Recruiting class has Davis optimistic about future

Despite inheriting a team that went 3-9 last season, new North Carolina coach Butch Davis has high hopes for the Tar Heels.

Updated: March 27, 2007, 12:42 PM ET
By Jorge Milian | Special to ESPN.com

First things first. Butch Davis says he's going to be just fine.

Davis, hired as North Carolina's coach in November to replace John Bunting, was recently diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. The 55-year-old Davis has already begun a series of chemotherapy treatments with the aim of removing a cancerous growth in his mouth. Tests show that the cancer has not spread and Davis insists he will not miss any time at work with the Tar Heels, who started spring practice on March 20.

Butch Davis
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeButch Davis says it will take time to build the UNC program.
"Obviously, I was surprised and shocked," said Davis, the former coach of the Miami Hurricanes and the NFL's Cleveland Browns. "But the best news is that, like in all cases that involve cancer, early detection is the best thing. I feel very confident. I have great medical care. It's business as usual. The doctors told me to keep working. I feel good. My general health is the best it's been in years."

Not so with North Carolina's football team. The Tar Heels suffered through a tumultuous 2006 season, finishing with a 3-9 record that included wins against winless Duke and Division I-AA Furman. The result was the firing of Bunting after six seasons, only one of which ended with a winning record.

The timing was perfect for Davis, who had taken a two-year sabbatical from coaching after his own bumpy tenure with the Browns concluded when he resigned in December, 2004.

"There's such a difference between coaching in college and coaching in the NFL," Davis said. "You're not dealing with agents. You're not dealing with contracts. It's an opportunity to be around kids who are passionate and excited about what they're doing. Being back in college is a lot of fun."

How much fun -- or winning -- there will be next season in Chapel Hill is open to question. There is uncertainty and inexperience throughout the Tar Heels' lineup, especially at quarterback and tailback.

Joe Dailey, who started seven games last season at quarterback, has been switched to receiver. That leaves Cam Sexton as the only quarterback on the roster with playing experience, but his poor performance (41.9 completion percentage, eight interceptions, four TD passes) in 2006 puts him in a battle this spring for playing time with a pair of redshirt freshmen (T.J. Yates and B.J. Phillips) and a walk-on (Ben Johnson).

More competition will come this fall when highly touted recruit Mike Paulus arrives on campus.

Carolina is even thinner at tailback. Leading rusher Ronnie McGill has completed his eligibility and the future of Barrington Edwards, UNC's top returning rusher with 330 yards, remains up in the air after he was suspended indefinitely by the university.

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Without Edwards, the collection of tailbacks that began spring practice combined to carry the ball seven times last season.

The Tar Heels also are green on defense, although that might not be such a bad thing considering they finished 104th nationally last season in scoring defense (30.5 ppg).

Asked if the Tar Heels face a rebuilding year, Davis responded: "I don't know about rebuilding. Heck, it's just building. You have to have something to build. The attitude of these kids is good. I think the future is bright, but it's going to take some time."

Davis has been down this road before. In 1995, Davis took over a Miami program facing severe NCAA sanctions, including the reduction of 31 scholarships over a three-year period. The penalties resulted in the Hurricanes' 5-6 record in 1997, which remains Miami's only losing campaign in college since 1979.

But Davis turned things around quickly thanks to his keen eye for talent. Davis left for the NFL a year before the Hurricanes beat Nebraska in the Rose Bowl to claim the 2001 national championship, but the team that he assembled was arguably the most talented in college football history. Overstatement?

Well, check this out. Of the 22 Miami players who started against the Cornhuskers in the Rose Bowl, 11 turned into NFL first-round picks (Andre Johnson, Willis McGahee, Bryant McKinnie, Jeremy Shockey, William Joseph, Jerome McDougle, Jonathan Vilma, D.J. Williams, Mike Rumph, Phillip Buchanon and Edward Reed). That list does not include backups Vince Wilfork, Sean Taylor, Antrel Rolle, Vernon Carey and Kellen Winslow, who were eventually also No. 1 picks.

Davis doesn't appear to have lost his touch. Despite a late start in recruiting, Davis attracted what Tar Heels insiders say is the best class in school history. Among the cream of the crop were a pair of five-star recruits -- Marvin Austin, a 6-foot-2, 291-pound defensive tackle from Washington, D.C., generally regarded as the nation's top prospect at his position, and 6-foot-5, 210-pound receiver Dwight Jones from Burlington, N.C.

People here want to win a national championship in football. I would say we have a chance to fulfill everyone's dreams here.
Butch Davis

Another key for Davis was convincing Paulus, brother of Duke point guard Greg Paulus, to keep the commitment he had made to Bunting. Paulus is viewed as the quarterback of the not-too-distant future.

"Looking back, it probably exceeded my expectations," Davis said. "Recruiting is a 9-, 10-, 11-month process to evaluate players and we only had a few days. Our coaching staff did a great job. We kind of manufactured an excellent class. We didn't take 'no' for an answer."

Davis put together that class in part by assembling an impressive group of assistants. Six of Davis' lieutenants have NFL experience, including offensive coordinator John Shoop and defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano. Associate head coach John Blake, the former Oklahoma head coach who was on Jimmy Johnson's Dallas Cowboys staff along with Davis, is considered one of the game's top defensive line mentors and a recruiter extraordinaire.

"When high school kids are looking at this staff, they're sitting there saying, 'I could be coached by the guy who coached Keyshawn Johnson or the guy who coached Charles Haley or whoever,'" Davis said. "That's pretty impressive for these guys."

That excitement isn't limited to recruits. Season-ticket sales are up 25 percent over last season, according to Kevin Best, director of football communications.

"You can just sense by going around doing speaking engagements and the reception we've gotten that there is a passion in this state for football," Davis said. "People here want to win a national championship in football. I would say we have a chance to fulfill everyone's dreams here."

Jorge Milian covers the ACC for The Palm Beach (Fla.) Post.

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