CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – No. 22 North Carolina will lean heavily on its true freshman class beginning as early as Saturday against No. 18 Georgia in Atlanta.
Larry Fedora broke form on Monday and gifted the media with a relevant tidbit when asked about the likelihood of the five true freshmen defensive backs listed on the depth chart playing in the season opener.
“I anticipate quite a few more freshmen that are going to play in the game,” the fifth-year UNC head coach said. “It could be up to 13. It could be more than half of the class that participates in the game.”
UNC’s 2016 recruiting class, which ranked 24th nationally, was loaded with quality signees despite lacking elite prospects. The only four-star recruits in the class, according to Scout.com, were tight end Garrett Walston and offensive lineman Jay-Jay McCargo. Offensive coordinator/OL coach Chris Kapilovic has said he intends to redshirt his freshmen linemen.
Fedora told reporters the reason behind possibly playing so many true freshmen in the opener is two-fold: class quality and current team needs.
“I think this class is pretty special,” Fedora said. “They’ve shown that in camp all the way through and in the way they’ve prepared themselves. I think there’s some very talented young guys in that class. I think they’re prepared to help. And then in some instances, we’ve got some holes that we need filled and they’ve got to be ready to go.”
The freshmen defensive backs on the depth chart are cornerback Patrice Rene, nickel back K.J. Sails and safeties Myles Dorn, D.J. Ford and Myles Wolfolk. All five earned praise throughout training camp for making splash plays.
Senior cornerback Des Lawrence is confident in their abilities to contribute early.
“I think that they’re going to have some nerves because it’s a new level for them,” Lawrence said. “It’s a different environment. It’s going to be a loud and crazy environment in the Georgia Dome. I’m expecting some mistakes, and that’s with everyone, but I think they’re going to show up.”
Ends Tomon Fox and Allen Cater, as well as middle linebacker Jonathan Smith, are other rookies listed on the defensive depth chart for Saturday, while freshman Australian punter Tom Sheldon has been battling with senior Joey Mangili for the job throughout training camp.
There’s only been one true freshman to stand out on the offensive side of the ball: wide receiver Toe Groves.
“Toe’s been making a lot of plays,” junior quarterback Mitch Trubisky said. “… He’s just a shifty slot receiver. He runs really good routes. He shows flashes of [Ryan] Switzer and [Austin] Proehl. He can run really good routes and he’s also a natural with the ball in his hands.”
The remainder of the true freshmen that Fedora referenced may see playing time on special teams. For example, linebacker Dominique Ross has been working with the ones on the kickoff cover and punt return teams.