CHAPEL HILL — In the estimation of coach Larry Fedora, the North Carolina football team has come a long way since the start of preseason camp less than a month ago.
But that’s not nearly as far as it’s going to have to go to play its first game Saturday.
When the Tar Heels travel to the Bay Area to take on California in their season opener, it will mark the first time Fedora has ever taken a team across three time zones to compete. It’s a task so unfamiliar that he’s “sought a lot of counseling” in how best to handle the situation.
“From coaches, sleep specialists, you name it,” Fedora said when asked Monday about the upcoming trip. “I have talked to a lot of different people.”
It’s doubtful Cal coach Justin Wilcox was one of those people, even though he’d probably be a valuable resource on the subject. Last year at this time, Wilcox brought his Bears across the country and in his first game on the job — with a first-time starting quarterback — beat the Tar Heels 35-30.
Fedora is planning to take his Tar Heels to the West Coast a day earlier than usual to help them better adjust to the time change and their new surroundings.
That, however, is as much as sixth-year coach is willing to divulge publicly about his pregame preparation plans.
And it’s not the only thing Fedora is playing close to the vest.
Unlike most other coaches around the country, including Wilcox, he has yet to release a depth chart for his team’s first game.
Part of that is because, using his own words, Fedora is “paranoid” and doesn’t want to give his opponent any hints at what to expect. Another is injuries that are likely to keep key players such as defensive tackle Aaron Crawford and running back Michael Carter on the sideline.
There are also still some positions that have yet to be decided both because of head-to-head competition and the absence of projected starters suspended as part of UNC’s infamous Shoegate affair.
Among them is the battle to determine between redshirt freshman Billy Ross and highly touted true freshman William Barnes as the Tar Heels’ starting right guard.
“I have to do it by Saturday, right?” Fedora said coyly when asked when he planned to have a final two-deep ready. “Whether you’ll know about it, I can’t tell you that.”
Among the personnel decisions that have already been made, Fedora said that sophomore wide receiver Dazz Newsome would handle the punt returning chores, Freeman Jones and Hunter Lent would continue as placekicker and punter, freshman Cade Fortin will serve as the backup quarterback and the three-man committee of Ohio State transfer Antonio Williams, sophomore Jordon Brown and true freshman Javonte Williams will split time at running back.
Fedora added that in addition to Javonte Williams, as many as a dozen other first-year players are likely to see meaningful action against Cal on Saturday, a sign that the new rule allowing freshman to play in up to four games without burning their redshirt couldn’t have come at a better time for the Tar Heels.
“We’ll travel quite a few on this trip, and I think that we’re going to have some definite guys to get on the field as true freshmen both on offense and on defense and then definitely on special teams,” Fedora said, singling out Williams, Barnes, offensive tackle Joshua Ezeudu, wide receivers Dyami Brown and Antoine Green, defensive backs Bryson Richardson, Javon Terry, DeAndre Hollins and Trey Morrison, defensive tackle Jahlil Taylor and linebacker Chris Collins.
“Those guys are taking in everything as much as they can and they’re getting real excited about the opportunity to play,” senior linebacker Cole Holcomb said of his younger teammates that are being pressed into service early in their careers. “Every day guys are getting better.”
That assessment isn’t just limited to the freshmen.
Among the veterans that have earned the most praise for the progress they’ve made since the end of last season is Nathan Elliott, a redshirt sophomore who won the starting quarterback job by default after rival Chazz Surratt was suspended for four games as punishment for selling his school-issued athletic shoes.
According to offensive guard Nick Polino, Elliott might have won the position anyway given the way he’s been playing in practice.
“All throughout the spring, throughout the summer, he just works his butt off,” Polino said. “Once he got into camp, he’s been whooping tail. The confidence he’s built, he’s the real deal.”