CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – With the mass exodus of talented experience from North Carolina’s football team following the 2016 season, the Tar Heels enter 2017 with a lack of veteran voices.
With so many familiar faces gone from the program due to graduation, early entry into the NFL Draft or injury attrition, UNC head coach Larry Fedora is trusting his returning talent takes up the open leadership positions.
On the defensive side of the ball, those responsibilities will largely fall to senior cornerback M.J. Stewart and junior linebacker Andre Smith.
Stewart will enter 2017 as arguably the ACC’s top cornerback, but the Arlington, Va. native sees more than just on-field improvements necessary in order to take over for former cornerback Des Lawrence’s mantle.
“I speak in the moments where I feel like I need to speak,” Stewart said recently. “A leader, somebody like Des, they spoke all the time, before the game, during the game, and after the game. I feel like I’m going to just play, and if I need to speak, if I need to say something, I’m going to step up and say something. This year I’ve got to be that voice before the game, during the game, after the game.”
Smith’s transition may prove a bit easier, as he led UNC’s linebacking corps last year as a sophomore. However, the hole left by Jones and end Mikey Bart in the front seven has increased Smith’s role beyond his own unit.
“I feel like it’s expanded throughout the whole team now,” Smith said. “I need to be more vocal, more assertive with everything and just have a loud voice out there and earn the respect of the guys. I feel like I’m earning it. I’m still working towards it. I’m just really trying to put myself ahead as that leader.”
Even with big shoes to fill, Smith believes this new batch of leaders will develop their own methods to guide the team.
“We don’t like to lead by example, we don’t do that,” Smith said. “We lead by influencing others and bringing people up. We do extra work on Saturdays and Sundays to get better.”
As for Fedora’s offense, it will be filled with more new faces than familiar ones. With quarterback Mitch Trubisky, running backs Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan, wide receivers Bug Howard, Ryan Switzer and Hollins, and offensive linemen Jon Heck, John Ferranto, Lucas Crowley and Caleb Peterson all gone, the Tar Heels are basically hitting reset.
With many position battles taking place throughout the spring, at least one thing seems certain – senior wide receiver Austin Proehl will be the leading voice of this offense throughout the offseason and into the 2017 season.
“It’s been fun to kind of take control and take charge and the other guys have been great with the leaders on this team,” Proehl said. “They’ve listened, they’ve helped out. Everybody’s done a good job of working together and coming closer and listening to the guys that aren’t necessarily telling them what to do, but just trying to help this team be better in every aspect.”
With four veterans and their 149 starts up front no longer in the program, the offensive line leadership falls primarily to Bentley Spain, a senior left tackle with 23 career starts.
“It’s definitely really crazy for me,” Spain said. “All of those guys were there for me in the beginning and it’s weird not having them around…. Now it’s just me and R.J. [Prince] as the only seniors, so that’s been a very different change.”
With six months until the 2017 season kicks off, the Tar Heels have adequate time to figure out the X’s and O’s, but also a period for the veterans to ease into their new roles as team leaders. That transition will play a determining factor in UNC’s success, or lack thereof, next fall.