CHAPEL HILL, North Carolina — North Carolina has spent the months since the end of a frustrating season trying to repair a fractured locker room as well as a broken defense. Fourth-year coach Larry Fedora is waiting to find out if the Tar Heels have done both.
"We'll think we know things about this football team," Fedora said, "but until we're faced with adversity, we won't really know."
Sure, the Tar Heels (6-7) made a bowl game for the second straight season. But they were a historically bad defensive team that undercut the big numbers put up by their offense, leading to an overhaul of the defensive coaching staff and the arrival of former Auburn head coach Gene Chizik as defensive coordinator.
There were also chemistry problems leading to an offseason meeting in which players were required to write what they thought was the team's biggest problem on a board. Fedora said the list of "100-something" issues included a lack of leadership to a lack of belief in the team's approach.
"We talked about every single one of them as a team and how we felt they impacted our team," he said. "Then we owned them."
It was easy to spot why there were problems. While the offense averaged nearly 33 points despite bouts of inconsistency, the defense gave up program records of 6,472 yards (497.8 per game) and 507 points (39 per game) last year. They gave up 11 touchdowns of at least 40 yards as well as single-game records of 70 points and 789 yards in a loss at instate East Carolina.
There's experience with 17 returning starters, a core that can make good on the offseason talk of change — starting Sept. 3 against South Carolina in Charlotte.
"It was offense basically versus defense," quarterback Marquise Williams said of a "divided" team. "When we'd play on Saturdays, it was basically offense versus two defenses. You know you're not going to have a successful season like that. That was the feeling. And now you don't see that."
Some things to watch for the Tar Heels this season:
CHIZIK'S IMPACT: Gene Chizik built top defenses at both Auburn and Texas as a defensive coordinator before winning a national championship as the Tigers' head coach. Can he turn things around in his return to coaching after two seasons in broadcasting? "We're not playing any Dr. Phil games," Chizik said. "We're just trying to get them to play consistent football and understand that's how we work our way through adverse situations."
PHYSICAL DEFENSE: Asked what he wants his defenses to be known for, Chizik answered: "Physicality." The Tar Heels are moving from a 4-2-5 to a 4-3 base scheme with an emphasis on tackling. "If he hasn't had a great defense that wasn't physical, then it's time for us to get more physical so we can be one of those great defenses," linebacker Shakeel Rashad said.
THE OFFENSIVE LINE: Five starters are back, led by NFL prospect and fifth-year senior Landon Turner. That group had good moments last year, but faltered in the final two blowout losses to North Carolina State and Rutgers in a bowl. "We understand that for this team to be great, we've got to be good up front," offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic said. "And it's got to be consistent."
KICKING STRUGGLES: UNC desperately needs a reliable kicker. The Tar Heels made 6 of 13 field goals last year, and none longer than 30 yards, turning every attempt into an iffy proposition. Junior Nick Weiler is back after a 5-for-8 season while redshirt freshman Freeman Jones is competing for the job.
SWITZER'S RETURNS: Two years ago, receiver Ryan Switzer tied an NCAA single-season record with five punt returns for touchdowns. Last year, he didn't have any as the frustration built by the week. If Switzer and the punt-return team can get rolling again, the Tar Heels will have a rejuvenated weapon. "The difference between this year and last year, I'm not going to force it," Switzer said. "If it's not there, it's not there."
Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap