Tar Heels loaded for Bear … but are they ready?

UNC heads into Saturday's season opener against California with plenty of uncertainty throughout its rebuilt offensive unit

Eamon Queeney—The North State Journal
UNC and Charlotte will meet in football for the first time on Sept. 19 (File photo)

  Don’t ask Larry Fedora what he expects from his North Carolina football team in its opening game against California on Saturday.

  He has no idea.

  With first-time starters at quarterback, running back and two wide receiver positions, along with a revolving door on the offensive line that has shuffled his lineup several times since the start of camp, the Tar Heels are nearly as big  mystery to their own coaches as they will be to the fans in the stands at Kenan Stadium.

 “There’s always that unknown as a coach of ‘what’s a new guy going to do?’ Fedora said. “So you’re trying to put him in as many situations in practice as possible so you get a feel for how he’s going to react in a game. Then you still don’t know until you get in the game.

  “That’s the thing that keeps you awake at night, trying to make sure that you’ve covered every detail.”

   Fedora and his staff have undoubtedly lost their share of sleep this preseason trying to piece together a rebuilt offense into a unit capable of competing against a hostile opponent.

  The sixth-year coach said his camp has been a productive one, but because of so many holes to fill and so many young players stepping into new roles, there hasn’t been enough time to address everything.

  Although the top priority has been settling on a quarterback — something that at least publicly, still has yet to happen — it is only one of many areas of uncertainty heading into the opener against the Bears.

  Consider that the top two running backs on UNC’s depth chart are Jordon Brown, a sophomore with 20 career carries to his credit, and true freshman Michael Carter. Beyond top returning pass-catcher Austin Proehl and former walkon Thomas Jackson, the receiving corps is equally as untested.

  And then there’s the offensive line, which has seen its best, most reliable veteran (Bentley Spain) suffer an injury that will likely keep him out of Saturday’s game, one potential starter (Jared Cohen) at guard leave the team a week before the first game and another (Tommy Hatton) that hasn’t been at practice in several weeks for an unspecified reason.

  Of those that are available, starting right tackle William Sweet spent most of the preseason working at guard while backup left guard Khaliel Rodgers — a graduate transfer from Southern Cal — “retired” from football before deciding to return to the team two weeks later.

  Fedora said last week that he could use another 100 practices to pull everything together. Ready or not, though, gametime is already here.

  “That’s the unique thing about college football,” offensive coordinator Chris Kapilovic said. ““In the NFL you get preseason games. In high school you get jamborees or whatever. The first time we get to see what they’re all about is when they’re live out there.”

  The good news for the Tar Heels is that their opponent is even more in the dark about them than they are about themselves.

  Compounding matters for the Bears, who will be playing in the Eastern Time Zone for the first time since 2012, is that they’re also dealing with their own uncertainty as they prepare to play their first game under a new coaching staff on the sideline and an untested new quarterback under center.

  “You don’t want to start chasing ghosts, because you might start wasting time on things you can’t really control,” Cal coach Justin Wilcox said. “You just spend a lot of time working on yourself and having answers.”

  Fedora agrees that over-preparing for the unknown is a waste of time. But that hasn’t stopped him from doing it.

  “We’re looking at a lot of tape, wasting a lot of time, when it comes down to it as far as what they’re going to do,” said Fedora, who has studied game films of teams coached by Wilcox and both his coordinators before they came to Cal. “But you have no way of knowing. You spend a lot of time to over-prepare so your kids have some kind of idea what is going to happen in the game.”

  It’s a situation Fedora should be used to by now. He went through a similar situation last season against Georgia in Kirby Smart’s first game with the Bulldogs. That was one of seven games the Tar Heels played last season against teams with new coaching staffs.

  Saturday’s game also marks the fourth time in the last five years that UNC has opened its season against a Power Five opponent. That’s contrary to the philosophy of most top programs, which prefer to ease into the season against lesser competition.

   “I do like doing it,” said Fedora, whose program hasn’t won a season opener against a nonconference Power Five opponent since beating Indiana in 1997. “I would like to have a team that has a staff in place one of these times. That would be nice, but unfortunately that’s just not the way it’s worked out and it’s made it very difficult.”