Tar Heels pinning hopes on veteran free agents

Coach Larry Fedora has brought in four graduate transfers to add experience to a young team that got even younger with the unexpected departure of underclassmen Mitch Trubisky, Elijah Hood and Nazair Jones

Jeremy Brevard—USA Today Sports
UNC football coach Larry Fedora addresses the media at the ACC's preseason Football Kickoff event in Charlotte last month (Photo by Jeremy Bevard/USA Today)

CHARLOTTE — A North Carolina football team that was already going to be young this season got even younger when juniors Mitch Trubisky, Elijah Hood and Nazair Jones all left early for the NFL draft.

Faced with more holes to fill than originally expected, Larry Fedora did what any resourceful coach would do under the circumstances.

He took to the free agent market in search of veteran replacements, or at least the college version of it.Fedora brought in four graduate transfers, all on the offensive side of the ball, in an effort to add experience and avoid taking a step back from the progress his Tar Heels have made over the past two seasons.

“This is the first time I’ve ever done it, so the jury is still out on how this is going to work,” Fedora said Friday at the ACC’s Football Kickoff media event. “I believe chemistry is so important to your football team and how quickly can you get these guys integrated into your team.

“Although the official start of preseason camp isn’t for another two weeks — August 2, to be exact — the veteran newcomers have already begun to the process of assimilation.Offensive linemen Cam Dillard and Khaliel Rodgers, along with running back Stanton Truitt arrived on campus for the start of summer school and have been working out regularly with their new teammates.

They were joined recently by quarterback Brandon Harris, who officially graduated from LSU on July 10.

Although the bonding process can’t become complete until the quartet actually begins playing in games, starting on Sept. 2 against California, their work in organized offseason training activities has given them a solid head start.

“We’ve welcomed them with open arms and we’re glad to have them,” holdover offensive tackle Bentley Spain said. “They add depth and experience to our team and that’s exciting. Those guys have all gelled with the culture of our team, which has been great. Everyone wants us to be the best we can be.”

Dillard and Rodgers figure to provide an immediate upgrade to an offensive line that lost three starters from a year ago.

A 6-foot-4, 310-pound center who played his first three college seasons at Florida, Dillard is projected to step right into the void left by the graduation of Lucas Crowley and become the anchor of the Tar Heels’ blocking unit. Rodgers is a 6-3, 315 guard who started 11 games in three seasons at Southern Cal and has the capability of playing multiple positions.

“I think they’re going to fit in just fine,” Spain said.

As important as the two linemen are to the development of UNC’s retooled offense, Auburn transfer Truitt may be an even more important addition.

Hood’s unexpected departure and the graduation of T.J. Logan left Fedora with only one back on the roster who’d carried the ball in a college game. And even then, Jordon Brown’s experience was limited to just 20 carries and 45 yards.

In Truitt, the Tar Heels get a proven back who is equally as talented as a receiver as he is a runner.The 5-9, 185-pound Atlanta native, who has two years of eligibility remaining, was passed by on the Tigers’ depth chart because of two injuries early in his career. But he showed what he can do in a backup role last year by scoring three touchdowns while rushing for 87 yards and catching a 45-yard scoring pass in a win against Arkansas.

While Truitt, Dillard and Rodgers have all but been penciled into prominent roles for the Tar Heels this season, Harris is the wild card in the deck because of his lack of familiarity with Fedora’s uptempo, no-huddle attack and the perceived abundance of talent among the three youngsters ready to battle him for the starting job.

Harris played in 25 games with 15 starts for LSU, throwing for 2,756 yards and 20 touchdowns with 10 interceptions. Despite his late arrival, he’s already begun working to make up for lost time.

“Our drops are different from LSU because we run a different offense and he knew coming in that he had to get better at that,” said cornerback M.J. Stewart, who has been working out with Harris since his arrival. “I see him every day after OTAs working at his craft, getting better at it and I like that in any kind of player — that competitiveness and willingness to get better.”

Even if Harris doesn’t win the job to start the season, he can still make a valuable contribution as a mentor to his younger teammates or an insurance policy in case sophomore Nathan Elliott or redshirt freshmen Logan Byrd and Chazz Surratt aren’t ready to handle the speed and pressure of game competition.

“We knew we wanted to bring in someone with experience, because we didn’t have any experience right now,” Fedora said. “Whether he’s just in the room, is on the practice field or is actually playing, we need to have some experience in that room.

“The way it was planned out is that Mitch (Trubisky) would be back, those guys would gain experience as we go and the transition would be smooth. It didn’t work out that way, so you’ve got to adjust. That was the adjustment we made. We brought in a graduate transfer, enter him into the mix and we’ll see how it turns out.”