As UNC winds down this year's spring football season with Saturday's 3:00 pm Spring Game in Kenan Stadium, the Tar Heels are looking to finish strong and have some fun in front of their loyal fans.
Head coach Larry Fedora is looking to see guys flying around and making things happen, and the Tar Heel players themselves---many of whom are embattled in fierce position competitions---are seeing this as their last big chance to make an impression on the coaches while making much-needed improvements in a game-like setting.
"I hope I'm going to see guys having fun, you know," Fedora said after practice earlier this week. "A lot of effort. It's their opportunity to show out. But I want to see effort. That's the main thing. I want to see these guys play hard. I want to see them have fun. I want to see them play hard. I want to see them play fast. I want to see them play physical."
"It's our last opportunity to get better," added junior right guard Landon Turner. "I'm just going to play hard, try to end this spring on a good note, try to take everything that I've learned this spring and just leave here a better football player on Saturday."
Turner is the only UNC full-time starting offensive lineman from 2013 who is certain to play in Saturday's game, as two are gone and two others are injured.
The rising junior has been working hard this spring to bring along his younger teammates, of whom several are going to have to play key roles this coming fall.
"I've had a lot of pressure to be a leader from the coaches. And I know I'm one of those guys on the line," Turner told us. "I know that guys look up to me. But I can't let that necessarily change what I do. I'm just going to continue to be myself and just continue to try to lead by example. I'm not a big rah-rah guy. So the best thing I can do for the guys is just show them what to do through my own work ethic. It's a blessing to me, because it keeps me in check. It's kind of humbling."
"Absolutely, when it comes down to it really, I want to do what I can do for the team. What's best for the team. So if that means I have to be more vocal, I'm sure the opportunity will come up where I need to be more vocal."
UNC's lack of depth along the offensive line heading into Saturday is the biggest concern with this team at the moment.
Starting left guard Caleb Peterson has been out all spring, the Tar Heels only have one scholarship player (Lucas Crowley) and a largely-untested walk-on (Arien Smith) at center, and starting right tackle Jon Heck wasn't practicing Wednesday and is doubtful for Saturday, creating a situation where it could directly affect how the Tar Heels scrimmage.
While the event is scheduled to have two 15-minute quarters normal to real games, and then two 15-minute quarters with running clocks for the second half, the offensive line concerns could create some challenges fielding two complete units.
"We're definitely ahead of the offensive line right now (with our defensive line)," said Fedora. "Guys are making some plays. We finally are building up some depth in the defensive line. We've got multiple guys who can roll in right now, and we're making a lot of progress there, I think."
"We want to see if we can split with the offensive line," Fedora continued. "There's a lot of situations we can use, but right now the thinnest spot we are is along the offensive line. So that's going to dictate how we do this with the game. Some guys may have to play on both sides."
"We just haven't had a lot of guys," added Turner, the team's mainstay at right guard going back to the latter part of the 2012 season.
"We've had some guys sick. We've got some flu going around. But it's just another challenge to answer. I think we're going to be all right. We've got a solid corps of guys, and with the guys we've had out, some guys that haven't gotten a chance to get as many reps have gotten a chance to get better, too. If anything, I think our depth has improved over the course of this spring."
Another player who is likely to not play on Saturday is Ryan Switzer, though he's been able to take part in much of UNC's spring practices and the various drills and segments. Others who probably won't play include Darien Rankin and Romar Morris.
"Saturday I'll be watching unless things change, but I'll have a good time with everybody," Switzer said. "There's only a couple periods in practice where I'm not able to do stuff. The seven-on-seven, the one-on-ones, the routes on air, I've been able to do all that. And that's been my main focus is to make sure I'm a better route runner. Make sure I'm more dependable, more reliable as a receiver to my quarterbacks. And I've gotten that accomplished this spring and I'm proud of myself for it."
Saturday will be Seth Littrell's first opportunity to call plays in a game-like setting as North Carolina's offensive play-caller, and the first time new UNC staff members Larry Porter and Keith Heckendorf will get to work with the Tar Heel players on the sidelines on a Kenan Stadium Saturday afternoon as position coaches.
While Heckendorf was on the staff last season, his role is considerably expanded now as quarterback's coach.
"I think it's been pretty smooth, really (the transition with the new coaches)," said Fedora. "I don't think there's been a problem there. We're still trying to identify who we are personnel-wise as an offense, and that's the most difficult thing. What kind of offense are we going to be? What kind of team are we going to be offensively? What personnel groupings, what kind of plays are we going to be able to take advantage of this year?"
"I think terminology (coming from other schools) is the hardest thing," the third-year UNC coach added. "Ball is ball, but when you get in the heat of the battle, and words are coming out that you know, and that makes it difficult. Especially with what we're doing, because we're trying to process things as quickly as possible."
"It's pretty much been the same," added Switzer of the new coaches. "We've tweaked it a little bit. We've got a couple different route combinations in. But for the most part it's been the same. And we're just looking forward to continuing getting better at it."
While there's plenty of uncertainty as to how the new coaches will mesh with the players in a true game environment, there's every bit as much uncertainty about which players will emerge as key contributors at several positions.
Fedora indicated that defensive end, running back, and quarterback are just a few of the position battles that provide guys chances to step out of the crowd on the biggest stage the spring season has to offer on Saturday.
"I don't know if we've defined who's going to be the No. 1 guy yet (at defensive end)," said Fedora. "Jessie Rogers is probably the guy that if we had to throw somebody out there right now, he would be the first guy that goes. He's got the most experience over there. But I know that Junior Gnonkonde and Dajaun Drennon, all three are in the mix."
"Until we determine who's No. 1 and who's No. 2, right now I could see multiple guys playing back there (at running back)," Fedora continued.
One player who will have a lot of eyes on him Saturday is true freshman running back Elijah Hood, who is in competition with T.J. Logan and Khris Francis for those much-desired repetitions in Carolina's offensive backfield rotation.
"I think he's come a long way this spring," said Fedora of Hood. "I think he has a pretty good grasp of what we're doing offensively. And the more reps he gets, the better he's going to be. His legs are under him, all those things. But he's still having to think. He's still having to process things. When you think you don't play as well."
For Hood and the rest of the UNC players, Saturday is going to be their last, best chance to show what they're got until August 30th's home opener against Liberty.
When Liberty arrives in Kenan Stadium it will be for real of course, and the Tar Heels from that point on won't get any re-dos.
Aside of this summer's training camp, perhaps nothing can better prepare the Tar Heel players for the upcoming season than coming out with a spirited and well-executed workout on Saturday. They'll have some quality film to spend the rest of the offseason assessing, and guys will be able to feel good about what they've accomplished this spring if they can come out and perform well in front of the UNC faithful.