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July 23, 2013Nobody would have batted an eye four or five years ago at hearing North Carolina had been picked to finish behind Miami and Virginia in the Atlantic Coast Conference's Coastal Division in football.
But times and attitudes about UNC football are changing, and the media voting for the preseason poll Monday at the 42nd annual ACC Football Kickoff was evidence.
There was actual surprise expressed by a good number of attending reporters - and not necessarily those who have attachments to UNC - when the Tar Heels were tabbed for a third-place finish in the Coastal. Many felt the Tar Heels should have been placed no lower than second, behind Miami and ahead of Virginia Tech.
A good number of others - 22 to be exact - believe UNC will be better than both the Hurricanes and Hokies and voted the Tar Heels to win the division. As someone who has covered too many ACC Kickoffs to remember, I can't recall the last time the Tar Heels received so many first-place votes.
Two critical early season matchups will ultimately determine UNC's status as a Coastal contender. The Tar Heels must travel to Atlanta on September 21 in their third game to play nemesis Georgia Tech.
The Yellow Jackets have frustrated UNC with their option offense, winning three of the last four meetings. Including in those Tech victories was a 68-50 loss last season in Chapel Hill that Coach Larry Fedora referred to Monday as "embarrassing.''
Two weeks later, on Oct. 5, UNC heads to Blacksburg, Va., to meet Virginia Tech.
Victories in those road games would cause a huge buildup to the Thursday's night ESPN home game against Miami on Oct. 17 that would go a long way toward determining the Coastal champion.
Fedora along with quarterback Bryn Renner and defensive end Kareem Martin spoke at the Kickoff about two players who could provide a real boost to UNC's run at the Coastal crown.
Sophomore wide receiver T.J. Thorpe (foot) and junior linebacker Darius Lipford (knee) sat out the 2012 season with injuries. Both have proven capable of making big plays, when healthy.
Lipford seemed on his way to stardom back in 2011 before injuring the ACL in his left knee during the Independence Bowl loss to Missouri. He was re-injured the knee during a rehab session in July 2012 and required reconstructive surgery that sidelined him for the season.
Fedora said Monday that Lipford had been learning the "Bandit'' position in UNC's defensive alignment, which is a part defensive end, part outside linebacker-type spot.
"He's one of the most gifted guys on our football team,'' Fedora said. "I can tell you physically the guy is over a 400-pound bencher, they say he cleans over 375, he squats over 500 pounds. He was close to 11 feet in the broad jump from my understanding. He's like a 38-inch vertical. The guy is freakish when you talk about testing. He can run and he can hit.''
Thorpe led the ACC in kickoff returns as a freshman in 2011, but like Lipford has injured and re-injured his foot over the past year.
"There's another kid I've heard great things about and I can't wait to see T.J. on the field,'' Fedora said. "If you think about it, I haven't seen him or Darius Lipford on the football field.
"T.J. has worked extremely hard this year. He was in my office on Sunday, just dropped by to tell me how excited he was. I'm fired up about him because he's got a great attitude and has worked extremely hard to get him ready to go.''
Fedora said both Lipford and Thorpe will likely be held out of contact early in pre-season practice before being "turned loose'' somewhere midway through camp.
Finally, my nomination for UNC's breakout performer of the year in 2013 - senior running back A.J. Blue.
Blue is a tremendously gifted athlete whose UNC career has never completely taken off due to position changes, injuries and a guy named Gio Bernard playing in front of him.
But Blue, who reminds me a lot of former Tar Heel great Ethan Horton, has the ability to be a big-time back.
Fedora agreed Monday.
"If you go back and you really look and break down when A.J. Blue was on the field (last season) and you watch what he did when he was out there, it was pretty dang good,'' Fedora said. "So everybody says, 'Well, Gio is gone. What are you going to do?' When Romar Morris was out there, he made big plays for us. They (Blue and Morris) just didn't have the same opportunities as Gio did. Gio was on the field the majority of time because he was so productive.
"I'm excited about A.J. getting the opportunity to go out there and produce now because the guy has some very good talent.
"Right now, if I had to grab one guy like Kevin Reddick, who was the heart and soul of the team last year, A.J. Blue has stepped into that role. He's the guy who can cross over from offense to defense and guys are going to listen to him when he talks.''