons. He showed glimpses of his potential on a cold fall night in Charlottesville in 2012, when he caught 16 passes and tied school and ACC records for receptions in the process. He was the number two option a year ago as Eric Ebron shined for Carolina, and now it’s his turn to step up and have a big year. Other names to replace Ebron include 6’4” Jonathan “Bug” Howard, who shined against N.C. State with five catches, and Ryan Switzer, who made his name on special teams but looks to translate that same dynamic speed to the wide receiver position.
CW: UNC returns much of its above-average defense from a year ago, but said goodbye to important players, notably Kareem Martin and Tre Boston, after 2013. How do you see this unit’s performance relative to last season?
JB: I think we can expect some improvement as the team’s younger starters continue to grow and develop. The secondary is one of the youngest positions, with Brian Walker, Des Lawrence, Malik Simmons and Dominique Green all playing a big part in last year’s defense as underclassmen. I expect improvement from all of those guys to the point that despite the loss of safety Tre Boston, the secondary will become one of the stronger spots for the Tar Heel defense for the next few years.
The loss of Kareem Martin will hurt a lot with the pass rush. Martin went into beast mode in the second half of last season, always pestering the opposing quarterback in the backfield. Without him, the pass rush must lean on Norkeithus Otis in 2014 to be that “number one” option. Otis has potential, and was named to multiple award watch lists this spring, but struggles to generate a consistent pass rush and can disappear for stretches during games. If new pass rushers Justin Thomason and Jessie Rogers can consistently fight into the backfield along with Otis, I think the defense should see a slight overall improvement from 2013.
CW: In a wide open Coastal Division, is this the year that a Tar Heels team with some sizable hype can finally grab the division crown?
JB: In year three of the Larry Fedora era in Chapel Hill, Tar Heel fans are hoping that this will be the year Carolina breaks the 10 win barrier and fights their way to an ACC Coastal Division Championship, or in other words, the right to be bullied by Florida State in Charlotte. The schedule sets up favorably, with the first four weeks of the season getting progressively harder, with a bye week thrown in before a revenge game against ECU. Those first four weeks will be key for the defense to work out the kinks and for the offensive line to gain experience and confidence. That early period to work out kinks is something Carolina never had last year, with a road match against South Carolina coming up first on the 2013 schedule.
Games four through six are brutal, however- at Clemson, home against Virginia Tech, at Notre Dame. Those three games will swing the season. Win two or three of those, and a breakout season is in the works. Go 0-3, and Carolina will be headed back to 6-6 or 7-5 again. I think the conference race comes down to three games. If the Tar Heels can go 3-0 or 2-1 against Virginia Tech, Miami and Duke, this could be the year that the Heels break through and grab the Coastal crown.
Thanks to John for taking the time to answer our questions. You can follow @KeepingItHeel on Twitter to stay up to date on North Carolina.