Fall camp is set to get underway in Chapel Hill Friday morning as the team looks to follow up a very encouraging spring with a strong month of August. While there was an added sense of urgency from the team back in April, many of the team’s position battles remain a toss-up as they hit the practice field again. Let’s give you a look at some of the best battles heading into camp and our predictions on who ultimately wins them.
There seem to be no questions about who will start at the two linebacker spots for the team this season. Junior Cedric Gray will be the leader of the unit and sophomore Power Echols seems to have locked up that other starting role in the middle after a big spring. The battle will now be for that top rotational spot behind those two. Sophomore RaRa Dillworth and true freshman Sebastian Cheeks will continue a battle that began late in spring practice and was on display in the spring game, where Cheeks shined.
Prediction: Cheeks had a really strong spring for a true freshman, but Dillworth has been raved about for the better part of a year and a half and provides more athleticism than maybe even the two starters at the position. In my opinion, this really comes down to whether or not Dillworth will show the physicality needed at the position. I think he does and will finally give the team and fans a taste of what they have been waiting for.
Backup Running Back
British Brooks will handle a good portion of the carries for the team as RB1, but the battle for those rotational snaps behind him is a fierce one that doesn’t have much separation right now. As we heard from many around the team this summer, there are five different players who could factor in, but someone needs to stand out as soon as possible. Junior D.J. Jones is the most accomplished of the group but has struggled to stay healthy, something that has also been an issue for Caleb Hood in his first year plus on campus. Redshirt sophomore Elijah Green has been in the system for two and a half years now and had his best spring so far back in April and George Pettaway continues to be raved about after coming in as an early enrollee. All four of those guys, along with true freshman summer enrollee Omario Hampton, will all be battling for those reps starting Friday.
Prediction: It’s hard to separate a lot of these guys right now, but the safest bet is probably Jones at this point, especially after he earned one of the first cracks at backup snaps a year ago. Green will probably also make a major push for rotational reps, especially after he was the best of this group back in the spring. Pettaway's versatility out of the backfield could allow him to factor in more and more as the season goes along.
Starting Offensive Line
We chose to leave this one a little broader with so many guys playing multiple positions. Heading into the fall, the only members of this unit who seem to be guaranteed a starter's role are Corey Gaynor and Asim Richards. Ed Montilus will likely be the starter at one of the guard positions, but with the flexibility of guys like Brian Anderson and William Barnes, nothing is guaranteed. The most interesting spots to watch will be the starting spots on the right side, especially at tackle. Barnes will likely be a major factor at that tackle spot and could certainly get the start here, but he will face a stiff challenge from transfer Spencer Rolland who joins the team for the fall. You also can’t count out highly regarded true freshman Zach Rice, who could certainly factor in at either tackle or guard.
Predictions: As I said above, I think it is a pretty safe bet that Richards and Gaynor will be the starters at left tackle and center, respectively, in Week 0 against Florida A&M. I also feel pretty confident right now in saying that Montilus will be starting at that left guard spot that he has rotated in at so often these past couple of seasons. When it comes to that right side, I think there will be battles raging until late in August, but if I have to say right now, I think it will be Barnes at right guard and Rolland at right tackle to start the season.
Last year’s inconsistencies and injury issues back in the spring opened the door for someone to step up and we saw some guys who were able to take advantage of that. Redshirt freshman Dontavius Nash was the name that we heard the most about throughout the spring and the hope is that he can carry that over into fall camp after getting banged up in the spring game. The team will also get some reinforcements with the return of some veterans that were banged up or limited in the spring at the position, meaning there will be plenty of competition throughout in fall camp.
Prediction: Most fans probably don’t want to hear this after how the team finished up last season, but there is a good chance that the team will start the same safety tandem that they did late last year. I would be shocked if Cam’Ron Kelly is not back in a starting role this year and with Giovanni Biggers being fully healthy, he will have a great chance to regain his starting job. Nash will certainly hope to upset that thought if he is a full go and there is the unknown of Ja’Qurious Conley, who the team is hoping but not guaranteed to have back for Week 1. However, with nothing guaranteed about the latter two guys, I'll take the experience edge to win out, at least to begin the season.
This is easily the most intriguing battle on this list and is the one that everyone has been talking about this offseason. Jacolby Criswell and Drake Maye enter the fall neck-and-neck after a back and forth spring for each guy that probably clouded the picture even more than when they entered. Brown said this past Thursday at media days that he hopes the two can create some separation over the next month, but that until someone does, the plan will be to go with a two-quarterback system.
Prediction: Honestly, I think there is a good chance that the Tar Heels will play two quarterbacks in the first game of the season against Florida A&M because it is hard to see one of these two being that much better than the other based on what we saw in the spring. My hope is that the team can find that starter in time for Appalachian State in Week 1 and right now, I would have to go with Criswell as that guy because of the Marquise Williams-like vibe that he gives me in terms of his fit to the offensive system.