Spring practice gives college teams early look at 2020 fall rosters

North Carolina’s seven FBS schools are trying to find answers before the season

Appalachian State coach Shawn Clark led the Mountaineers to a New Orleans Bowl win in his first game as coach and has a wealth of returning pieces for the 2020 season. (Brett Duke / AP Photo)

College basketball is rapidly heading toward Selection Sunday and baseball season is just now getting into the swing of things. But for football coaches and fans across the state, the next month is the most important time of the year until their own games begin in September.

Spring football means different things to each program depending on the number of players they have returning and what they’re trying to accomplish over the 15 offseason workouts allowed by the NCAA.

At North Carolina, it’s an opportunity to fine-tune an offense and defense that could potentially challenge for an ACC Coastal Division title after making major strides in Mack Brown’s first season back with the Tar Heels.

For coach Dave Doeren and NC State, it’s a chance to put last year’s 4-8 disappointment into the past, get five new assistants up to speed with their personnel and perhaps find some clarity in a murky quarterback situation.

Appalachian State, meanwhile, will be making yet another transition as Shawn Clark takes over as its third coach in as many years.

In between those extremes, Duke, Wake Forest, East Carolina and Charlotte will all be donning the pads and beginning the work they hope will result in a successful 2020 season.

Here’s a look at what to expect from the state seven FBS teams.

UNC

Brown’s arrival completely changed the vibe around the Tar Heels’ locker room almost from the day he arrived. Gone is the negativity that hung over the program for the final two seasons of Larry Fedora’s tenure and in its place is a belief that UNC is poised for a breakout season this fall.

It has the horses to do more than just return to a bowl, with 10 of 11 starters on offense coming back, including ACC Rookie of the Year quarterback Sam Howell, 1,000-yard receivers Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown, and running backs Michael Carter and Javonte Williams.

With so much returning talent on the offensive side of the ball, much of the focus this spring will be on restocking a defense that has holes to fill on both the line and secondary. The good news is that converted quarterback Chazz Surratt, the ACC’s leading tackler last season, has decided to return for his senior season.

NC State

Doeren cleaned house after last season, completely revamping his staff with changes that include new coordinators on both sides of the ball.

On defense, at least, Tony Gibson was already in the program and has a good handle on what needs to be done — especially on a line that graduated three key contributors and lost two others to transfer. Offensively, new coordinator Tim Beck comes from Texas looking to breathe some life into an attack that averaged an ACC-low 16 points per game against conference competition in 2019.

The biggest question coming into the spring is at quarterback, where Devin Leary and Bailey Hockman both got playing time last season. They’ll be battling redshirt freshman Ty Evans and early enrolling true freshman Ben Finley — brother of former Wolfpack starter Ryan Finley — for the starting job.

Wake Forest

Like UNC, the Deacons return a large number of key performers from a team that set records on its way to a fourth straight bowl appearance — including three first-team All-ACC selections.

End Carlos “Boogie” Basham, who led the ACC with 18 tackles for loss and was second in the league with 11 sacks last season, headlines a defense that returns 11 upperclassmen. Offensively, wide receiver Sage Surratt — Chazz’s younger brother — is back and healthy again from the shoulder injury that prevented him from leading the conference in receptions, while kicker Nick Sciba is well on his way toward becoming the leading scorer in school history.

Despite losing starter Jamie Newman as a graduate transfer to Georgia, the Deacons are set at quarterback, where junior Sam Hartman has thrown for 23 touchdowns in his 13 career games to date. The biggest concern this spring will be developing a line to protect him after losing All-ACC tackle Justin Herron and two other starters.

Duke

Coach David Cutcliffe has not yet announced his team’s spring practice schedule. But once he does, the Blue Devils will go through it without the quarterback penciled in to be their starter in 2020 — Clemson graduate transfer Chase Brice.

In addition to working to develop a backup, Cutcliffe and new offensive line coach Greg Frey will also concentrate on getting reps for a young offensive front that struggled at times in 2019. The receiving corps is also young, but there is some talent and experience there with Jalon Calhoun, Eli Pancol and Darrell Harding Jr. all having gotten playing time as true freshmen.

Defensively, the outlook is much more settled with a bulk of the starters back, especially up front — where 22 of 36 sacks return — and in the secondary.

East Carolina

Coach Mike Houston’s second spring will have a heavy emphasis on improving a defense that was the Pirates’ glaring weakness a year ago. Blake Harrell has replaced Bob Trott as the Pirates’ sixth defensive coordinator in the past six years, and his job this spring will be finding a scheme to fit the personnel returning from a unit that ranked 11th in the 12-team American Athletic Conference and 111th nationally in scoring defense, allowing an average of 33.7 points per game.

On the other side of the ball, the task is much more defined — continue to build what has the potential to be an explosive offensive unit around the talents of junior quarterback Holton Ahlers.

Appalachian State

Clark, the Mountaineers’ longtime offensive line coach, inherits a veteran roster from one-and-done Eliah Drinkwitz. Eight starters, including quarterback Zac Thomas, return on offense while five defense and both specialists are back from a team that went 13-1 and finished No. 19 in the final AP poll.

With more than 20 seniors on the 2020 roster, experience will help ease the transition to another new coach this spring.

Charlotte

Coach Will Healy will look to build on the 49ers’ first bowl season, but he has major holes to fill this spring. His main task will be finding replacements for running back Benny LeMay, offensive lineman Cam Clark and defensive end Alex Highsmith — all three of whom are currently at the NFL Combine.

In addition to the breaking in new starters, Healy will also be working with three new coaches, including offensive coordinator Mark Carney, who served as the team’s quarterbacks coach in 2019.