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Head coach: Butch Davis
2nd year at UNC: 4-8
8th year overall: 55-28
Off. 19, Def. 24, ST 1
Lettermen Lost: 18
Best Tar Heel Players
1. WR Hakeem Nicks, Jr.
2. S Deunta Williams, Soph.
3. DT Marvin Austin, Soph.
4. OT Garrett Reynolds, Sr.
5. RB Greg Little, Soph.
6. QB T.J. Yates, Soph.
7. WR/KR Brandon Tate, Sr.
8. DE E.J. Wilson, Jr.
9. OG Calvin Darity, Sr.
10. LB Quan Sturdivant, Soph.
Head coach Butch Davis’ sleeping giant should be ready to take a monster
step in its quest to be a perennial contender in the ACC, but now it’s
time for all the young players to come through and pay off after going
through growing pains last year.
Young teams usually have problems knowing how to win, and they tend to have the most problems in tight games. While the Tar Heels came up with close wins over Maryland and Duke, they also lost six games by seven points or fewer, including a battle with eventual ACC champion Virginia Tech.
Now the payoff is expected. There’s experience everywhere, including at quarterback, where sophomore T.J. Yates is hoping to recover from shoulder surgery in time to start for a second season. He leads a promising offense with great upside, but it needs to start putting up points after scoring 16 or fewer five times.
Davis has the defense in place, doing a better job than it might have seemed for a 4-8 team. The overall goal will be to let the defense do its job and be solid, get more big plays from the offense, win the turnover battles, generate more wins. The hope is for things to be that simple. Not as easy will be keeping Davis in Chapel Hill if the success starts to come.
Davis turned away a few suitors since the end of the season, likely sensing that the Tar Heels have enough young talent and momentum to get where Wake Forest has been the last couple of seasons. While a jump back to the NFL is unlikely, Davis could be on the short list for any big opening in the next year or two, but it’s possible he’ll make North Carolina one of those big programs soon.
The second year under Davis is all about building on last season, getting better on offense, and changing the culture of losing that’s prevailed in Chapel Hill for a decade. They’ll have to navigate a tough schedule to do so, but the Heels are inching closer to winning six games and qualifying for a second-tier bowl game. A 13th game is just the kind of event that would instantly put the program’s rebuilding efforts into overdrive and make this the hot team going into 2009. Davis wouldn’t mind speeding the timetable up.
What to watch for on offense: Running back Greg Little. The former receiver took over the ground game late last year showing good quickness and surprising power for a wiry 6-3, 210-pound runner. Athletic enough to be a walk-on for the basketball team, he has a little bit of everything for the offense. After a great spring, he’s the main man the running game will revolve around from the start. He earned the job.
What to watch for on defense: The tackles. While the loss of first round draft pick Kentwan Balmer will hurt, there’s enough talent on the inside for the run defense to be strong in the middle. Marvin Austin was a big-time recruit a few years ago, and he’s about to become the star good enough to replace Balmer. Aleric Mullins is a promising inside presence who should be a rock against the run. As long as the interior is sound, the coaching staff can work on the ends, which are a bit more of an issue.
The team will be far better if … it grows up in a hurry and learns how to pull out the close games. Of the six games Carolina lost by a touchdown or less a year ago, including heartbreakers to bowl-bound East Carolina, Virginia, Virginia Tech, and Georgia Tech. If even half of those outcomes go in the Heels’ favor, the program would have qualified for a bowl game and would’ve come up with its first winning season since 2001. More often than not, the culprit was an offense that stalled repeatedly in the red zone and had trouble mounting long drives.
The Schedule: The Tar Heels catch a monster break missing Clemson, Florida State and Wake Forest from the Atlantic and get Boston College at home, while Virginia Tech, the likely preseason Coastal favorite, has to come to Chapel Hill. Three of the four ACC road trips are against teams that didn't go to a bowl last year. The non-conference slate, outside of the opener against McNeese State, is challenging highlighted by a Thursday night showdown at Rutgers, but battles against UConn and Notre Dame are at home.
Best Offensive Player: Junior WR Hakeem Nicks. After just two seasons in Chapel Hill, Nicks is well on his way to becoming the best wide receiver in Tar Heel history. A big, physical target who can break containment at the line of scrimmage, he has already pulled down 113 career passes for 1,618 yards, including a school-record 74 passes last season.
Best Defensive Player: Sophomore S Deunta Williams. The reigning ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year, Williams has the size and the run-stopping skills of a safety, yet moves with the grace and the confidence of a cornerback. A genuine playmaker out of the secondary, the converted wide receiver will keep getting better as he learns more of the nuances of playing on defense.
Key player to a successful season: Sophomore RB Greg Little. Although he’s only played a couple of games at running back, Little is the type of explosive athlete that can light a fire under the feeble Tar Heel offense. Carolina was 107th nationally on the ground, but Little closed strong with 243 yards and two scores in the final two games. The offense will need more of the same this fall to support a passing attack that has its own problems.
The season will be a success if ... Carolina bowls. Anything less would be a disappointment for a program that’s a year older and quickly gaining ground on the ACC powerbrokers. With a schedule that’s not particularly daunting, seven or eight wins is well within reach. And if the offense can finally make strides, the Tar Heels will be good enough to contend in a weak and watered-down Coastal Division.
Key game: Sept. 20 vs. Virginia Tech. UNC is going to learn a lot about itself in Week 3. The Tar Heels outgained and nearly knocked off the Hokies last season, falling 17-10. This fall’s game will take place at Kenan Stadium against a Tech team flush with question marks and new starters. If Carolina delivers the upset, the timetable for its arrival will have to be redesigned.
- Third quarter scoring: Opponents 77 – North Carolina 45
- Third down conversions: Opponents 73 of 187 (39%) – North Carolina 48 of 164 (29%)
- Interception return average: North Carolina 25.3 yards – Opponents 13.3 yards