NCAA Football Preview - North Carolina Tar Heels

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Updated: 8/19/2013 9:22 am

At 1-2, the Tar Heels started to find their way, reeling off four straight wins, knocking off non-conference foes East Carolina (27-6) and Idaho (66-0), followed by big conference wins over both Virginia Tech (48-34) and Miami- Florida (18-14). The momentum was halted though in late October with a stunning 33-30 loss to rival Duke, but again, UNC was able to turn things around, finishing the year with wins in three of its last four games, topping NC State (43-35), Virginia (37-13) and Maryland (45-38), with the lone loss during that span coming in a wild shootout with Georgia Tech (68-50).

2013 ANALYSIS:

OFFENSE: The Tar Heels certainly didn't take long to pick up Fedora's fast- paced offense, as the team set school records in 2012 for scoring (487 points) and points per game (40.6). However, matching those numbers won't be easy this year, as the team has lost some star power to the NFL.

Gone are All-Americans Giovani Bernard and Jonathan Cooper. Still, the hope is that an offense that returns six starters, including an emerging star under center in Bryn Renner, can find a way to remain productive.

Renner was outstanding in 2012, completing over 65 percent of his passes, for 3,356 yards, with 28 touchdowns against just seven interceptions.

Fedora commented on Renner's evolution under center at the ACC media event in July.

"He really can take this thing where it's never been before. He really can, because he has the arm strength, because he has the knowledge, because he feels comfortable, now he can just play. He can just play. He doesn't have to worry. I think last year he felt like he had the whole team on his shoulders a lot of times, especially early in the year, and I think that pressure really got to him because he's very competitive, a very fiery guy, so I think this year is just going to be a whole lot smoother for him."

The team does have to replace Erik Highsmith (54 catches, 587 yards, five TDs) in the receiving corps, but both wideout Quinshad Davis (61 receptions, 776 yards, five TDs) and tight end Eric Ebron (40 receptions, 625 yards, four TDs) are back in the fold. Davis set a freshman record with his 61 catches. Ebron was a Second-Team All-ACC selection a year ago and is one of the top tight ends in the nation heading into 2013.

Fedora also expects a big season out of Ebron.

"He's going to give me 12 touchdowns, I can tell you that. I don't know how many catches he's going to get or how many yards, but he will have the opportunity to do those things, but more importantly to me he's going to give me 12 touchdowns. What he gets beyond that, that's up to him. Eric can be in my opinion he can be the best tight end in college football this next year."

The real concern has to be the early departure of Bernard, who dominated in every aspect of the game, as a runner, receiver and return man. The hope is that sophomore tailback Romar Morris (5-10, 185) can provide some of the same elusiveness that Bernard brought to the field. Morris will be complemented by senior A.J. Blue (6-2, 215), who has proven to be a valuable commodity in the past.

The offensive line in Chapel Hill will have to be revamped with only two starters returning, but both junior center Russell Bodine (6-4, 305) and left tackle James Hurst (6-7, 305) are a nice nucleus to build around. Hurst earned First-Team All-ACC honors a year ago, after garnering second-team honors in 2011.

DEFENSE: The Tar Heels return seven starters from last season on defense, but must also replace some serious talent, as both linebacker Kevin Reddick (85 tackles, 12.0 TFL, 6.5 sacks) and defensive tackle Sylvester Williams (42 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 6.0 sacks) have moved on.

Senior free safety Tre Boston is a veteran leader that this unit will need to count on this season. The 6-1, 205-pound Boston led UNC in tackles a year ago (86) and tied cornerback Tim Scott for the team lead in interceptions with four.

The linebacking corps has seen turnover and someone will need to step up. Junior LB Tommy Heffernan (73 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks) had a breakout sophomore season and should see increased playing time in 2013. Senior rush end Kareem Martin (40 tackles, 15.5 TFL, 4.0 sacks) showed flashes of strong play last season and could be a more consistent force coming off the edge this year.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Second-Team All-ACC place kicker Casey Barth is no longer available for UNC. The punting situation is a little more stabilized with the return of Tommy Hibbard. The 5-10, 190-pounder had a strong sophomore season in 2012, earning a spot on the All-ACC Second-Team after averaging 43 yards per punt, while putting 19 of his 50 attempts inside the opponent's 20-yard line.

OUTLOOK: Fedora will get a real good look at exactly where his team is right off the bat, as North Carolina opens the season at SEC power South Carolina. The remainder of the non-conference slate is mild in comparison, with home dates against Middle Tennessee and East Carolina early on and another in late November against FCS foe Old Dominion.

ACC action that comes to Chapel Hill will include Miami-Florida, Boston College, Virginia and Duke. The road slate however, will tell the tale for UNC, as treks to Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, NC State and Pittsburgh should define the Tar Heels' season and determine their postseason fortunes.

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