CHAPEL HILL – Optimism was in the air at Navy Field on the campus of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Monday morning.
As hip-hop music (some songs released before any of the players were born) blared from speakers placed around the practice field, hundreds of Tar Heels had a pep in their step as they went through the first day of practice.
The 2015 kickoff is still one month away, but at this time of the year everyone is undefeated and literally in the title hunt. The positive vibe from Navy Field was a different one from the last time we saw UNC. The Heels were embarrassed in the Quick Lane Bowl by Rutgers back in December and ended the season with a disappointing 6-7 record. Thanks to a big name defensive coordinator, 17 returning starters and some promising freshmen, head coach Larry Fedora gave off positive vibes after the first official practice.
“We put in a lot of work (over the summer), now let’s find out who we are going to be,” Fedora said.
Fedora’s main point of emphasis on day one was how guys recalled what they learned in the spring, how they looked running around in shorts and helmets (the pads are a few days away), what the freshmen looked like and the effort. The fourth-year coach was pleased with the effort and attitudes, but again, this is day one.
“I want to see that on practice 16,” Fedora said. “I want to see the same thing I saw today, so if we can be consistent through camp we will be a much better football team.”
Under a blazing sun, Fedora complimented the physical conditioning of his team, saying the group could “run with anybody” and they were the “strongest team we’ve had since we’ve been here.”
If Carolina hopes to make a run to the Coastal Division title and an appearance in the ACC Championship game, this is the team to do it. UNC returns record breaking quarterback Marquise Williams, all five offensive linemen, including All-American candidate Landon Turner, and every single weapon at running back and wide receiver.
On defense, the Heels return seven starters, but break in a new scheme, which has been well documented since Gene Chizik took over as defensive coordinator. Fedora said Chizik installed a lot of the defense in the spring, but with the season opener one month away versus South Carolina, he knows the clock is ticking to get everything in.
“We are running out of time,” Fedora said. “You can’t tell yourself that lie that you got plenty of time, because you don’t. There is a tremendous sense of urgency in what we have to get accomplished between now and then.”
The end of the season finger pointing that left a even worst taste in mouths of the players this summer is gone. At ACC Media Day, Williams said this group was different. Turner confirmed those sentiments from his quarterback after the first practice.
“I’m really excited to see what we can do,” Turner said. “It’s night and day difference from last year, as far as attitude and maturity level, just from everybody. We carried a lot of good stuff (from summer workouts) and we’re just looking to build off that.”
Playing smart, fast and physical has been Larry Fedora’s motto since arriving in Chapel Hill in 2012. With so much experience on offense, Fedora wants the pedal to the medal. Even Williams, who started all 13 games in 2014, was catching his breath at the end of practice.
“Everything was so fast today,” Williams said. “Today the tempo was up tempo … more excitement this year. A lot of guys are excited to be back. It’s more exciting because are ready to get back and play some football.”
- Senior defensive back Malik Simmons, who was arrested last month for the second time this summer and suspended indefinitely from team activities, was back with the Tar Heels Monday. Fedora said the senior from Lehigh Acres, Fla. was suspended from the team for two weeks, but recently reinstated. Simmons, who earned a starting spot at corner during the spring, was working with the second unit defense. The Durham Herald Sun reported Simmons’ name was called in the Orange County Courthouse Monday morning while he was practicing, and that his court date had been rescheduled.
- Speaking of the defense, the Heels had some new faces on that side of the ball during the opening session of practice. Defensive backs Brian Walker and Dominquie Green each started majority of the 2014 season. Both worked with the second unit on Monday. Sophomore cornerback M.J. Stewart and true freshman safety J.K. Britt took their places. Defensive end Dejuan Drennon, who started 13 games a season ago, was working with the second team. Defensive tackle Nazair Jones, who was a preseason All-ACC selection, was also working with the second unit.
- While we’re in the secondary, true freshman cornerback Mike Hughes took first-team reps when the Heels went to their nickel package. Hughes, a graduate of New Bern High School, was one of the best athletes in the state his senior year and was a highly touted recruit. “He’s very athletic,” Fedora said. “Worked him over at corner today and he broke on the ball very well. He made some plays today.”
- New defensive coordinator Gene Chizik was all over the defensive field, switching from unit to unit, shouting instructions at each stop. Chizik and Fedora took interest in the secondary at the same time as the DBs, the deepest unit on defense, went through a drill. As the players attempted to strip the ball from one another, Chizik yelled “defense!”
- The Tar Heels were sporting their new (but old) look helmets. UNC wore more of the traditional Carolina Blue, along with the argyle stripe down the middle.