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Dr. Jason Staples has covered college football since 2007. You can follow him on Twitter @DocStaples and check out more of his work at InsideCarolina.com.
When North Carolina steps onto the Kenan Stadium football field to open its 2017 season against the California Golden Bears, fans should be forgiven if they need a program to identify all the new faces in key roles. Gone are No. 2 overall NFL draft pick Mitchell Trubisky and a group of offensive playmakers who set the UNC offensive record book on fire the last two seasons, including running backs Elijah Hood and T. J. Logan and receivers Mack Hollins, Ryan Switzer and Bug Howard — not to mention three starters from the offensive line.
As a result of this roster turnover at the most recognizable spots, Carolina begins 2017 with many unknowns and uncertainties—nowhere bigger than at the quarterback position, where head coach Larry Fedora still declined to name a starter as of Monday’s press conference.
No, Trubisky is not walking through that door anymore—nor is Marquise Williams, for that matter. But there is no shortage of talent at the position, with senior LSU transfer Brandon Harris, redshirt freshman Chazz Surratt, and redshirt sophomore Nathan Elliott listed together atop the depth chart.
In this respect, the quarterback position is a fitting microcosm for an offense that has plenty of exciting young talent. But at present, the emphasis must be placed upon young rather than talent, and that will be the case until we get our first looks at who will begin to fill the roles vacated by the departed stars.
One thing does seem to be evident. Expect to see Carolina return to using its quarterback more as a runner in 2017 as a way to offset some of the inevitable regression in the passing game after Trubisky’s departure.
PROGRAM MOMENTUM AND RECRUITING
A successful 2017 season is especially important for maintaining the necessary momentum for UNC to take the next step as a program. The success of the past two seasons has helped lead to one of Carolina’s strongest recruiting starts in recent memory, with UNC emerging from the summer with verbal commitments from five blue-chip prospects: LB Payton Wilson (Hillsborough Orange HS), WR Jordyn Adams (Cary Green Hope), QB Tyler Shough (Chandler, Arizona), WR Dyami Brown (West Mecklenburg), and OL Avery Brown (Havelock). Several other blue chippers continue to list the Tar Heels among their favorites, and signs of continued growth on the field could be the difference in landing one or two more difference makers for the future.
GRADUATE TRANSFERS ABOUND
Harris isn’t the only key graduate transfer on the offensive side of the ball. Other new faces who started their careers at other programs include starting center Cam Dillard (Florida) and backups Stanton Truitt (RB, Auburn) and Khaliel Rodgers (OG, Southern California).
PRIORITY ON DEFENSE
On the flip side, the time is now on the defensive side of the ball, which returns as much talent and experience — particularly up front — as any UNC team in the Fedora era. The injuries that ravaged the 2016 defensive front have resulted in a deeper, more experienced unit in 2017, which should allow new defensive coordinator John Papuchis to apply more pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
As jarring as it may be for a Fedora-coached team, the 2017 Tar Heels will need to depend on its defense, particularly early in the year while the offensive newcomers find their feet.
The Tar Heel defense will be tested right out of the gate, opening with the aforementioned Cal, which was No. 22 nationally in scoring offense in 2016, and then hosting Louisville and reigning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson. In other words, it will not take long for many of the unknowns of the preseason to be answered.