Every football team has certain positions and players that have a tremendous impact on the outcome of a game. These may not be the best players on the team or the worst players on the team, but they make the biggest difference in terms of team success. Here are the three biggest keys for the Tar Heels in 2017:
1. The defensive secondary
2016 was a somewhat unusual season for the Tar Heel’s secondary. Carolina allowed the 12th fewest passing yards per game in the country during 2016 (180.8 ypg) while only allowing 11 passing touchdowns in 13 games. However, they only managed to grab one interception the entire season.
You read that right: one interception.
Things are going to need to change for the Carolina defense if the team wants to succeed in 2017. While the coaching staff and fans would surely accept the same amount of yards per game, the amount of interceptions is going to have to increase.
The Tar Heels will be a team in 2017 that relies heavily on its defense. Since well over 90% of last year’s offensive production is gone, the defense must step up if the team has a shot at succeeding. That means that it won’t just be enough to hold opposing offenses to low scores, the secondary will have to cause turnovers and create great field position for the offense. Potentially, the defense might even have to score a few points itself.
The potential solution is MJ Stewart. He has been the starting corner at Carolina for the past two seasons, and he has been incredible. While he didn’t have any interceptions last season, he has six in his entire career. If Stewart can force more turnovers while maintaining the same level of coverage, Carolina’s secondary will be scary.
If MJ Stewart and fellow senior Donnie Miles can create a few more turnovers than they did last year, the Tar Heel defense can will the team to victory. However, if they are unable to create easy opportunities for the offense, the team will have a tough year.
2. The offensive line
The offensive line may not be the most exciting position in football, but it is certainly one of the most important. Without the offensive line running backs would have nowhere to run, and quarterbacks would have no time to throw. An offense is as good as its line.
As of right now, the offensive line is more important than ever for the Tar Heels. The offense will be breaking in a new quarterback, running back, and many new receivers, so having a solid offensive line will be vital. Naturally, it will take less experienced players more time to make decisions on a football field, so the line providing plenty of time will be essential.
The Heels only return two of the five offensive line starters from last year, but graduate transfers Cam Dillard and Khaliel Rodgers will bring valuable experience to the line. In 2016, Carolina ranked 30th in the nation in sacks allowed by only giving up 20 sacks, so they will certainly be looking to build off of this into next year.
If the coaching staff can successfully integrate the graduate transfers into the offense, the offensive line may turn from a question mark into a strength. A strong offensive line will likely make up for, or at least ease the pain of, having such an inexperienced offense elsewhere.
3. The quarterback
Heading into fall camp, head coach Larry Fedora is faced with an ongoing quarterback battle that might not end anytime soon. Brandon Harris, Nathan Elliott, Chazz Surratt, and Logan Byrd are all battling to be the starting quarterback on September 2nd, and coach Fedora has not indicated who that will be.
The two favorites to win the starting position are Harris and Elliott, but neither one has separated themselves enough to be a clear favorite. Interestingly, Elliott was taking snaps with the first team during the first day of fall camp, while Harris was with the second team. This could be a hint at who the starter will be against Cal, but it could also just be due to Harris not being familiar with the playbook yet.
Regardless of who is the Heels’ quarterback in 2017, they are going to have massive shoes to fill. Last year Mitch Trubisky three for over 3,700 yards while rushing for over 300 yards. Trubisky was the centerpiece of Carolina’s explosive defense, so whoever takes over at his position will most likely also have to carry the load offensively.
No matter who is the starting quarterback when the season begins, they will need to step up immediately. Without quality quarterback play, the Heels stand little to no chance at making a bowl game.