Defensive Warrior Otis Embracing Tar Heel ‘Family’

UNC senior bandit Norkeithus Otis senses a different aura around the family-oriented Tar Heel locker room heading into the 2014 campaign.

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The 2014 Bednarik Watch List and all-conference candidate says there’s just something different about the run-in to the fall this year.

“You can just see the focus on everybody, even the younger guys that came in that are puppies right now. The focus is just amazing. Everybody’s ready to get after it,” Otis says.

That laser-like focus described by Otis has been well-documented by quarterback Marquise Williams, wide receiver Ryan Switzer and the head coach himself, Larry Fedora.

Where does the work ethic come from? Otis says it starts from the top. Strength and conditioning coach Lou Hernandez has been practicing what he preaches.

“He wants us to work hard. He pushes us to work hard. But the thing that gets us the most is he works hard as a strength coach too. You’ll see him out on daily runs. He’s running three miles. You’ll see him come back in. He’s lifting, foam rolling and stretching,” Otis says.

The Tar Heels, picked to finish fourth in the ACC Coastal by the media, will be hoping the rededication of effort and intensity will lead to a run at an ACC title in 2014. The urgency is certainly there. Coach Fedora says Carolina can’t afford to let this prime opportunity slip by.

One of the most charismatic players on the squad is Switzer. Otis says the sophomore sparkplug cares deeply for the football program, and that includes the Tar Heel fans as well.

“Ryan [Switzer] is a great guy. He does all the little things right. He wants everybody to be happy. If he loves you and is committed to you as a person, he does whatever he can in order to make you happy. Our fans are somebody he loves. They support him, and he wants to give them the same thing in return,” Otis says.

Through the hard work and sweat, Otis and his Tar Heel teammates are growing extremely close. Recently, Switzer wrote his fellow Tar Heels a personal letter. Otis says the family bonds are evident across the board, but says Switzer takes it to a whole new level.

“He was explaining why he does what he does – for us. He says he comes in and works hard every day for us. This is his family. We’re his brothers. He loves us. It meant a lot to us,” Otis says.

Otis is ranked second at UNC in sacks and tackles for a loss. The Gastonia native will be aiming to back up his strong performances a season ago in his Chapel Hill swansong in 2014.

At the media days earlier this week, Coach Fedora didn’t have any problems answering who was the defensive leader on his team in maybe the quickest response ever recorded.

“That’s easy – Norkeithus Otis,” Coach Fedora says. The Carolina skipper says when Otis speaks up, everybody listens. And that’s helpful to a defense that lost the veteran leadership of defensive end Kareem Martin to the NFL.

Otis at ACC Kickoff (AP)

Otis at ACC Kickoff (AP)

As for his playing position on the field, Otis says the bandit slot is right up his wheelhouse.

“It’s the best of both worlds. I get to be involved in run stop, I can be a pass rusher, I can be the guy that drops back into coverage, and I can stand back and rush from back. It’s fun. It creates different opportunities for me to make plays,” Otis says.

There is one area of the game, though; even Otis hasn’t always been so comfortable with – his eating habits.

“I didn’t like to eat 24/7. But I’ve learned you’ve got to eat like 6 times a day and eat snacks during the day. It’s fun now,” Otis says.

But if Otis isn’t always so hungry off the field, he’s certainly ravenous on it.

‘Seizing Opportunity’: Larry Fedora Eyeing Wide Open Coastal Title

North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora feels the time is right for his Tar Heels to take the next step and win the ACC Coastal division title in year three of his tenure in Chapel Hill.

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“I think it’s wide open. I think that’s why everybody got votes. Anybody could win it. It’s going to be about who plays well down the stretch and takes care of business,” Coach Fedora says.

The media members at the ACC Kickoff preseason event selected Miami to claim UNC’s side of the league, but second-place Duke and fourth-place Carolina each received more first-place votes than the Hurricanes.

The final vote tally highlighted the general consensus circulating around the Grandover Resort that nearly any of the seven teams in the Coastal division could very well find themselves squaring off against heavy favorite Florida State for the ACC title in Charlotte come December.

But although he’s looking to the future, Coach Fedora fondly recalls a special 2013 season.

“That was one of those seasons that you didn’t want it to be over. Our guys were getting better and better every week. It was fun. It was fun coaching them at that point. It was fun because we were young. It was fun that they were enjoying it. You were just watching them grow leaps and bounds every week,” Coach Fedora says.

Coach Fedora will be hoping the Tar Heels can use last season’s surge, in which Carolina reeled off wins in six of its last seven games and comfortably beat Cincinnati to claim the Belk Bowl title, as fuel to get off to a stronger start in 2014.

But if UNC is going to achieve its lofty goals, it will have to do it with only 6 seniors on the roster. By contrast, fellow league member Clemson will have over 20 seniors suiting up.

Coach Fedora says he’s never had so few veterans on a team. As a result, Carolina’s skipper says he expects a potent mixture of fun, excitement and headache in Kenan Stadium this fall.

“It scares the heck out of me. But at the same time, it’s also exciting. You know, because we’re talented. They’re young kids that are talented. Sometimes, you don’t know what they’re going to do and how they’re going to react,” Coach Fedora says.

Larry Fedora addresses the media Monday (Matt Oakes)

Larry Fedora addresses the media Monday (Matt Oakes)

The depth for the Tar Heels is improving across the board. Coach Fedora says that excites him due to the competition factor. Just as returning starter Marquise Williams is having to duke it out with Mitch Trubisky to keep his spot, Coach Fedora says he always wants open competition for starting jobs to be a trademark in his program.

“You don’t get handed a job just because you are the next guy in line. I don’t ever want it to be that way at our place. I want it to be about competition and production. I want our guys to understand that it doesn’t matter whether you’re a freshman, sophomore, junior or senior. If you produce, we’re going to find a way to get you on the field,” Coach Fedora says.

The ratcheted-up competition this year may go hand-in-hand with the urgency Coach Fedora is attaching to this ACC campaign. He says the Tar Heels must take full advantage of a golden opportunity in a Coastal division void of any clear-cut favorites.

“It is an opportunity that we want to take advantage of. If we’re going to continue to grow at the rate we want to grow and get to where we want to be, this is an opportunity we need to seize. We don’t need to let this slip by,” Coach Fedora says.

There’s no doubt about it. Coach Fedora has always maintained he’s out to change the culture at Carolina, doing his best to improve the University’s affinity for football.

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that he heartily approves of UNC sophomore Ryan Switzer’s recent letter addressed to Tar Heel Nation that detailed the hard work his teammates are putting in and also encouraged fans to get fired up and fully support the program this fall.

It remains to be seen how packed Kenan Stadium will be for the season opening night game against Liberty Aug. 30, but for Coach Fedora, there’s no ceiling for this year’s squad of Tar Heels.

“How many games could we play possibly – with a semifinal and a final? That’s fifteen. Yeah, so that would be the ceiling,” Coach Fedora says.

Upping the Ante: Marquise ‘Competition’ Williams Fired Up For 2014

At the 2014 ACC Football Kickoff, held at the Grandover Resort down the road in Greensboro,  UNC quarterback Marquise Williams shared his excitement for the season ahead, explaining how the Tar Heels are hungrier than ever to achieve big things on the football field this fall.

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“We’re excited about the guys we have returning. It’s going to be very special to see what we do this year. A lot of guys have been really focused this summer. Everybody is happy. I haven’t seen one guy complain about a workout like we used to,” Williams says.

Williams has been observing a greater dedication and intensity level by his teammates in the offseason. In essence, the Tar Heels appear to be taking it to another level in preparation for the 2014 campaign.

In particular, the junior lauded return specialist and wideout Ryan Switzer as a model of hard work. Williams says it’s not uncommon for Switzer to work out three times a day.

As for game days, Williams and the Tar Heels will have a new offensive boss roaming the sidelines this year. Williams says Seth Littrell fits right in with the Red Bull slurping Head Coach Larry Fedora. They have two cornerstone traits in common: high energy and a passion for points.

“Like he [Littrell] told me yesterday, it doesn’t matter what the defense does, we’re going to score points. That’s what I love about what he said. He said, ‘Tell those boys to get us back the ball because we’re going to score points.’ If that doesn’t get you excited as a quarterback then why are you playing football? It gets me excited. I’m very pumped. He has a lot of energy and more than that, he has a lot of swag,” Williams says.

Swag aside, for Williams, the quest for improvement is ongoing.

In an effort to sharpen his accuracy, Williams attended the Peyton Manning camp this summer alongside college quarterback greats like Jameis Winston, Florida State’s Heisman Trophy winner.

Williams says it was an incredible experience working with a legend like Manning. He even received a ringing endorsement from the Denver Broncos’ star.

“The guy gave me a lot of confidence. Coming in, a lot of guys were saying I wasn’t much of a thrower. But Peyton called me to the side and said, ‘Son, you’re a heck of a thrower. Your form is good. Your feet are good. When he gave me that talk, I felt like nobody could tell me anything. It’s Peyton Manning. That’s the greatest in the game. […] He gave me a boost,” Williams says.

Williams in action (Elliott Rubin)

Williams in action (Elliott Rubin)

But at the end of the day, a quarterback is only as good as the tools he has to work with. And Williams is certainly losing a valuable one in tight end Eric Ebron, who will now be playing on Sundays in the NFL.

However, Williams says he’s not overly worried. He says he’s comfortable with senior Jack Tabb’s ability to fill the position.

“He’s going to be ready for that task. He’s been performing well. He’s been running great routes. His hands have been getting better and better. I’m looking forward to see what he’s going to do. He knows he has big shoes to fill, but he’s going to step up to the challenge. We’re Tar Heels, that’s what we do. We step up to any challenge,” Williams says.

Ironically for Williams, his spot as the starter of his own team remains in question. His battle for the job with promising upstart Mitch Trubisky has provided plenty of offseason fodder for conversations around the summer water cooler.

But the man who led Carolina to wins in six of its last seven games and delivered a Belk Bowl championship in 2013 says he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I’m not surprised at all. If you don’t have a position battle on the football team, then I don’t know why you have a college football team. If I was to win the starting job this year, I would still think I would need to compete the next season after that. I like to compete. I named myself Marquise ‘Competition’. I’ve been competing all my life,” Williams says.

Marquise ‘Competition’ will certainly have his hands full with Trubisky nipping at his heels when preseason practice resumes shortly, but Williams’ trademark poise and confidence won the day Sunday in Greensboro.

Strong-Legged UNC Punter Tommy Hibbard Proving His Worth

One of the most under-the-radar performers for the Tar Heel football team heading into 2014 may be the starting punter, but he’s not being overlooked for the NCAA’s most prestigious award at his position.

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Having the ability to reverse the field position on an opponent is huge. It can often prove to be the difference between losing and winning a game.

And there’s likely no position more critical to this ‘flipping of the script’ than the punter – just ask LSU fans.

Australian American Brad Wing achieved national stardom during several nationally televised showdowns, most notably against rival Alabama, for his tremendous accuracy and leg strength, pinning opponents back inside their own 10-yard line with regularity. Wing is currently playing in the NFL for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Although not as famous as his Bayou counterpart, Carolina’s Tommy Hibbard has that uncanny ability to change the complexion of a game with a single boot of his leg. The senior showed off his immense talents on more than a few occasions last season.

The Charlotte product averaged 43 yards per punt on 65 attempts in his junior campaign. Most notably, 25 of his kicks were downed inside the opponents’ 20-yard line.

Those kicks really pay dividends. They apply pressure on the opponent, make them contend with rowdy crowd noise surrounding the endzones, and open the door for vital, quality field position for the offense with a successful three and out.

The Augusta Sports Council is taking notice of Hibbard. They’ve recently named him to the preseason watch list for the Ray Guy Award, which is awarded to the nation’s premier collegiate punter.

After all, Hibbard spearheaded a Tar Heel unit that ranked fourth in the nation in punt return average, with opponents only managing to gain a mere 2.89 yards per return.

Hibbard in action (UNC Athletics)

Hibbard in action (UNC Athletics)

It can be easy to overlook a punter’s prowess. When these guys trot out onto the field, one set of fans is already disgusted at the offense’s inability to sustain a scoring drive. But a well executed, long bomb by the punter that pins the opponents back can demoralize the receiving squad.

So don’t forget about Hibbard. He may just turn out to be the X-factor in a pivotal game for the Tar Heels in 2014.

UNC Football Championship Bet At 100/1

While many are looking forward to another winning season from UNC Football, Bovada Online Gaming released the Tar Heels only have a 100/1 chance of winning the national title this season.

Bovada, an online gambling and betting destination for sports enthusiasts, released their 2014-2015 national championship odds for 51 college football teams last week.

The team at the top of the list to win the national title is the ACC’s own Florida State Seminoles, led by sophomore quarterback Jameis Winston, with an 11/2 chance. The next ACC teams with better odds to win are Clemson with a 66/1 chance and Miami at 75/1, with UNC filling the 4th best spot in the conference.

Although Bovada hasn’t given the Tar Heels much of a fighting chance, Coach Larry Fedora and his new-and-improved squad are ranked 18th in the preseason by Bleacher Report and projected to make a name for their program through the new College Football Playoff format.

UNC Defensive Line Features Trifecta of Depth, Talent and Experience

Head Coach Larry Fedora’s potent, up-tempo Tar Heel football offense receives most of the high-profile attention, but the Carolina skipper has been pointing to the other side of the ball as the most improved so far in 2014.

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Coach Fedora is starting to feel more and more comfortable with his big guys up front on the oft-maligned Tar Heel defense that reached its low point in 2013 inside Kenan Stadium when Carolina was completely embarrassed by an East Carolina team that ran UNC ragged in front of the home fans.

From that point on though, progress has slowly been made for defensive coordinator Vic Koenning’s boys.

Earlier in the spring, the coaching staff was especially pleased with the added depth on the line.

The probable choices for the defensive tackle positions are two hefty seniors. Ethan Farmer, at 6 feet, 3 inches and 295 pounds, and Shawn Underwood, at 6 feet, 1 inch and 300 pounds, should provide solid experience for the unit.

Farmer took to the field in all 12 games in 2013 and Underwood saw action in eight contests.

But the pair of seniors will have younger athletes nipping at their heels. Junior Justin Thomason and redshirt freshman Greg Webb are both talented options, only further bolstering the depth up front.

As far as defensive end, the Tar Heels boast a trio of players who could spend time making Saturday contributions. Although junior Jessie Rogers and sophomore Junior Gnonkonde may have the edge at the position, don’t be surprised if highly-touted redshirt freshmen Nazir Jones and Dajuan Drennon stir things up in opposing teams’ backfields.

However, the star of this defensive unit is no doubt senior bandit Norkeithus Otis. His place in the starting lineup is unquestioned. Earlier this week, Otis tabbed as a contender for the Bednarik Award, which goes to the nation’s top defensive performer.

Norkeithus Otis caused a Miami turnover on this play. (Elliott Rubin)

Norkeithus Otis caused a Miami turnover on this play. (Elliott Rubin)

If Otis follows up his heroics in 2013 with even more improvement, 2014 could shape up to be something special in his Chapel Hill swansong.

The competition should be fierce heading into fall practice. But that’s good news for the Tar Heels.

Despite the brutal losses of Kareem Martin and Tim Jackson to the NFL, the Carolina defensive line appears, at least for the time being, to be in capable hands.

Tar Heel Trio In NCAA Gridiron Spotlight

The Carolina football season is still a month and a half away, but the preseason hype continues to build as a trio of Tar Heels was named Monday to watch lists for prestigious national awards.

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Senior bandit Norkeithus Otis was placed on the short list for the 20th annual Chuck Bednarik Award.

The Bednarik Award is presented to the nation’s premier college football defensive player of the year.

A season ago, Otis burst onto the scene with an impressive 2013 campaign that featured 7.5 sacks and 49 total tackles, including 13 for a loss. Additionally, he was second at UNC with nine quarterback hurries and two forced fumbles. In short, he was a nightmare for opposing offenses.

Norkeithus Otis caused a Miami turnover on this play.

Norkeithus Otis caused a Miami turnover on this play.

Bednarik, the award’s namesake, was a standout performer at the University of Pennsylvania and then later in the NFL at the Philadelphia Eagles. Bednarik has been enshrined in both the college football and NFL hall of fames.

For Otis to be up for such an award in his final go-around in a Carolina uniform, speaks volumes to the drastic improvement made by the native of Gastonia who was relegated to special teams duty his first two seasons in Chapel Hill.

On the other side of the ball, two UNC offensive playmakers are making national noise.

The Louisville Sports Commission tabbed both running back T.J. Logan and return specialist and wideout Ryan Switzer to the 2014 Watch List for the Paul Hornung Award.

Ryan Switzer

Ryan Switzer

Now in its fifth season, the Hornung Award is doled out to the most versatile player on the NCAA gridiron.

Players on this year’s watch list tallied 9,799 rushing yards, 21,281 receiving yards, 18,353 kickoff return yards and 4,104 punt return yards in 2013.

And Carolina’s Switzer and Logan accounted for quite a few of those special teams numbers last season. Switzer accounted for 419 yards in punt return yardage, an ACC high, while Logan amassed 391 yards off kickoffs.

The book is out on this talented trio. These three Carolina gridiron greats won’t be sneaking up on anyone in 2014.

“Go Heels, Go America!” Feeling Pervading UNC Football

July Fourth is here. And there aren’t too many things more American than college football. For many in the Chapel Hill community, the popular slogan, “Go Heels, Go America!” comes to mind this time of the year.

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Those chants could be growing to a fever pitch come this fall if the preseason projections ring true for the Carolina football team.

Believe it or not, the 2014 ACC Football Kickoff, held at the Grandover Resort in Greensboro, is less than three weeks away.

The newly expanded league (hello, Louisville!) will welcome the head coaches and select players from all 15 member schools on July 20-21 to face the media in the unofficial start of the college football season.

Of course, the brightest lights will shine on defending national champion Florida State and the Seminoles’ Heisman trophy winner, Jameis Winston.

But not far from the spotlight and still on the main stage, will be UNC, Head Coach Larry Fedora, and his high-powered, up-tempo offensive playmakers fielding questions on a possible date in Charlotte with FSU in the ACC Championship Game come December.

College football guru Phil Steele has UNC ranked No. 18 in his preseason prognosis in his annual preview publication. Only two ACC schools rank higher on his list – Notre Dame at No. 17 and FSU at No. 1.

What’s more, Steele has eight Tar Heels tabbed for All-ACC honors. Electric return man Ryan Switzer and standout punter Tommy Hibbard are projected as first-team All-American and ACC selections.

Steele’s not going out on a limb there. Switzer earned first-team All-America honors as a freshman a season ago thanks to his five return touchdowns that tied the NCAA record.

Switzer sprinting ahead (

Switzer sprinting ahead (

On the ACC second team, athletic quarterback Marquise Williams, dynamic wide receiver Quinshad Davis and sturdy linebacker Norkeithus Otis have all been featured by Steele.

On Wednesday, Otis was added to the College Football Performance Awards Linebacker Trophy Watch List. Playing at the bandit position in 2013, Otis registered 7.5 sacks and recorded 49 tackles, including 13 for a loss.

Otis is joined by teammate Travis Hughes in preseason recognition at the linebacker position. In addition, senior safety Tim Scott and elusive running back T.J. Logan snagged spots on Steele’s All-ACC team.

There’s plenty to look forward to on this Fourth of July for Tar Heel nation. With such a stable of high-level performers taking to the Kenan Stadium stage this fall, the patriotic showering of  “Go Heels, Go America!” could be reverberating like never before.

Coach Fedora Has Plenty Of Questions To Answer For 2014 FB Season

Head Coach Larry Fedora says the UNC football team has plenty to work on in the lead-up to the 2014 home kickoff on Aug. 30 against Liberty.

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“We put them in as many uncomfortable situations as possible and hopefully, they’ll get comfortable in those situations,” Coach Fedora says.

Coach Fedora and his team are gearing up for a run at an ACC Coastal crown this fall. The expectations are high for the Tar Heels this season, especially given all the returning parts in Fedora’s ‘freak show’ offense that’s already set over 40 records since Coach Fedora’s hiring.

The only question mark for the offense comes at the offensive line. Coach Fedora says it’s been a struggle in that area during offseason workouts.

“I think we still have a long way to go. We’ve got a few nicks and bruises in that area right now that are keeping some guys out that we need to get a look at. But unfortunately, it’s just not happening right now. There’s not a whole lot of continuity in what we’re doing up there,” Coach Fedora says.

Coach Fedora, who has recorded seven consecutive winning seasons as a head coach and led Southern Mississippi to a Conference USA championship before taking the post in Chapel Hill, is known for his warp-speed, no-huddle offense, but in reality, it will likely be the performance of the Carolina defense that will control the Tar Heels’ fates in 2014.

Coach Fedora says there’s been a lively competition on the defensive line to replace a standout performer like Kareem Martin, who departed for the NFL.

“Jessie Rogers is getting some reps there, and you’re getting Dajaun Drennon. But none of the three have a lot of experience right now. It’s fun o watch them compete,” Coach Fedora says.

The burning question this summer, though, is undoubtedly who will get the start at the quarterback position. Coach Fedora has been playing his cards close to his chest, but says it’s an open contest for the job and assures people that the best player will prevail.

“Until somebody starts stepping out ahead of the other – when one guy deserves more reps, he’ll get more reps,” Coach Fedora says.

The man at the helm of UNC came in to his regime with one primary goal in mind: change the culture surrounding the football team in Chapel Hill.

He promised to make game days on Saturdays the place to be.

Winning generally takes care of that. The Tar Heels already sport a 15-10 overall record and a bowl win under Coach Fedora. But if the questions surrounding this summer are answered, Carolina fans might be treated to something even more special: a banner year for football.

Summer Showdown: Trubisky-Williams QB Battle Rages On

It’s the time of the summer that sports fans start to count down the days until football. Carolina football’s home opener against Liberty in Kenan Stadium is just 73 days away, but the storyline of the summer remains centered around who will get the start behind center?

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College football guru Phil Steele has UNC redshirt junior Marquise Williams pegged as the second best quarterback in the entire ACC heading into the 2014 season.

But Williams has his work cut out for him just to secure the No. 1 position on his own team this fall. Williams says he enjoys the competition with redshirt freshman Mitch Trubisky, but also is assuring that regardless of who wins the starting job, the team chemistry will remain intact.

“I’m confident off last year’s season. I just keep building off that and let these coaches know that I’m the one for the first team. I love this competition. He’s a great guy – a competitive guy. I love it. We’re going to be brothers regardless. Whoever starts, we’re going to be brothers,” Williams says.

Encouragingly for the Tar Heels, Trubisky is also putting the team first. He says his primary goal is to gain the trust of the rest of the offense.

“I think the main thing is just earning the trust of the other ten guys on the field. I have belief in my abilities. I need to earn their belief in my abilities so we can just go out there and everyone be on the same page and start clicking. I know I have the skills and capabilities to do it. It’s not all about me. It’s about the team. What quarterback makes the offense better?” Trubisky says.

Mitch Trubisky (

Mitch Trubisky (

No matter who ultimately snags the signal caller spot, the offensive line remains a question mark with the loss of elite tackle James Hurst to the NFL. Williams says despite some struggles in practice, it’s vital for him to be a leader and give off a positive vibe to the guys up front.

“It’s been a struggle. Those guys are going to come along. They are going to be ready to go. You just got to keep pushing. Coach [Seth] Littrell talks about body language. As a quarterback, you have to come out here with a lot of energy. […] I got to pick those guys up. If those guys see me keep picking them up, they’re going to rally around me,” Williams says.

Williams brings the experience to the table. He has five games as a starter under his belt after Bryn Renner suffered a season-ending injury at N.C.State.

The Charlotte native completed 107 of 184 passes for 1527 yards and 14 touchdowns while finishing with 490 rushing yards and six rushing scores. He’s truly a dual-threat option for new offensive coordinator Seth Littrell.

Trubisky, on the other hand, has a stronger arm and is a more natural thrower. The Ohio native is not hurting for any confidence either. He says he believes he’s winning the head-to-head competition.

“They haven’t told us who’s ahead in the competition. I feel like I’m ahead. That’s just how I feel. I feel like I’m ready to take over. That’s how I’m preparing every day. I don’t know what the coaches think. They just say to keep battling,” Trubisky says

Head Coach Larry Fedora has revealed no timetable for a final decision to be made, so expect the suspense to linger into August.

But return specialist and wide receiver Ryan Switzer isn’t worried. He says both quarterbacks have their own ‘It’ factor. That’s good news for Tar Heel fans as the highly anticipated college football season draws near.