Young Heels Adjusting

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. --- When North Carolina football coach Butch Davis and his staff met early in the summer, they figured no more than a small group of true freshmen would get on the field this season for the Tar Heels.

The only thing that would alter that plan would have been extenuating circumstances. A few months and a two-pronged NCAA investigations later, such is the case, as UNC might as well have added green to its famous color scheme, given the depth of youth serving important roles.

"If you would have asked in the spring time, here's three or four guys: We knew that (offensive tackle) James Hurst was going to play some, and there wasn't much question about it," Davis said Monday at the Kenan Football Center. "We actually thought that (tailback) Giovanni Bernard would probably play some, that he would probably help us in some of the return game stuff. But he injured his knee, and that kind of went out the window.

"But I'd say a high percentage of them would probably redshirt barring any unforeseen injuries that may transpire during the course of the season. But it hasn't played out that way."

Instead of playing NFL-ready talents along the defensive line and all over the secondary, Carolina is playing 18- and 19-year-olds.

In fact, seven true freshmen have been in games so far, and most have been on the field a significant amount of time. Kareem Martin has started all three games at end and Tre Boston started the last two games at cornerback. Hurst, by the way, has started the last two games at offensive tackle.

In addition to the newcomers, eight redshirt freshmen have seen action, and overall, 25 first or second-year players have participated in games, with 11 of them starting games. Most are on the one-two depth chart. Yet, Carolina is a play here and there away from owning a 3-0 mark instead of 1-2.

For the Rutgers win, it may have been best that UNC relied so much on its defense to notch the victory. It added to the unit's growth, notably the greener Heels.

"I think it means a lot to them, especially the young guys," said junior safety Matt Merletti, who wasn't expected to have such a prominent role when camp opened in August. "But to the whole team that we were able to do this amidst all the stuff that is going on. It just builds confidence for us that we can do this."

Merletti said the learning curve for the new players shrinks each week, and he's been most impressed by Boston's development.

Davis sees growth among the newbies in every facet of the game.

"They're making some progress," he said. "I think with experience and some opportunities to play in games there's a little bit more of ‘I kind of belong on the field, I'm in the huddle, and I'm not as starry-eyed.' The unfortunate thing is there has been very little carry over."

First or second-year Tar Heels have started 43 games in their brief careers. As for this season, they have accounted for 73 tackles thus far. True sophomore safety Gene Robinson leads the group with 16 tackles, followed by sophomore linebacker Kevin Reddick with 14, and sophomore defensive end Donte Paige-Moss and Boston with 12 each.

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For more ACC coverage from Andrew Jones, visit FoxSportsCarolinas.com


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