CHAPEL HILL — There’s always a sense of newness that goes along with the first day of practice. That’s particularly true for the North Carolina football team this year.
Not only are the Tar Heels working with a new defensive coordinator, breaking in four graduate transfers and looking for replacements at virtually every skill position on offense, they’re also having to get used to an entirely new practice routine and venue.
Because of renovations to their regular practice fields and the addition of a new indoor facility, UNC will be working out at Kenan Stadium this year.
It’s a setup that has forced some noticeable changes to the playing surface while presenting coach Larry Fedora and his team with some unfamiliar logistical challenges as they begin preparations for their season opener against California on Sept. 2.
“We still have some things to iron out,” Fedora said Wednesday after watching his team go through its first practice under the unfamiliar conditions. “The space and where we need, we can adjust a few things going into the next practice. But I thought overall our guys reacted really well to it, and that’s not knowing where they were going. We’re not going to slow down. Our tempo is going to be the same.”
The change of venue itself isn’t the biggest issue for the Tar Heels. It’s the confined space with which they now have to work, compared to what they’re used to at the Navy Field complex that is now effectively a construction site.
Instead of having two full-length fields and an adjoining field hockey stadium at their disposal, UNC’s practice area is now confined to a single playing surface. In order to maximize the space inside Kenan, the familiar hedges have been taken down and Field Turf has been installed around the periphery.
Two 40-yard field have been set up running horizontally across the main playing surface so that both the offense and defense can run through their respective drills. A traditional field will also be lined for use in scrimmages and full-team workouts.
According to Fedora, the field will be resodded and lined before each home game to keep it in top playing condition.
“It’s not an ideal situation, but we’ll make it work,” Fedora said. “We have no other choice.”
Although Wednesday marked the first official practice at Kenan, most of the team’s veteran players are already well acquainted with the new setup thanks to their work during offseason training activities.
There were some adjustments to be made, especially among the receivers who were limited in how deep they could run their routes. Most however, took things in stride. Or as senior receiver Austin Proehl said, “It’s just a football field. It’s grass. We still have to go out there and make plays.”
Linebacker Andre Smith is one of several Tar Heels who said Wednesday that they like the change in their practice routine.
“I feel like anything we should want to practice in the stadium,” the junior linebacker said. “I like to practice at Kenan, imagining all the fans around and getting used to the atmosphere. For me personally, I love it.”
Tight end Brandon Fritts said he’s going to enjoy practicing in Kenan for a different reason. Specifically that he and his teammates no longer have to make the quarter-mile walk from Navy Field to their locker room inside the stadium every day after a hard workout.
“You can’t ask for any more practicing right outside our locker room, walking out to the game field,” Fritts said. “It’s pretty neat. You just have to get the hang of it with all the lines. It’s a little confusing, but I like it.”
As far as the actually play on the field is concerned, Fedora said he was pleased with the retention his players showed from spring ball, as well as the knowledge of the system displayed by some of the newcomers.
Incoming freshman Dazz Newsome, in particular, made an immediate impression with his work at wide receiver. Fedora said there’s also a chance the youngster from Hampton, Va., will also get some work in as a defensive back.
On the quarterback front, sophomore Nathan Elliott took the first snap of the day as expected. But all four of those competing for the starting job, including LSU graduate transfer Brandon Harris, got plenty of work.
Fedora said that the competition between Elliott, Harris and the redshirt freshman duo of Chazz Surratt and Logan Byrd will go on until someone separates himself from the others and “shows that the offense is better with him on the field.”
The coach has a much more urgent timetable for installing his team’s offense, defense and special teams, saying that he hopes to have “about 98 percent” of that done within the first five days of camp.
He’s also counting on his players adjusting to their new practice conditions just as quickly.
“The logistics of how we’re practicing on this field and where everybody goes,” Fedora said. “I’m hoping that in five days, at that point these guys will be relaxed, understand and we can focus on being the best we can be in a drill instead of ‘where do I go next?’
“There’s some of that going on now because of the unknown. So as soon as we can establish that rhythm, it gives us a chance to be better.”