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March 16, 2011

UNC could gain despite talent drain

North Carolina lost much of the NFL-caliber talent that decorated its roster last season.

Then again, that's not necessarily a huge loss. The Tar Heels had much more star power on the roster than on the actual playing field a year ago.

UNC already is accustomed to playing without future NFL defensive linemen Robert Quinn and Marvin Austin, who missed the 2010 season as part of the school's agent-related scandal. The Tar Heels also spent much of the season without star defensive backs Deunta Williams and Kendric Burney, who also have moved on to the NFL.

The Tar Heels now are focusing on a future without any of those guys. They also must find a new quarterback to replace four-year starter T.J. Yates, one big-name player who wasn't involved in the NCAA investigation. Yates capped an up-and-down career with a solid senior season, which leaves Bryn Renner with a hard act to follow.

Here's a look at where North Carolina stands as it heads into spring practice.

Dwight Jones headlines a solid group of returning receivers for North Carolina.
Coach: Butch Davis
Last season: 8-5 overall, 4-4 in the ACC Coastal. Beat Tennessee 30-27 in overtime in the Music City Bowl.
Spring dates: March 16-April 9.
(minimum seven starts last season)
Offense (6): FB Curtis Byrd, G Jonathan Cooper, WR Erik Highsmith, C Cam Holland, T James Hurst, WR Dwight Jones.
Defense (5): T/E Quinton Coples, CB LeCount Fantroy, E Donte Paige-Moss, T Tydreke Powell, LB Kevin Reddick.
Special teams (2): K Casey Barth, P C.J. Feagles.
Positions of strength

Dwight Jones (62 catches, 946 yards, four TDs) and Erik Highsmith (25-348-3) give North Carolina two solid wide receivers. Highsmith is 6 feet 3 and Jones is 6-5. Most secondaries across the country will have a tough time matching up against that kind of size. UNC returns three starters on the offensive line, though the Tar Heels do have two holes on the right side of the line now that Alan Pelc and Mike Ingersoll have completed their eligibility. After recording 15.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks last season, Quinton Coples returns to lead a talent-laden defensive line.

Help is needed

UNC has a serious lack of depth at running back. Ryan Houston rushed for 713 yards and nine touchdowns two years ago before sitting out the 2010 season, but he's the only North Carolina rusher with much experience. Coaches have high hopes for Bryn Renner, but his lack of experience creates plenty of questions at quarterback. North Carolina also has uncertainty in the secondary following the departures of Deunta Williams, Kendric Burney and Da'Norris Searcy. North Carolina has plenty of capable linebackers, but losing Bruce Carter and Quan Sturdivant to the NFL will hurt.

3 guys to watch

LB Darius Lipford: Although he didn't get a lot of playing time while backing up Carter at strongside linebacker last fall, Lipford showed enough promise to make coaches confident he might be ready to move into the starting lineup this fall. Carter's departure gives him an opportunity to win a job.

QB Bryn Renner: Rated as the No. 5 pro-style quarterback and No. 111 overall prospect in the 2009 recruiting class, Renner gave T.J. Yates legitimate competition for the starting quarterback job last summer. Yates hung on to the job and delivered a solid senior season, and his departure leaves Renner as the clear favorite to run the offense. Renner threw for nearly 6,000 yards and 67 touchdowns in two years at West Springfield (Va.) High.

OT Brennan Williams: After earning playing time in a backup role in each of the past two seasons, Williams is the favorite to take over for the departed Ingersoll as North Carolina's starting right tackle. Williams is the son of Brent Williams, who played for the NFL's New England Patriots, Seattle Seahawks and New York Jets from 1986-93.

The pressure is on

TE Nelson Hurst: Hurst, a Mississippi State transfer, played sparingly last season while backing up Zack Pianalto and Ed Barham, but both are gone. The departures of Pianalto and Barham give Hurst a great opportunity to win a starting job, but he needs to make a good impression this spring. True freshmen Eric Ebron and Jack Tabb could challenge for immediate playing time once they arrive on campus this summer. Hurst needs to make the most of his chance this spring before he gets more competition.

The buzz

North Carolina has to replace plenty of star power on both sides of the ball. The offense figures to get the majority of the attention this spring, as Renner prepares to take over at quarterback amid high expectations while the Tar Heels search for running backs to complement Houston. Junior Hunter Furr, redshirt freshman Gio Bernard (his brother, Yvenson, played at Oregon State) and early enrollee Travis Riley could compete for carries, though Bernard may be limited as he continues to recover from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. Another running back candidate is junior A.J. Blue, though he's more likely to back up Renner at quarterback. North Carolina also needs to find a cornerback to start alongside Charles Brown, who is back after missing the 2010 season. North Carolina's defense is counting on the arrival of line coach Joe Robinson to bring some stability to a position on the coaching staff that had become a bit of a revolving door. Davis had hired Brian Baker in the offseason to replace John Blake, who resigned in September after an NCAA investigation uncovered his connections to agent Gary Wichard. When Baker left after only a month to take a job with the Dallas Cowboys, Davis brought in Robinson. Robinson spent the past three seasons as LSU's defensive line coach and special teams coordinator, and he worked with UNC defensive coordinator Everett Withers at Southern Miss in the early 1990s.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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