Fedora, Tar Heels facing tough decisions heading into final scrimmage

With only two weeks remaining until their opener against Cal, the Tar Heels still have to settle on a starting quarterback, fill gaping holes at both wide receiver and running back and put together a cohesive offensive line

Jason Getz—
North Carolina Tar Heels head coach Larry Fedora reacts during the first quarter of last year's Chick-Fil-A Kickoff game against Georgia (Photo by Jason Getz/USA Today)

CHAPEL HILL — The North Carolina football team had the day off from practice Wednesday, meaning that its preseason preparations weren’t adversely affected by coach Larry Fedora’s trip to Nashville and his date before the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions.

It’s a good thing, too, because with so many questions remaining and so few days left to answer them, the Tar Heels and their rebuilding offense don’t have much margin for error before their season opener against California on Sept. 2.

“Never enough time,” Fedora said, repeating himself twice during a post-practice interview session Friday. “We need 100 more practices, but we don’t get them.”

For the record, UNC has just five more practices scheduled before the end of camp and nine to go before taking the field at Kenan Stadium in an actual game for the first time this season.

In that time, Fedora and his staff still have to settle on a starting quarterback, fill gaping holes at both wide receiver and running back and put together an offensive line capable of giving those aforementioned skill players the time and room to operate effectively.

It’s a process that figures to get kicked into high gear when the Tar Heels have their third and most important scrimmage of the summer on Saturday.

“(This scrimmage) is important for everybody on this football team,” Fedora said. “Decisions, as we’ve been going through camp, have been starting to be made in coach’s minds, so (Saturday) will have a lot to do with it.

“You’ll be out there live, on the field in a game situation. Coaches will be evaluating hard here at this point because we’ve got to start making some tough decisions soon.”

The toughest of those decisions will be the call on who will win the job of replacing second-overall NFL draft pick Mitch Trubisky under center.

Sophomore Nathan Elliott is the only one of the four candidates in the running that has played a down against a hostile opponent in a UNC uniform, having seen mop up action in three games last season.

Graduate transfer Brandon Harris made 15 starts in two seasons at LSU, but got a late start in learning an offense that has few similarities to the one he ran with the Tigers while redshirt freshmen Chazz Surratt and Logan Byrd are the wildcards in the deck.

“No decisions have been made at this time,” Fedora said. “They’re all competing, they’re all growing, learning, still making mistakes and learning from them. Eventually somebody will separate themselves.”

Fedora continues to insist that all four quarterbacks are still getting equal reps at practice. That, however, is almost certain to change based on the results of the scrimmage. There is also a real possibility that one of the quarterbacks — presumably the one that’s listed fourth on the depth chart — could potentially transfer.

The battle for playing time on the other end of the quarterback’s passes is almost as uncertain, outside of top returning pass-catcher Austin Proehl and reliable possession receiver Thomas Jackson. Holdovers Jordan Cunningham, Anthony Ratliff-Williams and spring game standout Juval Mollette are among those in the mix, but they’ve been overshadowed thus far in camp by impressive true freshmen Dazz Newsome, Beau Corrales and J.T. Cauthen.

The running back situation would be a bit more settled if not for injuries that have slowed Auburn grad transfer Stanton Truitt and true freshman Michael Carter. Sophomore Jordon Brown, who carried 20 times for 55 yards and a touchdown as a backup last season, is likely to be the primary option.

The backfield situation is so tenuous, however, that true freshman Kayne Roberts has been moved from linebacker to help fill the void at running back.

Up front, the center and both tackle spots appear to be set with Florida grad transfer Cam Dillard doing the snapping and the duo of senior Bentley Spain and William Sweet holding down the outside.

Sophomore Tommy Hatton figures to man one of the guard positions, but he hasn’t practiced in at least a week for an undisclosed reason. That leaves senior R.J. Prince and junior Jared Cohen, sophomore Nick Polino as the other, most viable options.

The Tar Heels also got some potential offensive line help Friday when graduate transfer Khaliel Rodgers returned to camp after announcing on Aug. 7 through his Facebook page that he was retiring from football.

“He was taking care of some personal business, so he’s back with us right now,” Fedora said.

Fedora said that it’s still too early to know how much his absence set back his ability to step in and play a major role. But at 6-foot-3, 315 pounds with three seasons of college experience at Southern Cal to his credit, the UNC coach is anxious to find out.

“You’ve got to think there’s a lot of things he missed out on,” Fedora said. “We’ll have to wait and see until he gets into some live situations. (But) it’s good to have him back.”

No one is more happy to be back in Chapel Hill than Fedora himself, who was one of three UNC coaches to appear before the Committee on Infractions during its hearing on the Tar Heels’ ongoing academic scandal.

“There wasn’t much I enjoyed about it, to be honest with you,” Fedora said of his trip to Nashville. “I’d rather have been here with my team.”