UNC tops spring 'sleeper' teams for 2013

Quarterback Bryn Renner (3,356 yards, 28 TDs in 2012) and the Tar Heels could surprise in 2013. Bob Donnan/USA TODAY Sports

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- After visiting seven schools from the ACC, Big Ten and SEC in the past three weeks, I came to a few conclusions. Here's one: Coaches are rarely pleased with how their teams look in the spring.

You can follow the logic as to why. It's a season for motivation, of poor-mouthing to leave a message with players that can last through the coach-free summer months and into preseason camp.

North Carolina's Larry Fedora is no different.

"There are a lot of questions," the second-year coach said. "We're an average team coming out of spring. That's what we are, is average."

So we thank Fedora's tone for helping us fit his squad snugly into our classification of spring sleeper teams, those that are not being widely talked about, but could be dangerous by the fall.

Based on that current assessment of mediocrity, I asked Fedora whether he felt his team could compete this fall in the ACC. Suddenly, he perked up.

"No doubt. No doubt," Fedora said. "Just because I say we're average now, that's not to say where we'll be. We don't have to play now. I don't want to be peaking now, in April.

"It's about building it. We don't have to win today."

Other coaches I have talked with about North Carolina are well aware of the Tar Heels. One noted that everyone seems fixated on Ohio State as the again-eligible team to watch, but UNC could make some noise in the ACC and contend for a BCS bowl berth.

Fedora said it begins with a focus on the Coastal Division, now that winning it can again return to the team's list of goals. A division title means you're a single win away from a BCS bowl, Fedora said.

I also spoke with Fedora about the challenges facing new coaches in high-profile programs. He made mention of peers going to schools with talent already in place, and what an advantage that is when expectations begin to mount by Years 2 and 3.

Fedora did not say this, but I will: He entered one of those fortunate, stable situations. Former UNC coach Butch Davis was not let go for his inability to recruit, or even coach.

Just look at this past weekend's draft. The Tar Heels had an offensive lineman, a defensive lineman and a running back taken in the first 37 picks.

The cupboard is not bare, either. Fedora was the only coach on my recent trip to voluntarily give me a position-by-position breakdown of what is returning. He highlighted some strengths and was unafraid to single out a few players who must emerge in order for UNC to fulfill the sleeper destiny. Here are some of the highlights:

• Fedora credited quarterback Bryn Renner for really understanding his role in the tempo system by the final four games of the 2012 season. The team won three of those games, scoring an average of 43.8 points. And Renner completed 71 percent of his throws at a very efficient 8.4 yards per attempt (332 yards a game) and 11 touchdowns to only two interceptions.

Fedora's system, which has been in place since he was an offensive coordinator at Middle Tennessee State in 1999, is all about timing. Renner and his receivers got a better handle on that as time progressed, and he also understood that check-downs were a vital part of the offense -- as opposed to forcing something downfield.

• I was most intrigued to hear Fedora talk about junior tight end Eric Ebron, who went from 10 catches as a freshman to 40 as a sophomore in his first year in the new offense. Fedora coached 2009 first-round pick Brandon Pettigrew at Oklahoma State, and he said Ebron is "like Pettigrew, but more athletic. There's no reason why he shouldn't catch 55, 65 passes and have 10 touchdowns" in 2012.

Ebron seems like the perfect complement to No. 1 receiver Quinshad Davis, who caught 61 passes as a freshman and, as he grew comfortable with Renner, finished the season with three consecutive 100-plus-yard games.

• Running back has been the position of intrigue for the Heels after the loss of second-round pick Gio Bernard, who averaged 6.67 yards per touch. It will be a collective effort. Fedora called senior A.J. Blue a "big, thick runner." Fedora said sophomore Romar Morris "can go goal line to goal line. He has that big-play ability." And early enrolling freshman Khris Francis, from nearby Durham, showed signs in the spring that he could contribute -- and maybe even star -- in the offense.

Francis had 101 yards in the team's spring game. Fedora said he still has work to do in terms of pass protection, but that's a common refrain from coaches about freshman backs. If Francis is dynamic enough, and it appears that he might be, the staff will get him into games.

• Fedora seemed to really like a secondary that returns three pieces and has some depth. Corners Tim Scott and Jabari Price and safety Tre Boston were the veteran players he mentioned from a unit that helped the team post a solid 5.21 yards per play against a season ago.

• Fedora mentioned that 6-foot-5, 260-pound senior defensive end Kareem Martin "has a chance to be really good. He's got to have a big year for us." He will be asked to replace the leadership of tackle Sylvester Williams, the 28th overall pick in the draft.

Fedora spurned a few overtures to leave after a season. And why not? There's talent in Chapel Hill, a wide-open division -- and the Heels are again eligible.

Here are five other programs flying under the radar this spring, along with an examination of why they could -- or couldn't -- emerge at the top of their divisions and/or conferences in 2013.

Big East

South Florida Bulls

Why: Coach Willie Taggart is incredibly well respected by his peers. When he left Jim Harbaugh's fold at Stanford to take over at Western Kentucky, some people told me it was the worst job in America. Taggart went from two wins in 2010 to seven in each of the next two seasons, leaving the job for USF and being replaced by ... Bobby Petrino. That's raising the bar.

So believing he could get USF going with Florida kids is not very far-fetched, regardless of what happens to the crumbling football league.

Why not: It's still Louisville's conference to win, so USF can only climb so high. Still, getting back to a bowl from a three-win season would demonstrate what many in the game already firmly believe: Taggart can coach and run a program. He might not be long for Tampa, either.