CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) - Eric Ebron has the strength to block up front for North Carolina, the speed to sprint by defenders after the catch and the versatility to be an all-over-the-field threat. It's why coach Larry Fedora is pushing his tight end for a big season in the Tar Heels' no-huddle offense.
The 6-foot-4 junior set a program record for catches and yards receiving for a tight end last year. Now Fedora wants his preseason all-Atlantic Coast Conference pick aiming for more - a dozen touchdowns, in fact - in a season that begins with Thursday's trip to No. 6 South Carolina.
``How many tight ends in college football ever score 12 touchdowns?'' Ebron said. ``So in order to be different, you have to set goals that are different. To me, that's a goal that rarely anyone has accomplished and it'll separate me from others.''
Ebron started 11 games and finished with 40 catches for 625 yards and four touchdowns in 2012. He was the team's fourth-leading receiver as a first-time starter in a no-huddle spread offense that set program single-season records for total yardage and scoring average. And he's athletic enough that he even saw spot duty on the defensive line in a win against rival North Carolina State last season.
Ebron and sophomore receiver Quinshad Davis, who had 38 catches in the final four games, are the go-to guys for senior quarterback Bryn Renner in an offense that averaged nearly 41 points and 486 yards per game.
Fedora compared Ebron's talent to Detroit Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew, whom Fedora coached as offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State before his first head coaching stop at Southern Mississippi. Fedora and tight ends coach Walt Bell spent training camp pushing Ebron to do even more than last year.
The 12-touchdown goal would tie the program's single-season receiving record, regardless of position.
``I'm wanting him to push himself beyond what he thinks he can go and understand we're going to try to push him beyond where he thinks he can go,'' Fedora said. ``Always in every kid you're dealing with, when you're pushing them higher and farther than they think they can go, they get frustrated. So you try to push them through that frustration - and even farther. That's when you really want to push, because you're going to find out a lot about them in that situation.
``Ebron's doing fine. I still think he's got a long way to go. He hasn't arrived, that's for sure. But he can make those plays for us.''
Ebron seems to be handling all that pushing with relaxed ease, breaking into big smiles and joking with reporters about the expectations that await. He doesn't shy away from Fedora's 12-TD goal; rather, he's quick to offer his own target of 15.
He said he's bulked up to 254 pounds from around 235 last season, but quipped he still has the same ``illegal'' speed that ``looks like it shouldn't be on the field, but it is.''
South Carolina secondary coach Grady Brown called Ebron ``a monster of a tight end.''
``He's a heck of a football player,'' Gamecocks linebackers coach Kirk Botkin said. ``He's put on a little weight and supposed to be faster and bigger and stronger. I know he's a big part of their offense. We're well aware of him.''
Bell said Ebron has also matured significantly since arriving on campus, including his improved focus during practice. That includes trying to avoid the small mistakes - a dropped pass here, a false start penalty there - that occasionally surfaced during Ebron's first year as a starter.
``Really, it's just football maturity, and a lot of that only comes with experience from reps,'' Bell said. ``We've just got to continue to eliminate mistakes, that's the biggest thing. It's consistency, I guess that's a more positive way to make that statement - let's be more consistent.''
Well, it's that and getting to the end zone with the frequency Fedora wants.
``I think I have all the ability in the world to get it done,'' Ebron said. ``Not to be cocky, but I don't think anybody has the ability to prevent me from getting to that goal.''
AP Sports Writer Pete Iacobelli in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this report.
Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap