Head coach: Butch Davis
3rd year at UNC: 12-13
9th year overall: 63-33
Off. 16, Def. 22, ST 2
Lettermen Lost: 14
Best Tar Heel Players
1. DT Marvin Austin, Jr.
2. LB Quan Sturdivant, Jr.
3. LB Bruce Carter, Jr.
4. CB Kendric Burney, Jr.
5. DT Cam Thomas, Sr.
6. RB Shaun Draughn, Jr.
7. S Deunta Williams, Jr.
8. QB T.J. Yates, Jr.
9. LT Kyle Jolly, Sr.
10. WR Greg Little, Jr.
McNeese State W 35-27
With Butch Davis as the architect, North Carolina is building something interesting in Chapel Hill. In two seasons, he and his staff have guided the Tar Heels back to the postseason, creating a rare football buzz on Tobacco Road. At the core of the revival has been recruiting. Davis and his assistants, most notably John Blake, have put together back-to-back star-studded classes. Those four and five-star talents, who used to wind up in Tallahassee, Miami, or Blacksburg, are now calling Carolina home. And expectations are growing accordingly.
Wake Forest is proof that the ACC no longer has a glass ceiling. Those days are long gone. North Carolina plans to capitalize on the opportunity, mining a fertile recruiting region and benefiting from its quality facilities. Last season was a table-setter, winning eight games, building a better attitude, and ending a four-year bowl drought. This year? A lot will depend on the development of an offense that wasn’t very good in 2008, and is likely to regress in 2009. The overall progress should continue with another bowl game, but catching Virginia Tech in the Coastal Division would be skipping a step in the blueprint.
As the Tar Heels prepare to put another brick in the foundation in 2009, it quietly has an eye on 2010, when all of those talented recruits from the past few Februarys will be ready to bloom.
What to watch for on offense: The young receivers. The future is bright. The present is a little scary. While there are blue-chippers up and down the roster, most of them are underclassmen with little or no experience. Junior Greg Little is the veteran of the wideouts. The same Greg Little, who was the starting running back at the beginning of 2008 and has just 24 career receptions. It’ll be worth monitoring the progress of Dwight Jones, Joshua Adams, Rashad Mason, Todd Harrelson, and Jheranie Boyd because they could look like very different players by November.
What to watch for on defense: The pass rush. There’s talent and speed everywhere on this defense, yet getting to the quarterback required the help of blitzes and trickery last year. After getting just 11 sacks all year from defensive linemen, Carolina needs more pressure from the guys up front. In particular, ends E.J. Wilson, Robert Quinn, Quinton Coples, and Michael McAdoo are being told to spend a lot more time in the other team’s pocket. Although the secondary harbors a decent group of defensive backs, the coaches prefer not to put them in too many man-to-man situations.
The team will be far better if … the offense surprises everyone. Hey, not much is expected from a unit that was 92nd nationally in total offense and is losing four gifted pass-catchers to the NFL. The defense appears ready for a breakthrough season. The offense, on the other hand, is a wild card. If it can somehow find a formula for success out of Shaun Draughn’s running and T.J. Yates’ passing, the program will be a giant step closer to a league championship.
The Schedule: Yeah, East Carolina is the defending Conference USA champion, but that's not exactly a killer non-conference game for a North Carolina team that might be good enough to win the ACC title. Going to Connecticut will be a nice early test, while games against The Citadel and Georgia Southern will serve as scrimmages. The two key games on the schedule against Florida State and at Virginia Tech come off the bye week, and both games will be nationally televised on Thursday nights. The finishing kick ends with a bang with Florida State, the showdown at Virginia Tech, the rivalry game against Duke, Miami, and two road games against Boston College and at NC State.
Best Offensive Player: Junior RB Shaun Draughn. When the offense needed a steady ballcarrier to ignite the running game, Draughn, a converted safety, stepped into the role. A backup in September, he rose up the depth chart, finishing with a team-high 866 yards and three scores. With an entire offseason to prepare as the go-to guy out of the backfield, he should be even more effective on the ground this fall.
Best Defensive Player: Junior DT Marvin Austin. Forget the numbers, which were admittedly way down a year ago. Austin is one of those unique interior linemen, who plays with intensity all the time and commands extra attention from the other side. In short, he makes everyone around him better, combining outstanding upper body strength with the burst of some ends. He’ll play in the pros someday. Heel fans hope that day doesn’t come until 2011.
Key player to a successful season: Junior QB T.J. Yates. Most of the team’s biggest concerns reside on offense, so it goes to figure that Yates will be under the microscope all year. He’s shown occasional flashes, but inexperience plagued him in 2007 and a fractured ankle felled him in 2008. If the offense is to overcome wholesale departures at wide receiver, the third-year starter must blossom into the leader of the unit and a more consistent playmaker through the air.
The season will be a success if ... Carolina wins nine games and competes with the ACC’s name-brand programs. Can the Heels rise up and win the league? It’s possible, but they’re still a rung below Virginia Tech in the Coastal Division, and must travel to Blacksburg in October. It’s all about progress, which a 9-4 record and second straight bowl invite would accomplish. Everything is building toward 2010, when the program could be the favorite to win a crown and play in a BCS bowl game.
Key game: Oct. 29 at Virginia Tech. The path to an ACC title continues to go through Blacksburg. The Tar Heels came close to pulling an upset in each of the last two years, falling 17-10 in 2007 and 20-17 last year. If they’re going to get over the hump and win the Coastal Division, they’ll have to defeat the Hokies in a Thursday night, nationally-broadcast affair. Deliver that, and the entire country will know about the program’s ascent.
2008 Fun Stats:
- Time of possession: Opponents 32:52 - North Carolina 27:08
- Kickoff return average: North Carolina 22.4 yards - Opponents 18.2 yards
- Average yards per pass: North Carolina 8.1 - Opponents 6.3