Liberty-North Carolina Preview
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) - North Carolina has optimism from a strong finish and motivation from watching a rival's surprise trip to the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game.
And that has the 23rd-ranked Tar Heels talking about making their own run in the wide-open Coastal Division as they kick off their season Saturday against FCS opponent Liberty.
"Once you've put in so much work, you really can feel what you're working toward is actually a reality," linebacker Jeff Schoettmer said. "All the work we've put in, we feel like we deserve something out of it."
The Tar Heels (7-6) say they have the players to keep coach Larry Fedora's no-huddle offense humming, the experience to make an up-and-down defense show some consistency and a game-changing special teams performer in punt returner Ryan Switzer.
Is it enough to win a division with no clear favorite? The Tar Heels think so, citing Duke's division title last year with a bit of "Why not us?" mentality.
"It seems more attainable than it ever has since I've been here," offensive guard Landon Turner said. "I think we have the tools. We just have to put it to use."
The Tar Heels have gone at least .500 in league play in Fedora's first two years, with his 2012 team finishing tied atop the division but missing a trip to the ACC title game due to NCAA sanctions. Last year's group clawed back from a 1-5 start and beat Cincinnati in a Belk Bowl rout.
Quarterback Marquise Williams returns as a run-pass threat, though he is fighting to keep the starting job against redshirt freshman Mitch Trubisky.
Williams began last season with spot duty, then gradually earned a timeshare with Bryn Renner before taking over when Renner was lost to injury. A two-QB system could take shape again. While Williams' experience gives him an edge on Trubisky, Fedora has proven willing to use two passers and has said the race is ongoing.
Receiver Quinshad Davis had 10 touchdown catches, while Switzer tied an NCAA single-season record with five punt returns for touchdowns as a freshman.
Switzer will now try to bring his game-changing plays to the offense after having 32 catches for 341 yards and three scores as a receiver last year.
"I think people are waiting to see if I can add on to (the punt returns) offensively," Switzer said. "It hasn't been a problem with me so far."
Freshmen and sophomores scored 46 of UNC's 55 touchdowns last year, a promising sign for the season.
"Nobody's going to give us respect until we earn respect," Williams said. "That's what we've been practicing. I've been telling the guys, 'Don't think about something little. Think about the big things. Think about the ACC championship. Think about going and playing in the Orange Bowl.'"
The offensive line lost tackle James Hurst and center Russell Bodine to the NFL, leaving seven freshmen or sophomores on the depth chart for a group that must open holes for returning tailback T.J. Logan and touted recruit Elijah Hood. Also gone is star tight end Eric Ebron, the 10th pick of the 2014 NFL draft.
"We're all committed to working hard and we want to prove people wrong," sophomore center Lucas Crowley said, "that the O-line is not the weak point."
UNC had the ACC's worst run defense last season and generated just 20 takeaways, tied for second lowest in the league. The low point was giving up 55 points and 603 yards in a lopsided loss to East Carolina.
Fedora now expects improvement in the third year in the 4-2-5 system.
"They don't have to think about it anymore," he said. "They can react."
The defensive line should get a boost by the mere presence of Ethan Farmer, whom the NCAA cleared to play on Thursday after resolving an unspecified eligibility issue.
The fifth-year senior started all 13 games last year and was the only returning starter on the line. He had 30 tackles, 2 1/2 tackles for loss and a forced fumble in 2013 after two years as a reserve.
Liberty (8-4) closed 2013 with five consecutive victories and was the co-champion of the Big South.
The Turner Gill-led Flames set a school record with 36 rushing touchdowns largely thanks to Desmond Rice, who had 967 yards and 16 TDs on the ground but has been lost for the year due to injury. Junior quarterback Josh Woodrum is coming off a season in which he threw for 2,581 yards and 19 touchdowns.
This is the first meeting between these two programs and marks Liberty's first-ever matchup against a nationally ranked FBS opponent.
UNC's quest hit a stumbling point Wednesday when Fedora announced that four players - sophomores Des Lawrence and Brian Walker, redshirt freshman Donnie Miles and true freshman M.J. Stewart - were suspended one game over a "violation of team policy."
North Carolina said it is conducting an investigation of what it described as an incident involving members of the team, one day after a report of an alleged hazing altercation left a walk-on receiver with a possible concussion.