Fans in Chapel Hill witnessed quite a turnaround last year as the Tar Heels won six of their final seven games after starting the year at 1-5 including an 0-3 start in the conference. And despite watching five of his top players leave via the draft, third year head coach Larry Fedora returns 14 starters, including three on defense who have a chance to draw NFL interest in OLB Norkeithus Otis, CB/FS Tim Scott and the team's only returning starter on the defensive line, DT Ethan Farmer, as well as All-Conference honorable mention punter Thomas Hibbard.
North Carolina's top NFL Draft-eligible prospects to watch in 2014:
OLB Norkeithus Otis (6'1 | 240 | 4.73 | #8)
A ten-game starter last season at the bandit position and a three-year contributor who has appeared in 30 games since his true freshman season in 2011, Otis has developed into one of the most versatile defenders in the conference. As a junior, he tallied 49 tackles, 13.0 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks, nine quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles, three pass breakups and an interception, proving that he's more than capable of being an every-down contributor.
Although he can be plugged in at multiple spots, it's Otis's natural ability as a pass-rusher that may be his greatest asset, as he demonstrates an explosive first step, active hands, agile feet to change direction and impressive closing burst once he's in the clear. Despite being only 6'1, Otis's long arms enable him to play taller and with more range than one would expect when considering his listed size, and he understands how to employ his shorter stature to gain leverage when engaging taller opponents.
Dropping into coverage, he's obviously still very raw and appears a bit uncomfortable at times despite showing fluidity in space and strong burst in any direction when he commits.
We're seeing more and more NFL teams willing to gamble on "tweener" hybrid types due to the need for more speed to defend prolific passing attacks, and Otis certainly has the talent to potentially fill this type of role at the next level.
Other North Carolina prospects to watch in 2014:
DB Tim Scott (5'11 | 190 | 4.53 | #7)
A 32-game starter at cornerback who earned All-ACC Second-Team honors as a sophomore before being moved to free safety for last year's final game - the Belk Bowl - where he tallied 6 tackles and a sack, and left such an impression on coaches that he's been moved there permanently. Considering the rarity of defensive backs who can play both corner and safety at a high level and the premium that NFL teams tend to put on them, Scott's transition will be one to watch this year leading up to the draft.
P Thomas Hibbard (5'10 | 190 | 4.89 | #30)
A three-year starter, All-ACC honorable mention (2013), and Ray Guy award watch list member for 2014, Hibbard averaged 43.0 yards per punt last season - good enough for fourth in the ACC and 28th in the country - and downed 25 of 65 inside the 20. Has the leg strength and accuracy to compete at the next level.
The only returning starter on UNC's D-line, Farmer started all 13 games last season posting 30 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble. Possesses natural burst and quickness off the snap but has played too upright and struggles to disengage making him more of an occupier than a disrupter to this point. Athleticism is there to develop if he can learn to use his hands and stay low off the snap.