Blue Ribbon Preview: North Carolina
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Butch Davis stockpiled an abundance of talent before leaving Miami to take over the head-coaching job with the NFL's Cleveland Browns in 2000. It was a nucleus that went on to win the national championship in '01 and lost to Ohio State in the national championship game the year after that.
That's the kind of progression North Carolina had in mind when it paid Davis more than $2 million a year to inject some life into its floundering football program four years ago.
The Tar Heels have made noticeable progress since then, including back-to-back eight-win seasons and invitations to the Meineke Car Care Bowl in nearby Charlotte. But the biggest victories Davis and his staff have scored are those on the recruiting front, where they have succeeded in making significant upgrades to both UNC's talent level and depth.
That building effort has been particularly noticeable on defense, where the Tar Heels are loaded with future NFL draft picks -- many of which delayed entry into the league so they could return for one final season together.
Led by linemen Robert Quinn and Marvin Austin, linebacker Quan Sturdivant and an opportunistic secondary featuring All-ACC selections Kendric Burney and Deunta Williams, Davis and defensive coordinator Everett Withers have put together a championship-caliber unit.
Whether that defense can actually live up to its potential, survive a difficult ACC Coastal Division schedule and bring home UNC's first league title since 1980 may ultimately depend on the improvement shown by a balky offense, that, if nothing else should at least be more experienced and diverse with 10 starters returning.
There are a lot of people who believe the Tar Heels are ready to make the jump back to football relevance.
Optimism is running so high in Chapel Hill that a school-record 29,000 people came to Kenan Stadium to watch this year's Blue-White spring scrimmage -- a game that was televised live by ESPN.
"I think we've done a nice job building the base of a strong defense. We have nine starters back and the goal there is to continue to develop depth and have our guys improve," Davis said. "On offense, we have to be better.
"We have to make the team balanced. You can't go out there and say, 'We're going to win 7-3.'"
There were times last season when it seemed that was the case.
Unfortunately, even a defense as good as the Tar Heels' wasn't always able to bail an inconsistent offense out. As a result, UNC failed to build on the momentum it gained while improving from four wins to eight in Davis' first two seasons.
Even though the Tar Heels posted their second consecutive eight-win campaign and went to a bowl game for the second straight year -- the first time that's happened since 1997-98 -- the pressure is now on for them to make the next step on the road to becoming an elite program.
Head Coach: Butch Davis (Arkansas '74)
Record at school: 20-18 (3 years)
Career record: 71-39 (9 years)
John Blake (Oklahoma '86) Associate Head Coach/Recruiting Coordinator/Defensive Line
• John Shoop (University of The South '90) Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks
• Everett Withers (Appalachian State '85) Defensive Coordinator/Secondary
• Ken Browning (Guilford '68) Running Backs
• Troy Douglas (Appalachian State '88) Defensive Backs
• Art Kaufman (Arkansas-Monticello '80) Linebackers
• Allen Mogridge (North Carolina '99) Tight Ends
• Sam Pittman (Pittsburg State '86) Offensive Line
• Charlie Williams (Colorado State '83) Wide Receivers
Most programs would consider it a blessing to have a three-year starter returning at quarterback.
But at UNC, where the offense had to struggle to outscore its own opportunistic defense last season, the sight of T.J. Yates (6-4, 220) back under center in 2010 is only slightly less horrifying than having to watch arch-rival Duke celebrate another national championship in basketball.
Statistically, Yates hasn't been as bad as his many detractors would make it seem. He completed 60.3 percent of his passes last season for 2,136 yards and 14 touchdowns, and he enters his final season having already thrown for more yards than all but one other quarterback in school history.
The problem is that he has a penchant for making bad decisions and is prone to throwing interceptions. He had 15 of them last season, many coming at the worst possible times.
Though Yates is considered by many to be the weak link in the Tar Heels' offense, Davis is quick to come to his defense by blaming a large measure of his quarterback's struggles on injuries to an already thin offensive line and a young corps of receivers who spent most of last year getting on-the-job training.
"I'm not sure that any quarterback in America would have had the opportunity to play as well as they were capable of playing, given the set of circum-stances," Davis said. "Regardless if it was T.J. or any other quarterback, it was always going to be a work in progress every week last year to try to be as productive as we possibly could.
"I will tell you this, I think that T.J. had probably his best spring since he's been here, and since I've been the head coach at Carolina. He's really worked. He understands that at the quarterback position, it is absolutely necessary for that person to go out and to play well."
Because of his experience, Yates remains UNC's starting quarterback. His grip on the position, however, isn't as firm as it once was thanks to the rapid development of redshirt freshman Bryn Renner (6-3, 195).
Renner heated up the competition for the starting job with a strong performance in UNC's spring game. He completed 15-of-26 passes for 122 yards and a touchdown in leading his team to a 17-0 victory.
More impressive than his numbers was the arm strength he displayed, his mobility in the backfield and the uncharacteristic energy his presence on the field brought to a Tar Heel offense in desperate need of a spark. His performance prompted Davis to say the battle for the quarterback position probably won't be decided until 10 days before UNC's season opener against LSU.
"T.J. has earned the opportunity to be the guy that either earns the job or loses the job," Davis said. "But Bryn has put himself in position to unbelievably push for that job or significant playing time."
In order to prepare for that upcoming push, Renner abruptly gave up his spot on the Tar Heels' baseball team, where he had been a reserve first baseman and DH, to concentrate solely on football.
When Shaun Draughn (6-0, 210) was lost for the rest of the season after his first carry against Duke in Week 9, it could have been a disaster for UNC's running game. Instead, it became a blessing for the Tar Heels when former short yardage specialist Ryan Houston (6-2, 245) stepped in and proved himself of being an effective inside runner capable of carrying the ball 20-plus times a game.
With Draughn healthy and Houston presumably over the academic concerns that led Davis to hold him out of spring practice, UNC suddenly finds itself with the makings of a formidable 1-2 ball-carrying tandem.
Draughn, who showed no ill effect from his broken shoulder blade during the spring, is UNC's speed back and primary weapon.
He gained 567 yards and averaged 4.6 yards per carry last season and was just starting to come into his own before getting hurt, as evidenced by a career-high 126-yard performance against Florida State. He also caught 21 passes out of the backfield.
While Draughn provides UNC with the lightning in its rushing attack, Houston is the thunder. A tough inside runner type cast as the Tar Heels' designated touchdown scorer -- he has 18 in his career, with all but one coming from inside five yards -- Houston broke the mold when pressed into service to emerge as reasonable facsimile of former Pittsburgh Steelers great Jerome "The Bus" Bettis. In his first game as Draughn's replacement, he carried the ball 37 times for 164 yards to help UNC outlast Duke 17-10.
Houston finished the season as the team's leading ground gainer with 713 yards and nine touchdowns, putting him in line for a more prominent role in the offense this season.
Behind Draughn and Houston, promising sophomore Jamal Womble (5-10, 230) will be next in line for carries after returning from an injury that cost him most of last season.
Senior Anthony Elzy (5-10, 215) also filled in at tailback last season and is capable of both running and catching the ball -- in addition to throwing the occasional option pass.
Elzy will also see considerable time at fullback, where he is currently penciled in as the backup to junior Devon Ramsey (6-2, 245). Though used mostly as a lead blocker in the running game, Ramsey caught six passes for 59 yards out of the backfield last season.
The wide receiver position was the Tar Heels' biggest concern coming into last season after they lost their top three pass catchers to the NFL. A year later, it has the potential to become one of UNC's greatest strengths, and by far the deepest position on the offense.
Leading the group is senior Greg Little (6-3, 215), who finally found a home after spending the early part of his career from wildcat quarterback to wide receiver to running back and back to receiver.
Little led the Tar Heels with 62 catches and five scores. His receptions were nearly twice that of anyone else on the team. Though he will continue to be the go-to guy this season, Little figures to share the ball a little more because of the expected improvement of sophomores Erik Highsmith (6-3, 175) and Jheranie Boyd (6-2, 185).
Forced to play as true freshmen, the youngsters developed quickly to become a major part of the UNC offense. Highsmith claimed the role of posses-sion receiver by catching 37 passes for 425 yards, while Boyd became the home run threat by averaging 17.8 yards per catch and scoring four touchdowns on his 12 receptions.
Given all that unexpected playing time, along with a full spring of practice to work on their shortcomings, Davis is expecting Highsmith and Boyd to be even better and more productive this season.
"Erik Highsmith and Jay Boyd got thrust into roles that ideally, you'd have liked for them to have had a year to prepare for," Davis said. "As a coaching staff, we felt that as true freshmen they did a truly incredible job given the fact that it was a baptism under fire. Now they have some game experience and they know how to read coverages and have their timing down, you'll see those guys become even more complete players."
The same is true for junior Dwight Jones (6-4, 220) and sophomore Joshua Adams (6-4, 200), both of whom were expected to contribute last season but were slowed considerably by injuries. Also figuring into the equation is senior Johnny White (5-10, 205), a versatile athlete capable of catching the ball, running the ball on reverses and returning kicks.
Perhaps the most important element of the Tar Heels' passing game is senior Zach Pianalto (6-4, 255).
It's no coincidence that UNC's offense began screeching to a halt right after Pianalto injured his ankle celebrating a touchdown in the win at UConn, or that it finally began to show signs of life again immediately after his return against Florida State.
A healthy Pianalto, who had 33 catches in nine games, gives whoever is playing quarterback a big, reliable target in the middle of the field to look for on third downs. Senior Ed Barham (6-3, 265) and Mississippi State transfer Nelson Hurst (6-4, 255) are Pianalto's backups.
Unlike wide receiver, Davis and his staff haven't been able to turn a weakness into a strength on the offensive line because of a rash of injuries that have limited the playing time and slowed the learning curve of several key contributors.
It's an epidemic that didn't end with the 2009 season.
With starting right guard Alan Pelc (6-6, 325) and left tackle Carl Gaskins (6-5, 295) both still recovering from offseason surgeries, early arriving freshman J.T. Leifheit (6-7, 300) having to undergo an arthroscopic procedure to repair damage suffered in high school and two other lesser players also sidelined, the Tar Heels barely had enough big men up front to conduct a spring scrimmage.
"We were down to bailing wire and band aids," Davis said.
Though UNC will still be dangerously thin up front, the situation won't be nearly as dire once preseason camp begins, thanks to the return of four starters.
Among them are Pelc, a senior with All-ACC capability, and athletic sophomore guard Jonathan Cooper (6-3, 295), who has the ability, smarts and speed to be a high NFL draft choice if he can avoid injuries like the ankle sprain that slowed his development early last season.
In addition to Pelc and Cooper, the two other returning starters are senior right tackle Mike Ingersoll (6-5, 300) and junior center Cam Holland (6-2, 300). Gaskins is the only newcomer, replacing graduated Kyle Jolly at right tackle, but like backup guard Greg Elleby (6-5. 290), he has playing experi-ence from filling in because of injuries last season.
Sophomore Travis Bond (6-7, 320) is currently penciled in as the backup to Pelc, while sophomore Brennan Williams (6-7, 285) and redshirt freshman David Collins (6-8, 300) are the next two on the depth chart at tackle.
There is also a strong possibility that at least one true freshman -- Leifheit, if he's healthy or perhaps five-star prospect James Hurst (6-5, 271) -- could be asked to step in and contribute right away.
No matter who ends up playing the bulk of the snaps, UNC's offensive line figures to be a work in progress well past the start of the season.
"It will be a rush against time to get some of those guys healthy for training camp," he said. "That will have a lot to do with the growth and development of our offense."
The Eagles ranked second in the ACC and 14th in the nation in rushing defense and should be As good as UNC was last season -- ranking sixth in the nation in total defense at 270 yards per game and 13th in scoring defense at 17 points -- many believe it has a chance to be even better this season with nine returning starters.
Perhaps the strength of that loaded defensive unit is a defensive line that features two players who would have been early-round NFL draft choices had they opted to leave school early.
But senior tackle Marvin Austin (6-3, 300) and end Robert Quinn (6-5, 260) decided to delay their entry into the professional ranks for one more year so they could have the opportunity be a part of something special.
"I could go get paid," Austin said. "But some things ain't all about the money."
Austin bounced back from a disappointing sophomore season to record 42 tackles and four sacks while earning second-team All-ACC honors.
Quinn, meanwhile, blossomed into a full-fledged star by turning his quickness on the edge into a team-leading 11 sacks and six forced fumbles. He was a first-team All-ACC selection.
Both have been touted on several preseason All-America teams and are a big reason the Tar Heels are being considered one of the top defenses in the nation.
Providing Quinn with a potential bookend on the other side is junior Michael McAdoo (6-7, 245), who was the most impressive player on the field during the Tar Heels' spring game with four sacks and an interception.
Junior Tydreke Powell (6-3, 300) is poised to step into the starting role beside Austin at tackle after spending the last two seasons serving as Cam Thomas' understudy.
If there's one area of concern on the line, it's depth.
Other than backup end Quinton Coples (6-6, 245), a sophomore who ranked second on the team with five of his team's 33 sacks, there isn't much experience behind the UNC's star-studded group of starters.
That doesn't mean there isn't a lot of talent coming up behind Austin, Quinn, McAdoo and the others.
Davis and line coach John Blake are extremely high on a group of youngsters led by sophomore end Donte Paige-Moss (6-4, 235), junior Linwan Ewell (6-2, 230) and tackles Jordan Nix (6-5, 285), a sophomore and Jared McAdoo (6-3, 295), no relation to Michael, a freshman.
As is the case with the defensive line, the Tar Heels' linebacking corps is also loaded with playmakers, including a pair of possible first-round NFL draft choices.
Like Austin and Quinn, seniors Quan Sturdivant (6-2, 235) and Bruce Carter (6-3, 23) are being touted as preseason All-Americans, and for good reason.
Sturdivant is a fast, physical athlete who played quarterback in high school and now makes life miserable for opposing passers with an innate knack for finding the football. And he doesn't mess around once he gets there.
He led the nation in solo tackles as a sophomore. While those numbers decreased last season, he still managed to lead UNC in total stops with 79 and tackles for loss with 12. He also had an interception and returned a recovered fumble for a touchdown.
Carter is just as athletic and even more of a ball hawk, with six career blocked kicks and two interception returns for touchdowns, including a 41-yarder last season against Georgia Southern. He finished third on the team in tackles with 65, including seven for losses and two quarterback sacks.
"We're very fortunate to have two marquee linebackers in Bruce Carter and Quan Sturdivant that are almost synonymous when you say their names because they've been starting since they were true freshmen," Davis said. "Their leadership and the things they do in practice, the professional approach they take about trying to get better every day, set a great example for our younger guys."
Carter has taken a particular interest in sophomore Kevin Reddick (6-3, 230), a hard-hitter who also came to Chapel Hill from Craven County in North Carolina's coastal region.
Inspired by his mentor and fully healthy after being slowed during his redshirt season by a case of mononucleosis, Reddick improved steadily last year to settle into the starting spot at inside linebacker.
Beyond the starting three, junior Zach Brown (6-2, 220), who was in on 47 tackles in 2009, is the only other Tar Heel linebacker to see significant game experience.
If there's any shortcoming to this unit it's a lack of depth, which is why Davis spent most of the spring looking for progress from a group that includes juniors Ebele Okakpu (6-2, 220) and Herman Davidson (6-2, 215), and sophomore Dion Guy (6-4, 225).
The Tar Heels' secondary is something of a contradiction.
On one hand, it is made up of opportunistic playmakers that provided the majority of their team's 19 interceptions and ACC-record 508 return yards. And yet, despite all those takeaways, the Heels still ranked just 45th nationally in pass defense.
Perhaps UNC simply fell victim to its own success, going for too many home runs rather than making the safe play on receivers and preventing them from making catches. That's something it will have to improve on this season to fully realize its lofty expectations.
The talent is certainly there to make those strides.
Senior cornerbacks Kendric Burney (5-9, 185) and Charles Brown (5-10, 200) are among the ACC's best on coverage that were also among the Tar Heels' leaders in tackles.
Free safety Deunta Williams (6-2, 205) led the team with six interceptions and possesses the size, speed and instincts to have been an early pick had he not decided to return to school along with several of his teammates.
The fourth starter in the secondary, senior strong safety Da'Norris Searcy (6-0, 200), is a steady strong safety equally adept at defending the pass and coming up to help with run support.
"This year we're going to be even better swarming to the ball, getting seven or eight hats around the ball every play," Burney said. "We're going to be stout at every position. The big thing is we've created real depth. We have two guys at every position. We can have an injury, put a new guy in and not miss a beat."
That depth is best illustrated by the spring game performance of sophomore Mywan Jackson (5-11, 175), who stood out by making two interceptions and six tackles. Another sophomore, Gene Robinson (5-11, 175) will also get an opportunity to show what he can do, along with junior Matt Merletti (5-11, 210), who missed last season with a knee injury.
In Da'Norris Searcy, the Tar Heels have one of the most explosive punt returners in the ACC. He ranked second in the league and fifth nationally with a 14.6 average that included a 77-yard return for a touchdown in the season-opener against The Citadel.
By contrast, UNC wasn't nearly as successful on kickoff returns.
With Johnny White and Greg Little handling the bulk of the duties, the Tar Heels ranked 11th in the 12-team ACC with an average of 20.6 yards per attempt.
UNC ranked in the middle of the league in kickoff and punt return coverage.
As with virtually every other position, the Tar Heels return both kicking specialists this season.
Junior Casey Barth (5-11, 170) has solidified his hold on the placekicking duties by beating out scholarship kicker Jay Wooten -- who has since transferred to South Carolina -- and surviving an early season slump.
Barth, whose older brother is UNC's career field goal leader, stepped out of Connor's shadow when he kicked a 21-yarder as time expired to beat Virginia Tech on national television. Casey converted 21-of-25 field goals in all, though he missed from 38 yards out on what could have been a game-winner in the fourth quarter against rival N.C. State.
He also needs to work on expanding his range, with a career long field goal of just 42 yards.
Senior Grant Shallock (6-7, 225) will again be handling the punting chores after averaging 40.3 yards per kick last season. But because of his incon-sistency, there is a possibility he could be pushed for the job by redshirt freshman C.J. Feagles (6-0, 185), son of former NFL punter Jeff Feagles.
Junior Matt House (6-1, 220) is back as the long snapper and senior Trase Jones (6-0, 185) returns as the Tar Heels' holder.
The Tar Heels had an immediate need for offensive line help, and Davis and his recruiting coordinator John Blake went out and addressed that need by bringing in two massive youngsters -- T.J. Leifheit and James Hurst -- who have a chance to step right in and play as true freshmen.
Because of the abundance of returning veterans on both sides of the ball, most members of this year's class will likely be redshirted, though depth issues may present an opportunity for early enrollees D.J. Bunn (6-0, 205), a safety, and tight end Sean Fitzpatrick (6-6, 235).
Other newcomers with a chance of playing their way onto the depth chart are top-10 defensive end prospect Brandon Willis (6-3, 255) and wide receiver Sean Tapley (6-1, 185), a surprise signing day commitment who switched from South Carolina at the 11th hour.
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
The hype began in early January after Austin, Quinn and several other defensive stars announced their intention to return for their senior seasons. It increased when ESPN announced its plan to televise UNC's spring game and nearly 30,000 fans showed up at Kenan Stadium to watch the show.
By the time the Tar Heels' basketball team failed to make the NCAA Tournament, football fever had officially hit Chapel Hill.
And no one, not even the players, seemed to be immune.
"We had a goal in mind, to win a national championship," linebacker Bruce Carter said last spring. "We basically came back for that reason. To go out on top is the ultimate goal. We came in together, we might as well go out together and do this thing right."
While it's admirable to set the bar high, winning the ACC crown -- something UNC hasn't done in more than two decades -- would seem to be a more reachable goal.
For that to happen, Carter and his veteran defense will have to live up to their advance billing and keep games winnable for an offense that is still a major question mark despite the return of 10 starters.
Davis must also be careful in the way he manages his quarterback situation so as to not create a controversy that fractures his team and shatters the confidence of both the veteran Yates and the rookie Renner.
Whoever ultimately wins the job has a chance to succeed given the number of improving playmakers the Tar Heels have in their running game and receiving corps. The key is to limit the number of turnovers and cash in on the opportunities its defense is bound to present.
Above all, UNC can't allow itself to get caught up in the hype it has created for itself.
If it does, the Tar Heels' promising season has the potential to unravel in a hurry against a difficult schedule that opens with back-to-back tests against LSU and defending Coastal Division champion Georgia Tech and includes games against Virginia Tech, Miami, Florida State and Clemson.
"Just because somebody says you've got some talented players and you're a pretty good football team, that doesn't mean that you're going to have a good season," Davis said. "You've got to go earn that. You've got to go out and play and you've got to prepare to play well. There are an awful lot of talented teams in the ACC this year. There's probably a half-dozen teams that probably have more talent than us. We're going to have to be prepared to play well this year."