Spring Wrap-up: Offense

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. --- With the 2011 Tar Heel spring football season concluded, the Inside Carolina staff reflects on what was learned and what key questions remain.

Bryn Renner has been billed as a confident, almost cocky, player since he arrived at UNC. At the spring game it appeared he may have been over-hyped emotionally, and maybe had a case of the jitters – even though he played well overall. How much of problem do you see this going forward, or is it something that will resolve itself after he gets a game or two under his belt?

Don: It's hard to make any sort of judgments about a quarterback off of a spring game of that fashion, because he's being thrust in and out and he isn't playing a game but dealing with "situations." Thus, it's hard for anyone, especially a quarterback, to get into the flow, which also could lead to over thinking. If the same sort of jitters shows up in the season opener, I suspect Renner will calm down once he's able to get into the flow of a game. Based off what I saw of him in high school, he's definitely a "gamer."

Greg: I don't think the concern is necessarily with Renner, but rather with how his teammates adapt to him. He's always been an emotional player and knows how to play as such, but most of his teammates have gotten used to the steady, laid back stylings of T.J. Yates. Yates's calm demeanor focused the offense last season when the walls were crumbling around them. If things go wrong this fall, how will those same teammates react to Renner's charged approach?

Buck: It seems obvious that Renner is a more emotional player than T.J. Yates was. That can be a plus and a minus, and likely will be both at times. Being able to control his fieriness will be a challenge that he'll have to face, and if opponents believe they can get under his skin, you know they'll exploit that tactic. At the same time, I can see Renner being able to get his teammates energized and ready to rock and roll. In any event, it will be a contrast in style to the more stoic T.J. Yates, who never seemed to get too high or too low.

This year's defensive line should be at least as good as the 2010 line, and in fact it should be better – if that's the case, how much can UNC fans trust the "much-improved" assessment UNC's offensive line is getting this spring?

Greg: Offensive coordinator John Shoop termed the line as the strength of the offense last week and UNC's defensive line is no longer in the awkward position of having to talk up the offensive line to the media when asked which group is better as has been the case in recent years. There's plenty of talent along the starting group, but more importantly, there's quality depth running with the 2's and 3's. That's reason enough for fans to have higher expectations this fall.

Don: Any success against UNC's defensive line should be deemed impressive. There's no doubt that UNC's offensive line has the talent, and it has certainly received practice reps against supreme competition in the spring and will continue to do so in preseason practice. Moreover, the group is as deep as it has ever been.

Buck: You can tell from the smiles of the offensive linemen when they are asked about going against the UNC defense that they are enjoying at least some success against that stellar group from time to time. That bodes well for the offensive line. This offensive line has a ton of potential, and I think it has the chance to really begin to hit its stride, as does the entire offense, by mid-season. Still, going against UNC's defense in practice should prepare them for just about anything they'll face next year. From tackle-to-tackle, this may be the strongest offensive line UNC has had in a very long time.

Losing Ryan Houston to injury is a blow, although it remains to be seen if he'll be ready in time for the start of fall camp. Two questions; 1) If Ryan Houston is able to come back by fall camp, is he capable of being that 15-20 carry back that UNC usually features? 2) If Houston isn't able to come back and it appears his recovery will be prolonged, does UNC have to make a move to shore up depth, such as move A.J. Blue to running back?

Greg: 1) Definitely. He has reworked his body and improved his footwork to the point where he is essentially a completely different player than he was as a freshman in '07. Houston's initial burst is explosive and while he may lack the breakaway speed that Butch Davis covets, he possesses all of the other tangibles that make for an effective every down back. 2) No. Gio Bernard will be 100 percent by the time training camp rolls around, so this could be his opportunity to shine and live up his high school hype. Hunter Furr and the trio of incoming tailbacks will also have a say in the decision. While Blue is a fan favorite and is entering his third year in the program, he's also had to overcome a severe knee injury and he worked exclusively at quarterback last fall.

Don: If Houston is able to come back by fall camp, he could be the every down ‘back, but should he? He does a lot of things extremely well – like run between the tackles, pick up tough yards in short yard situations, and never loses yards – but he lacks the breakaway threat and is average as a receiver. UNC will need another ‘back to emerge as the lightning to Houston's thunder. If Houston misses an extended amount of time, the staff doesn't have to move Blue back to running back. There's plenty of depth there now – three players currently on roster and two more that will enroll in either the first or second summer semester. With that said, I could see Blue used more in that "Wildcat" role in Houston's absence.

Buck: I definitely believe that Ryan Houston is capable of being the feature back in this offense, and if the offensive line meets expectations, the long-awaited development of UNC's running game would become a reality if he's ready to go. However, if he's not 100 percent ready to go when fall camp gets here, I think the staff has some thinking to do.

Travis Riley showed reasonably well in the spring game, Gio Bernard may be all UNC fans hope he'll be, while Stephen Houston and Romar Morris arrive this summer – that group along with Hunter Furr sounds like reasonable depth. Of those players, however, only Furr has seen any carries in an ACC game, and he's only had five carries in his career. Which of these players are ready to do all the things a running back needs to be able to do in this system, including pass protect? Maybe there's a solution in that group, but A.J. Blue knows the entire offense at this point, even more so because he's been working out at quarterback. With Hanson and Williams behind Renner, Blue could move to RB and still run some "Wildcat" offense for the Tar Heels. Something to think about.

When Renner has to check down in the passing game, who do you think he will rely on more, the running backs or the tight ends? Or is that a question we'll have to wait for an answer this fall?

Buck: It's hard to say right now, because we simply haven't seen the backs or tight ends in action a lot at this point. However, at least early on I would expect Renner to have more rapport with the tight ends – he's had more opportunity to work with Christian Wilson, and to a lesser extent with Nelson Hurst and Sean Fitzpatrick than he has anyone among the backs except for Furr. Recall that Houston missed last spring, and he missed all of last season. Bernard has been nursing a hamstring since getting to UNC and then was sidelined for his first season due to injury. I think there is also an opportunity for a really dynamic true freshman like Eric Ebron to get in on the action, but quarterbacks tend to look for players with whom they have some chemistry, and Renner likely has worked with the tight ends more extensively in the passing game than the backs.

Greg: We may even have to wait until midway through the season to get a definitive answer. Davis has praised Houston for improving his receiving skills out of the backfield and Gio Bernard has the makings of a receiving threat at running back, but I'll have to see it on game day before I buy in. The same goes for the tight end group. The safety valve role is there for the taking.

Don: We're going to have to wait and see who Renner becomes comfortable with. Furthermore, members of the tight end and running back groups need to prove to be reliable receivers, like Zack Pianalto and Ryan Taylor were the last few seasons.

There's no question that Dwight Jones is a monster at wide receiver and is poised to have a huge season. After Jones, however, only Erik Highsmith can make a case for standing out among a large group of receivers. Does Highsmith secure and nail down that second spot this year? Does UNC have the potential to produce a triumvirate of receivers like they had in Hakeem Nicks, Brandon Foster and Brandon Tate?

Greg: Not to that level, no. Those were three NFL-caliber players, and right now, only Jones fits that description. Highsmith and Jhay Boyd have failed to capitalize on their early successes, Josh Adams hasn't been able to stay healthy and Todd Harrelson hasn't elevated his game enough to be a consistent option. Highsmith may be in the No. 2 slot heading into the fall, but the three freshmen will be given plenty of opportunity to earn playing time.

Don: If a burner emerges – like Jheranie Boyd did in the LSU game or a freshman such as Sean Tapley or Reggie Wilkins – then it would open things up for the entire receiving corps, including Jones and Highsmith. It would also help Renner a lot in his maturation to have three different types of receivers at his disposal.

Buck: I agree that if a real speed merchant emerges, and there's no reason why that can't be Jhay Boyd, it changes the equation among the receivers. Shoop once told me that it wasn't necessarily, however, Tate's speed that made him such a threat as the third receiver, it was his ability to recognize and exploit the seams in the zones everyone plays these days. It is just possible that a lightbulb goes off for some other UNC receiver this year, as it did for Dwight Jones last year.

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