Tar Heels focus on improvement during spring practices, scrimmage

Coming off a 3-9 season, the Tar Heels skipped the traditional fan-friendly game for a closed scrimmage

UNC sophomore Chazz Surratt will again compete for time under center guiding the Tar Heels’ offense. (Bob Donnan / USA TODAY Sports)

CHAPEL HILL — The North Carolina football team needed to make the most of its 15 spring practices after a 3-9 season marred by a rash of injuries that forced many young players into action before they were ready.

That’s why coach Larry Fedora decided to skip his team’s traditional public spring game for a more productive closed intrasquad scrimmage.

“When you do a spring game, you’re limited in what you can do and how many reps you’re going to get,” Fedora said last week. “You’re doing it for the fans. This was much better, because we could get more reps and get really what we wanted out of it.”

Among the areas of greatest concern for Fedora and his staff is quarterback, where junior Nathan Elliott and sophomore Chazz Surratt return after splitting time with now-departed graduate transfer Brandon Harris in 2017.

Both youngsters enjoyed flashes of success in their first taste of college playing time, but they also made their share of mistakes while struggling to find consistency with their decision making and accuracy.

Surratt, the 2016 Parade magazine prep Player of the Year, had slightly better stats, completing 58.5 percent of his 183 passes for 1,342 yards, eight touchdowns and only three interceptions while rushing for 210 yards and five scores.

Elliott, however, won two of the three games he started while throwing for a .514 percentage, 926 yards, 10 touchdowns and five interceptions.

Because stats from the Tar Heels’ final spring scrimmage were not announced, it’s difficult to say which — if either — of the quarterbacks is the frontrunner for the starting job heading into the summer and preseason camp.

But Fedora did say he is pleased with the progress both have made since the end of last season.

“I think they did a really good job this winter preparing themselves,” Fedora said. “I think both of them are much more comfortable in the offense with what we’re trying to do. The game is slowing down for both of them so that the decision-making process is much easier for them, therefore they can be much more accurate.”

One thing that will help whichever quarterback ends up under center when the Tar Heels open the 2018 season at California on Sept. 1 is a healthy, cohesive offensive line in front of him.

That’s something UNC was never able to produce last season because of injuries and players leaving the program for personal reasons.

Although Fedora and offensive coordinator Chris Kapilovic were able to start making strides in building a better line during the spring, with tackle Charlie Heck, center Jay Jay McCargo and guard Nick Polino emerging as potential leaders, the group is still anything but a finished product.

Compounding the development process is that 6-foot-7, 300-pound tackle William Sweet was unable to participate in spring drills while working his way back from a knee injury that cost him the final nine games last season.

“Because of guys being out, it makes it really difficult,” Fedora said. “That group needs to get a lot of work together. Unfortunately at this time, we weren’t able to do that. You’re rolling in a lot of guys looking for the best five, and that changed throughout spring.

“On the other side of that, you got a look at a lot of people, and a lot of people got opportunities. It was good to see the growth some of those young guys have made in one year.”

In addition to getting a look at the improving young players already in the program, Fedora and his staff were also treated to a sneak preview of their incoming freshman class. Six new recruits enrolled in January and were allowed to participate in spring practice — four-star wide receiver Dyami Brown, quarterbacks Cade Fortin and Jace Ruder, defensive back Bryson Richardson, running back Javonte Williams and linebacker Kyle Wright.

Of that group, Fedora singled out Richardson, Williams and Brown as the most impressive.

“I was pleased to get a really good look at the incoming guys entering into school in January,” the seventh-year coach said. “It was good to see those guys perform in that type of atmosphere.”

It’s an atmosphere that, unlike the other three state ACC teams, didn’t involve fans in the stands. That’s not to say UNC has seen the last of the traditional spring game festivities.

“It depends on the team,” Fedora said. “We have a lot of young guys that needed a lot more reps this spring. It just worked out better for us in this situation. We’ll make that decision each and every spring.”