UNC Sneak Preview: What you need to know about Georgia’s opening opponent

North Carolina's defense is works on alignment during a practice at the Tar Heels' practice facility last month in Chapel Hill.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – School is over. The 2015-16 academic year is in the books. Therefore, it’s time now to focus on 2016-17. And that, of course, begins (and ends) with football.

Here are some numbers to wrap your heads around:

  • It’s just 106 days until Georgia opens the 2016 season and the Kirby Smart era against North Carolina in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff at the Georgia Dome;
  • There are only 72 days before the Bulldogs open preseason football camp at the temporary practice facility at the Club Sports Complex;
  • There are 52 days until SEC Football Media Days commence in Birmingham/Hoover, Ala., at which point the offseason is unofficially over.
  • And finally, as of today, there are 12 days until the 15 remaining members of the 2016 football signing class – 20 including invited walkons – can report to campus to enroll for summer semester and begin offseason strength and conditioning training. All of those guys are currently being profiled on a weekly basis in DawgNation.com’s “Next Generation” series.

Bottom line, football season is going to be right here on us before we know it. So, as is the DawgNation way, we’re going to get out ahead of it. Starting today, we’ll start to turn our attention toward the 2016 football season, which, as mentioned above, starts with North Carolina.

I spent several days in Chapel Hill last month observing the Tar Heels as they wrapped up spring practice on that beautiful college campus. Those guys are coming off an 11-win season under fifth-year head coach Larry Fedora and they’re eager to prove themselves against Georgia and the mighty SEC.

Going forward, I’ll be offering a weekly feature focused on North Carolina so we all can be well-educated on the Bulldogs’ opening opponent by the time the season finally arrives. And, as always, you can count on us to be back on Tobacco Road in August for a glimpse of the Tar Heels’ preseason camp after that gets under way.

In the meantime, here are some things you need to know and/or some stories you can expect to read regarding North Carolina over the next five weeks or so:

Loving Larry

They’re loving Larry Fedora in Chapel Hill. Entering his fifth season as the Tar Heels’ head man, this journeyman coach and offensive guru has managed North Carolina through a highly-publicized academic scandal not of his making and taken the football team where it has rarely been — in the conference championship hunt. The program received scholarship sanctions in Fedora’s first year on the job but has remained competitive throughout.

No more so than this past year. The season didn’t end great, with losses to Clemson and Baylor in the ACC championship game and Russell Athletic Bowl, respectively. But the thought on Tobacco Road is that the 11-3 season signals that Fedora has North Carolina on the right track and has put turmoil and controversy behind them.

“I will say after last season, no one’s talked about (the academic scandal) since,” said Fedora, who is 32-20 as the Tar Heels’ coach and 66-39 including a stint at Southern Miss. “I mean, we haven’t had to answer questions about it in recruiting. This is the first year that that’s happened since I’ve been here. So that’s five recruiting classes we had to deal with that. The one we’re dealing with right now, there’s never been a question about it.

“So it’s a thing of the past. It’s just something we’ve been looking forward on from the beginning … and we’re not looking back.”

Sam Pittman, the Tar Heel

Little-known fact, in these parts at least, is that Georgia offensive line coach Sam Pittman might have done some of his best work at North Carolina. Pittman had a five-year stint as the Tar Heels’ offensive line coach and associate head coach from 2007-2011 and remains a beloved figure up that way.

Why? His lines were some of the best North Carolina has ever had. All five of Pittman’s starters on his last offensive line – plus another player he recruited — ended up in NFL camps. There were: OT James Hurst (Ravens), OG Jonathan Cooper (7th pick in the draft, Cardinals, now Patriots), C Russell Bodine (starter for Cincy), OG Travis Bond (couple of seasons as backup in NFL), OT Brennan Williams (Houston, knee injury). Pittman also recruited Landon Turner, who is now in camp with the Saints.

Reloading on offense

The narrative this season is going to be that North Carolina is having to rebuild its offense because of a quarterback change. They lost super-athletic signal caller Marquise Williams to graduation. But inside the Tar Heels’ camp, the belief is that their offense will be as good or better under junior Mitch Trubisky.

The 6-foot-3, 220-pounder from Mentor, Ohio, actually played in nine games last season in relief of, and occasionally in replacement of, Williams. All he did during those appearances was complete 85.1 percent of his passes (40 of 47) for 555 yards and six touchdowns and no interceptions. He also rushed 16 times for 101 yards and three scores.

Meanwhile, Trubisky will have the benefit of having most of the offense back this season, including North Carolina’s scoring threats in junior tailback Elijah Hood and senior receiver Ryan Switzer. I profiled Hood on my initial visit to Chapel Hill.

“I feel like I’m stepping into a great situation,” Trubisky told me. “I feel like my job is going to be easy; just get the ball to the play-makers. I don’t have to do anything flashy, anything special. Just get it to our great wide receivers and backs. It’s just going to be my job getting them the ball, and hopefully the offense will be explosive doing that.”

It certainly was explosive last year, leading the ACC with an average of 40.7 points a game.

Remember the name ‘Bug’

Another intriguing offensive figure on the Tar Heels’ roster who we will profile is wide receiver Bug Howard. Born Johnathan Jamaul Howard, Bug’s name may ring a bell with some in these parts because he’s from Rochelle, Ga., and played at Wilcox County High. And if that seems familiar, it’s because he is the first cousin of former Georgia and Auburn player Nick Marshall.

It says something about the expectations UNC has for Howard when he had 29 catches for 488 yards and 4 TDs last season and it was believed to have been an off year. At 6-5, 220-pounds, he’s a big, fast target for Trubisky and comes into the season with 93 career catches for 1,221 yards and 10 touchdowns.

UNC’s version of David Pollack

Mikey Bart is another name on the UNC roster that may ring a bell with Georgia fans. That’s because he matriculated through Buford High School, where he served as team captain and helped the Wolves to some state championships not only in football but also baseball.

Bart’s an interesting character on a number of levels, but the most notable thing about him is he was under-recruited as a defensive end prospect because he was considered undersized. He now has 270 pounds on his generously-listed 6-3 frame, and his extreme quickness makes him difficult to block. Wearing the No. 45, his playing style and demeanor is reminiscent of Georgia’s David Pollack.

Bart has played in all 27 games the past two seasons and will enter his senior year with 8.5 career sacks. He recorded 6.5 of those last season as well as 29 tackles.

Gene Chizik to the rescue

Auburn’s former national championship coach and the SEC Network’s resident analyst Gene Chizik came out of coaching retirement last year to try to revive the Tar Heels’ moribund defense. And he did a pretty good job in is first year as coordinator.

Chizik did radio and television for two years after being dismissed from Auburn, where he and Cam Newton led the Tigers to a national championship in 2010.

“I was really enjoying (broadcasting) and I felt like I was going down that career path, to be honest with you. I enjoyed it that much and I enjoy starting something new and getting better at it and improving,” Chizik said in an one-on-one interview you’ll read more on in this series. “But there are obviously aspects of this game I’ve been doing my whole life that I missed. I missed the competition; I missed being around the young guys; I missed being around the team atmosphere and the camaraderie.”

UNC still gave up 435.9 yards per game and finished 13th in the ACC in total defense. But that was somewhat skewed by a poor showing in the last two games. The Tar Heels allowed Clemson 608 yards offense in the ACC Championship and gave up 756 total yards and 645 rushing in the bowl loss to Baylor. But they gave up 19 or fewer points in seven of the first eight games of the season.

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