August is here and that means college football season is starting soon. The first games of the 2017 season kick off Aug. 26. And as it quickly approaches, we have 25 days to preview each of the 25 teams in our Dr. Saturday 2017 preseason poll. Check here every day to find out who we think the 25 best teams in the country will be. Fair warning, however. We’re probably going to be wrong.
No. 25 NORTH CAROLINA
2016 record: 8-5 (5-3 ACC)
Returning starters: 5 offense, 7 defense
Biggest non-conference game: Oct. 7 vs. Notre Dame
Biggest conference game: Sept. 9 vs. Louisville
Key returning player: WR Austin Proehl
Key departed player: QB Mitch Trubisky
Three things to know about North Carolina
• We highlighted Proehl as the key returning player because he’s the most productive skill position player returning for the 2017 season. Proehl finished the 2016 season with 43 catches for 597 yards, third-best on the team behind Ryan Switzer and Bug Howard. Proehl averaged nearly 14 yards a catch last season, so his use as a downfield playmaker or underneath threat may be determined by who can break out in a very young receiving corps. North Carolina’s second-leading returning receiver is Carl Tucker. He had nine catches for 130 yards.
“I’m going to expect guys like Rontavius Groves and Thomas Jackson and those guys to step into that role at that slot and be good football players, because they can,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said. “They learned a lot from Ryan [Switzer], and if they develop the same way Ryan developed, they’re going to be really good football players.”
• The departures are even bigger at running back. Elijah Hood, TJ Logan and Khris Francis are all gone, leaving the starting job to sophomore Jordon Brown, who had 20 carries for 55 yards in 2016. The other three backs combined for 1,816 yards and 20 touchdowns.
Three offensive line starters return, which should help Brown’s transition into the feature back role. And this may be burying the lead a bit, but North Carolina also has to replace Trubisky.
As you probably know, the favorite to replace Trubisky is LSU graduate transfer Brandon Harris, who lost the starting job to Danny Etling in 2016.
We’re bullish on Harris’ chances in Fedora’s offense, which should suit his abilities better than LSU’s offense, which was hardly wide open during his tenure with the school.
• UNC’s defense should be improved as well, even with a turnover at defensive coordinator. Following Gene Chizik’s departure, John Papuchis takes over as defensive coordinator. Papuchis was the Tar Heels’ linebackers coach for the past two seasons and that’s UNC’s best unit in 2017.
Cole Holcomb and Andre Smith, the team’s leading tacklers in 2016, return along with Cayson Collins.
“Both [Holcomb and Smith] can really run,” Fedora said at ACC media day. Andre has really developed into that true Mike linebacker that you’re looking for, a guy that can have everybody in the right position, a guy that demands respect, a guy that has respect by his teammates. And so actually that group in the linebacker position along with Cayson Collins really can be the strength of our defense this year.”
While the LB unit has experience, the front seven has to find a little more pass rush. UNC had 25 sacks — up from both 2015 and 2014 — but ranked just 75th in the country.
For more North Carolina news, visit TarHeelIllustrated.com.
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