If there’s a central theme to college football spring practice in North Carolina this year, it’s “New.”
That’s new as in the four first-year coaches that will spend the next few weeks getting to know their personnel and installing their systems at North Carolina, East Carolina, Appalachian State and Charlotte.
But Mack Brown, Mike Houston, Eliah Drinkwitz and Will Healy aren’t the only ones dealing with unfamiliar faces and circumstances. Even at NC State, where Dave Doeren is preparing for his seventh season with the Wolfpack, there is plenty of new to go around thanks to the departure of four assistant coaches and a number of key players on both sides of the ball.
Here’s a look at all seven of the state’s FBS programs and what they’re hoping to accomplish during their 15 all-important offseason workouts:
The Wolfpack’s most immediate goal is restocking an offense that lost its starting quarterback, top two receivers, leading rusher and three offensive linemen to graduation or early entry into the NFL Draft. Complicating matters is the turnover on Doeren’s offensive staff.
With Drinkwitz now at App State, running backs coach Des Kitchings and wide receivers coach George McDonald have been elevated to co-offensive coordinators while Kurt Roper (quarterbacks), Todd Goebbel (tight ends/fullbacks) and John Garrison (line) are all new to the program.
A fourth newcomer, Tony Gibson, was hired as State’s co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach.
Of that group, Roper figures to have the most challenging assignment trying to develop and decide between four inexperienced candidates — holdovers Matthew McKay and Devin Leary, junior college transfer Bailey Hockman and incoming freshman Ty Evans — to replace soon-to-be NFL Draft pick Ryan Finley under center.
The good news is that all four, including the two new arrivals, are already enrolled in school and are eligible to take part in spring drills. The biggest question will be how practice repetitions will be split among the group.
Despite all the changes, Doeren said he doesn’t plan to run his spring practice any differently than in the past.
“Each year you’re tweaking how you’re practice, trying to make it better to fit the needs of your team,” Doeren said. “But it’s a long process between now and August.”
Although Brown has plenty of personnel decisions to make in his much-heralded return engagement with the Tar Heels, his biggest challenge is changing the culture of a program coming off two straight nine-loss seasons under previous coach Larry Fedora.
His first step has been flushing the recent past and giving everyone on the team — both old and new — a fresh start.
“I told them yesterday that we would never mention four years ago, three years ago, two years ago or last year again,” Brown said on the opening day of spring drills at UNC’s new indoor practice facility last Sunday. “It’s a new team. So this team hasn’t lost a game, and this team has a chance to start out right with a new era.
“They have a chance to leave their seniors with a legacy moving forward and that’s what they want to do, and I felt like they had that attitude today. So we’re not going to talk about the past anymore, good or bad.”
Like State, the Tar Heels will also be looking for a quarterback to emerge from a large group of contenders. Two players that won’t be in the mix are former starters Chazz Surratt, who has added significant bulk to his frame and has shifted to the defensive side of the ball to play linebacker, and Nathan Elliott, who opted to be a graduate assistant at Arkansas State rather than player one more season in Chapel Hill.
Outside of the quarterback position, Brown and his staff’s most pressing concerns are finding someone to replace leading receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams and completely rebuilding a defensive line that lost all four starters.
In keeping with a common theme among state ACC programs, the Blue Devils are also in need of a new quarterback after Daniel Jones decided to forgo his senior season for the draft. Coach David Cutcliffe must also find replacements for his two best defensive players, linebackers Joe Giles-Harris and Ben Humphreys.
There is, however, plenty of returning talent still in the fold, especially at running back where second-team All-ACC selection Deon Jackson and equally talented fellow junior Brittain Brown are both back. Duke also has five of its new recruits in camp to get a head start on their preparations.
“As you look at us, we have to figure out who our best 11 on either side of the ball are,” said Cutcliffe, whose team is coming off an 8-5 season that ended with an Independence Bowl win against Temple. “There’s competition. That’s a good thing.”
There’s a particular urgency in that this year, since the Blue Devils’ first game is against perennial powerhouse Alabama in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic.
Unlike their in-state rivals, the Deacons are set at quarterback. In fact, their problem will be deciding between rising sophomore Sam Hartman, who started the first nine games before being injured, and his replacement Jamie Newman, who led Wake to wins in three of its last four games — including a Birmingham Bowl victory against Memphis.
Although coach Dave Clawson will have some specific concerns, such as replacing dynamic All-ACC receiver and kick returner Greg Dortch, along with both starting safeties, his emphasis will be more on improvement than competition for positions.
“Spring football is one my favorite times of the year just because this is really where the player development happens,” Clawson said. “This is where you can take time and teach fundamentals. You can develop players, you can teach them the systems, you can have a little bit more — or a lot more — patience than we can have in the fall.”
Drinkwitz has some big shoes to fill in replacing Scott Satterfield, who left for Louisville after leading the Mountaineers to bowls in their first four seasons as an FBS program. The former NC State offensive coordinator will have some talented pieces with which to work in quarterback Zac Thomas, leading rusher Darrynton Evans and seven other All-Sun Belt Conference selections.
A bulk of the attention this spring will be on defense, where there are significant holes to fill on both the line and cornerback — where both starters from last season are gone.
Houston has the luxury of knowing who his starting quarterback will be thanks to the emergence of rising star Holton Ahlers last season. But he and his new staff have got a lot of work ahead of them with virtually every other position group once the Pirates begin spring practice on March 15.
The most glaring areas of need are at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, especially offensively to provide protection for Ahlers, the program’s most valuable asset.
Healy takes over a program that showed improvement last season after winning just one game under former coach Brad Lambert in 2017. He also inherits a roster than that includes a solid running back in Benny LeMay, a promising young quarterback in Chris Reynolds, an explosive wide receiver in Victor Tucker and a defense that ranked ninth nationally against the run.
In order to take the next step and help the 49ers earn the first bowl bid in program history, Healy and his staff will have to spend the spring working to improve a pass defense that was the 49ers’ downfall in most of its seven losses.