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Larry Fedora builds future beyond one breakthrough season

Chris Rodier/Icon Sportswire

This time six years ago North Carolina widely gained rankings among the top 20 in preseason polls.

Optimism ran high in Chapel Hill as the Tar Heels, then coached by Butch Davis, prepared to open against LSU in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta. The ACC hoped for credibility against the SEC.

Then the bottom fell out on Davis and North Carolina. The Tar Heels suspended 13 players as a result of an NCAA investigation into improper benefits and player relationships with sports agents. That led to NCAA sanctions, and Davis was let go before the start of the 2011 season.

Six years later, North Carolina is again widely ranked among the top 20 in preseason polls.

Optimism runs high in Chapel Hill as the Tar Heels, now coached by fifth-year boss Larry Fedora, prepare to open against Georgia in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in the Bulldogs’ backyard. The ACC is counting on the Tar Heels to carry the conference banner against the SEC.

This isn’t déjà vu all over again, to borrow from baseball philosopher Yogi Berra.
Instead of a bottom that is about to fall out, Fedora has a foundation in place.

North Carolina finished last season with an ACC Coastal title, a near upset of Clemson in the program’s first ACC Championship Game, and 11-3 overall record despite a loss to Baylor in the Russell Athletic Bowl.

Oddly enough, Baylor’s bottom fell out after that bowl game, but the only connection with North Carolina is the contrast in the two programs. The Tar Heels remain on the upswing.

North Carolina may not win the ACC title or the Coastal Division this year, but that will be the result of an increasingly competitive conference. The Tar Heels should still be a Top 25 program by season’s end.

The signs indicate that the resurgence under Fedora is built upon a lot more foundations than one breakthrough season.

One building block was national letter-of-intent day in 2014, when Elijah Hood followed through on flipping an early verbal commitment to Notre Dame to sign with North Carolina.

The U.S. Army All-American running back was rolling up the yards as a Charlotte Catholic senior in 2013. At the time, North Carolina was struggling through a 7-6 season, but Hood remained sold on the case Fedora presented to stay home.

Another pivotal moment for UNC came a year earlier, when Fedora plucked dual-threat quarterback Mitch Trubisky out of Big Ten territory in Mentor, Ohio. Trubisky had offers from Ohio State and Michigan State in the Big Ten and Alabama and Tennessee in the SEC.

Trubisky redshirted in 2013, so he and Hood are both junior starters this season in a backfield that is overshadowed in the ACC by only one school, Clemson. Moreover, Clemson QB Deshaun Watson, a Heisman Trophy favorite, and running back Wayne Gallman overshadow just about any school.

A case could be made Hood, a 6-foot, 220-pounder, has more potential than Gallman. Hood was third in the ACC in rushing last year with 1,463 yards and scored 17 touchdowns.

29 October 2015: North Carolina Tar Heels Running Back Elijah Hood (34) during the game between the North Carolina Tar Heels and Pittsburgh Panthers at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pa. (Photo by Mark Alberti/ Icon Sportswire)

Elijah Hood (Photo by Mark Alberti/ Icon Sportswire)

No one is rating Trubisky (6-3, 220) ahead of Watson, but in the NFL the second-best quarterback to Tom Brady can still post big numbers. In a backup role behind Marquise Williams, Trubisky finished 2015 completing 40 of 47 passes (85.7 percent) for 555 yards and six touchdowns without an interception. He rushed 16 times for 101 yards and three TDs.

His most extensive action last year was against Delaware, when Williams and the Tar Heels struggled in the first half. He completed 17 of 20 passes for 312 yards and four touchdowns in a 41-14 victory.

Hood and Trubisky represent the roster Fedora has been assembling. He also hired former Auburn coach Gene Chizik as defensive coordinator to engineer a turnaround which emerged in full color last season.

Don’t overlook that Fedora is back this year despite rumors he planned to jump to Virginia Tech to succeed the retired Frank Beamer. He has a strong foundation in place for 2016 and beyond in Chapel Hill.

Follow Tom Shanahan of Today’s U on Twitter: @shanny4055

Larry Fedora builds future beyond one breakthrough season

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