With fall camp set to get underway in Chapel Hill this Thursday, it’s time to officially head into preseason mode. As we close in on what will be a very short fall camp, we give you a look at some of the best position battles to keep an eye on.
The reason that this is so high on the list is because there isn’t a definite at either of the starting cornerback spots. Patrice Rene and Storm Duck like the favorites, but the talent behind them is as strong as any that we’ve seen at Carolina in a long time. You can’t count out Trey Morrison, who started nine games as a sophomore on the outside, although we project that Morrison will likely move back inside to nickelback where he played and thrived as a true freshman in 2018. If he does stay on the outside, though, he has proved enough over the past two years to earn a starting spot. Kyler McMichael almost beat out Derion Kendrick, a second team All-ACC member, last year at Clemson before transferring and when it comes to pure talent, no one on this roster might have more pure talent at cornerback than reclassified true freshman Tony Grimes. There are so many talented options that the Tar Heels can go with and heading into fall camp, every player that we talked about here has to feel confident in their abilities and chances to earn reps here. This should be an amazing battle to watch during camp and leading up until the start of the season.
Myles Wolfolk looks like he is set to start at one of the safety spots, leaving a vacant starting job at the other safety spot. There are a bunch of talented options who will be battling for the job here with no clear leader heading in. Giovanni Biggers seems like the longshot here and Ja’Quirious Conley has a lot of work to do, but both are talented players who have shown they have the ball skills to succeed prior to arriving at Carolina. The three players with experience will hold a slight edge here, beginning with Don Chapman, who started the season’s final three games of last season at safety opposite of Myles Dorn and showed he has the ability to create turnovers, something this secondary is in need of. While Chapman got the call late in the season, when Wolfolk went down with an injury early in the season last year, Cam’Ron Kelly got the call, starting and thriving in the game against Clemson before a knee injury ended his season late in that game. Considering he almost earned a starting job last offseason, don’t be shocked if Kelly gives all Chapman can handle here. The other player who has a chance to factor into the battle here is D.J. Ford, the most experienced option of the group. There is a reason that he started a career high seven games a year ago and if he can put together a strong fall camp, he may be able to earn some early starts at safety again this season.
Raymond Vohasek will almost certainly start at one of the two 4i-tech spots, but the other starting spot still needs to be filled. Tomari Fox started two games at the position a year ago, but eventually was overtaken by Vohasek and saw his reps consistently decrease as the season progressed. His experience will be helpful towards his case to start and there is still plenty to be encouraged with his ability to succeed at the position, but there is a pair of redshirt freshmen that will have something to say about that. Kristian Varner was one of the standouts from winter workouts and the staff is really excited by his upside. Kevin Hester Jr. was raved about as much as Varner was, but he was another player whom the staff was pleasantly surprised by this winter in the weight rooms. This feels like a battle that will come down to Fox and Varner in the end and with all of the encouraging things that we have been hearing from the staff, this battle could come right down to the end, if not extend into the season. The reason this is as low as it is on the list is because of the fact that the Tar Heels defense is going to use a multitude of different sets, some of which may go with a three-man front that sees Tomon Fox with his hand in the dirt.
For the first time since 2016, there is not a battle for the starting quarterback as we head into the fall, but there is an interesting battle that is set to rage for the backup quarterback position. This year, more than any other year, it’s important that the Tar Heels have a capable backup and both Jace Ruder and Jacolby Criswell both seem ready to battle. Ruder has the experience edge and it appears, even with the COVID-19 layoff, that he will be a full go for fall camp. He is more than capable of having success in this system as he did throughout the spring last year, ultimately resulting in him earning the backup job last year. This year, however, the challenge will be to hold off Criswell, the early enrollee true freshman, who the staff thinks might be as good of a fit for this offense as Howell currently is. Ruder’s experience probably gives him an early edge here, especially since Criswell didn’t get the spring to prove himself, but the pure talent Criswell has gives him the chance to turn this into a very interesting battle.
The thinking is that the Tar Heels won’t use multiple tight end sets this year seems to be a common one amongst the fanbase, but as they showed in 2019, they will use multiple tight end sets to help them run the football. That mindset was confirmed during this past Friday’s press conference when Mack Brown said that the staff is working to find the backup to Garrett Walston. Kamari Morales seems like the favorite heading in thanks to his experience edge over the two true freshmen, John Copenhaver and Kendall Karr, who will have to learn on the fly in the preseason after the lack of a spring camp. One of the three must emerge as a solid run-blocking option unless Walston can do that himself, and that once again favors Morales who has had a year in the weight room to add weight. Still, the pure talent of Copenhaver and Karr is enough for them to challenge Morales, who played just 20 snaps a year ago. With all three having plenty of upside, this race sets up to be one of the more interesting ones this preseason.
This is a starting job up for grabs, but how much of a battle this will really be is still to be determined. Asim Richards was the player penciled into the starting role after a strong winter and it appears that he will only have one real challenger that he’ll have to fend off. Triston Miller redshirted last year after an injury, but his high ceiling and pass protection ability give him a chance to fill the void that Charlie Heck left behind. Richards is hard to bet against, though, especially after he was able to earn the backup tackle spot despite being looked at as a project when he arrived on campus last season. Richards body style and playing style is very similar to that of Heck’s, which the staff will like, and if he can continue to build off of what he showed last year, it's going to be hard to beat him out for the starting job at left tackle.
This race like the one above, is one that seems like it has a clear favorite to take over this job. Jahlil Taylor was the backup nose tackle a year ago behind the now-departed Aaron Crawford, and the staff were encouraged by what they saw from him in the limited snaps that he played. The reason there is a bit of a battle set up here is the combination Taylor’s lack of major playing time so far in his career and the group of talent behind him. Kedrick Bingley-Jones impressed in offseason workouts, adding the weight necessary to compete at nose tackle, but there is a gigantic question mark about his status for the fall after having surgery back in May on a lower-body injury. If he isn’t able to participate in fall camp, the biggest challenger would then become Clyde Pinder Jr., a guy the Tar Heels practically hand picked as a fit in the middle of the defense. With Pinder Jr. not being an early enrollee, however, he is a little behind the eight ball, but he might have enough skill to make some noise here, especially if Taylor struggles. The staff has everything that they have seen from Taylor thus far, though, so along as he puts together a solid camp, it’s hard to see them going with anyone as the starter at nose tackle this season.
Michael Carter and Javonte Williams will one again be carrying the load for this Tar Heel backfield as they did most of last season, but as we saw last year, having a capable number three in place is crucial as guys wear down throughout the season. With the threat of positive COVID tests being a threat this season, it will be even more important to have some depth ready to help if needed. This battle won’t get talked about nearly as much as the one above, but there are three intriguing candidates that will vye for this position whenever camp gets underway. Josh Henderson saw some action late last season and left a good impression on everyone in the program with solid games against Mercer and NC State. The problem is, his carries in both of those games came in garbage time when the games were out of reach, meaning he doesn’t have any real meaningful experience. The flashes he showed, though, are still enough to be excited about his upside and chance to win this job. Two true freshmen will be trying to keep that from happening, however. D.J. Jones arrived on campus and the staff was happy with his performance in the winter, but because of the different elements he will bring, Elijah Green might be the bigger threat to Henderson here. The Tar Heels didn’t have many explosive rushing touchdowns a year ago and that might be the one thing this backfield is searching for in their change of pace back. Green could provide just that, but he’ll have to be able to come in and grasp the playbook quickly and show he can handle the step up in competition if he wants to beat out the other two. While it won’t draw the headlines, this is definitely to watch over the next few weeks and into the season.