CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina football coach Larry Fedora was deliberately vague when asked about details of his team’s first full-contact scrimmage.
Other than the generic “there were a lot of good teaching moments” and acknowledging that there still hasn’t been any separation among the four quarterbacks vying for the starting position, his most specific revelation from the simulated game was the number of true freshmen that made meaningful contributions.
That’s a positive development, considering the number of holes the Tar Heels have to fill, especially on offense, because of graduation and early departures to the NFL.
“There were some freshmen that made some great movement as far as knowing what to do,” Fedora said Thursday in his first media availability since Tuesday’s scrimmage. “That was impressive, because they’ve only been here a short time.”
Fedora was especially glowing in his praise of newcomer Kayne Roberts, whose transition has been even more rushed than most because of a switch from defense to offense since the start of preseason camp.
Listed as an “athlete” when he first signed with UNC in February, Roberts was originally projected as a linebacker. But because of the veteran depth at that position and his potential as both a lead blocker and ball carrier in short yardage situations, the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Tennessee native is now moving up the depth chart as a running back.
“Kayne has been a guy that’s played on both sides of the at multiple positions on both sides of the ball,” Fedora said of Roberts, who rushed for 2,200 yards and 37 touchdowns as a high school senior. “It really didn’t look like he was going to factor into the rotation at linebacker right now, so we decided to move him over and put him in a spot where he may be able to help us.
“We’re going to find out what he can do and if he can help us this year, because he’s a big guy who can run.”
While Roberts has the potential to solidify the Tar Heels’ ground game, two other freshmen appear ready to step right in and help restock UNC’s graduation-depleted receiving corps.
Dazz Newsome is a 5-foot-11, 175-pound speedster who has been a standout from the first day of camp. In addition to his pass-catching abilities, he set himself up to be the heir apparent to Ryan Switzer as the Tar Heels’ punt returner with a pair of impressive efforts in Tuesday’s scrimmage.
Beau Corrales also made a favorable impression while all but wrapping up spot in UNC’s receiving rotation by reeling off a 20-yard gain on a jet sweep before catching a 22-yard pass from quarterback Nathan Elliott later in the scrimmage.
“He’s a big-bodied guy who has picked up the offense well,” Fedora said of the 6-4, 205-pound Texan. “ He’ll go up and make a play and use his body. I don’t think there’s any doubt at this point, if he stays healthy, he’s going to contribute to us this year.”
Fedora also said that 6-6, 330-pound offensive tackle Marcus McKethan has also progressed quickly enough to put him in contention for immediate playing time.
Defensively, linemen Jordon Riley, Jake Lawler and Xavier Gill are the most likely candidates to contribute this season — in part because of the Tar Heels’ need at tackle and the fact that all three enrolled early enough to participate in spring practice.
“All those guys that came in during spring, they’re farther ahead than the other guys, which is natural because they’ve had a full semester of working out with the team and understanding the expectations, then going through spring ball which is just learning how to practice,” Fedora said. “The new guys are just now learning the expectations at practice. They’re not going to be in the physical shape those guys are in.”
Of the trio, Riley is the farthest along. He was especially disruptive during Tuesday’s scrimmage, recording a tackle for loss on a running play and a sack — according to the limited highlights reported by UNC.
“It’s early to say, but Jordon Riley has had a really good camp so far,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. “He’s a big athletic kid that’s learning every day, so I’m excited about him.”
Other freshman defenders mentioned by Fedora on Thursday for having done “some really good things,” were cornerback Tre Shaw and linebacker Malik Robinson.