“We wanted to come out here and get everything we possibly could out of the day and I thought the guys did that,” Fedora told reporters following a blustery opening day of practice. “I thought they moved around well. The energy was great and our tempo was good throughout the entire practice.”
This time last year UNC’s equipment staff was busy scribbling names on masking tape and sticking the varying lengths on the top of helmets.
The biggest difference between last spring and now?
“We know their names,” Fedora said.
The players also know what to expect from the coaches this second time around.
“We really didn’t know where to go in the first spring practice last year,” fifth-year senior quarterback Bryn Renner said. “And this was one of our best practices. We’re going to build from this day forward.”
North Carolina will follow Wednesday’s practice with another two-hour session on Friday before dismissing for 10 days over spring break. The purpose of the two initial practices – both in shorts – is to get the entire team back in sync, according to Fedora.
The coaching staff will work to build as much depth as possible on both sides of the ball during the 15 allotted spring practices.
The spring also serves as a start for next season, effectively wiping away the accolades of last fall.
“We don’t get any credit for what we did last year,” Fedora said. “There’s no credit. We’re starting from scratch with the 2013 team. We’ve got to come up with an identity of who this team is. We know what our brand is – playing smart, playing fast, playing physical – but we’ve got to figure out what the identity of this football team is.”
Renner will play a significant part in defining that identity. The West Springfield, Va. senior completed 65.4 percent of his passes (276-of-422) for 3,356 yards, 28 touchdowns and seven interceptions in his second year as starting quarterback.
“He can get much better; he knows that,” Fedora said. “Bryn really started catching fire about the last five games of the season when he really started getting a feel. I would say the way he came back [on Wednesday], he picked up right where he left off.”
Renner agreed that he can improve on his 2012 campaign.
“I can get a lot better,” Renner said. “I threw seven interceptions and was careless with the ball in the beginning of the season. I can make strides with my footwork and get better in all areas.”
While Renner’s top wide receiver target returns in sophomore Quinshad Davis (61 catches, 776 yards, 5 TD), former roommate and running back Gio Bernard (1,228 yards, 12 TD) departed for the NFL a year early.
Red-shirt senior A.J. Blue (443 yards, 9 TD) worked with the ones at tailback on Wednesday, but Fedora stressed that Blue only took the field because someone had to, noting that four players are battling for the starting spot. The running back job, along with every other position, is open to competition.
The coaching staff doesn’t expect to work up a depth chart until the end of spring ball.
If there was a weak link for North Carolina last season, it was the defense. The Tar Heels ranked 56th nationally in total defense (389.6 ypg) despite 8.1 tackles for loss per game (3rd nationally).
Gone are projected draft picks in tackle Sylvester Williams and linebacker Kevin Reddick, as well as Bandit Dion Guy and Rams Gene Robinson and Pete Mangum.
Replacing Reddick – the voice of UNC’s defense – may prove most challenging, although red-shirt freshmen middle linebackers Nathan Staub and Dan “Mash” Mastromatteo displayed savvy and an understanding of the schemes on Wednesday, according to senior defensive end Kareem Martin.
“The younger guys really came in and stepped up,” Martin said. “They knew their assignments and were communicating well in being the quarterbacks of the defense.”
Martin indicated the defense didn’t have many missed assignments during practice.
“We met more often this offseason trying to get the defense down,” Martin said. “This is our second year in the defense and we really need to be crisp because they’re going to add some new things.”
Blue highlighted Staub and sophomore Bandit Shakeel Rashad as defensive players that stood out in the first session of spring. More importantly, the Dallas, N.C. native encountered an improved defense overall.
“If you go back to the first spring practice last year, they couldn’t move – their legs were stuck to the ground,” Blue said. “And to see them today, it was phenomenal. I liked it. I told Kareem [Martin] that I was proud of the defense.”
North Carolina’s spring practice will conclude with the Spring Game on Sat., Apr. 13 (3pm/ESPN3).