2017 College Preseason Top 25 Capsules: No. 17 North Carolina

17. North Carolina

2016 Record (Ranking): 34-21 (NR). RPI: 19.
Coach (Record at school): Mike Fox (797-346-1, 18 years).
Postseason History: 29 regionals (last in 2014), 10 CWS trips (last in 2013), 0 national titles.

North Carolina has decisions to make.

Behind junior ace righthander J.B. Bukauskas, UNC’s pitching roles remain largely undefined—not because of a lack of options but because of a wealth of them. The right side of the infield faces similar ambiguity. Even the coaching staff is in transition. Former UNC pitcher Robert Woodard has joined as pitching coach, while Scott Forbes has shifted from coaching pitchers to hitters after recruiting coordinator Scott Jackson left for the head coaching job at Liberty.

So there’s some chaos in and around Boshamer Stadium—but it’s positive chaos. As far as head coach Mike Fox is concerned, the Tar Heels are exactly where they need to be.

“It’s a new kind of energy,” Fox said. “And there’s new challenges when you’re doing something different, and nobody’s comfortable here right now, which from my standpoint, that’s the way I like it. Don’t get comfortable.”

With his players itching to get back to the NCAA tournament after falling just short of a regional berth the last two seasons, Fox said the fall “was a blast.” The Tar Heels brought in the country’s No. 2 recruiting class, and that influx of talent intensified practices and has created healthy competition.

UNC brings in six players from last year’s BA 500—five of them pitchers—and the coaches will have their hands full trying to sort them out. Righthanders Tyler Baum and Austin Bergner bring power stuff into the fold, while the 6-foot-6, 240-pound Luca Dalatri brings advanced polish for his age and a four-pitch mix. Those freshmen, as well as a few other newcomers, will compete against returners Jason Morgan and Cole Aker for roles in the rotation. And Fox said he’d have no qualms with starting two freshmen on the weekend, should they earn that opportunity.

It helps to have Bukauskas—a projected top 10 pick with a mid-90s fastball and a power slider—anchoring the staff.

“That’s a benefit for us, having that young man back, and keeping him healthy,” Fox said. “He’s such a good leader and works hard and sets a good example. After that, it’s going to be who’s pitching well, who’s throwing strikes. I don’t think anything’s close to being determined yet.”

There’s a little more solidity from a position-player standpoint. Junior Brian Miller moves from first base to center field, where he was blocked by Tyler Ramirez a year ago, and he’s emerged as one of the top college outfield prospects in the 2017 class. Shortstop Logan Warmoth is coming off a solid performance in the Cape Cod League and hit for improved power late last spring; Fox said the junior has taken himself “to another level.” Fox also pointed out improvements he’s seen in third baseman Kyle Datres and outfielder Brandon Riley, who both showed offensive flashes as freshmen. Powerful junior Zack Gahagan, who is coming off of offseason surgery, would slot at either second base or first base, barring health. Freshmen Ashton McGee, who graduated early to enroll in January, and Michael Busch are in the mix for those positions, as well.

On paper, the Tar Heels have the look of a team poised to rebound, and certainly, the veterans are using the last two years as motivation.

“You hope you have that kind of team and mentality on your team and in your locker room,” Fox said. “Last year, the year before—not up to our standards. It’s over with, so if you want to use it as fuel, that’s great. I think that fuel and that chip plays a role in your offseason and in your preparation and how hard you’re going to work.

“I do think once your season starts and you start getting into games, it’s hard to play angry or with that chip. It’ll come into play when you prepare. Once the game starts, it’s about execution.”

C Cody Roberts, So. .256 .323 .315 1 29 3
1B Michael Busch, Fr. HS— Inver Grove Heights, Minn.
2B Zack Gahagan, Jr. .297 .391 .439 5 34 1
3B Kyle Datres, So. .250 .384 .375 3 23 6
SS Logan Warmoth, Jr. .337 .402 .481 4 53 8
LF Brandon Riley, So. .294 .355 .423 1 35 3
CF Brian Miller, Jr. .345 .440 .469 2 33 21
RF Adam Pate, Sr. .285 .403 .358 0 22 17
DH Brandon Martorano, Fr. HS—Lincroft, N.J.
Pos. Name, Yr. W L ERA IP SO SV
RHP J.B. Bukauskas, Jr. 7 2 3.10 78 111 0
RHP Jason Morgan, Jr. 3 3 4.10 64 47 0
LHP Cole Aker, So. 3 1 3.41 29 30 0
RP Hansen Butler, Sr. 3 0 2.00 18 24 2

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