Spring Practice Begins

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The official start of the 2011 football season kicked off on Wednesday as North Carolina took to the practice field for the first day of spring practice. Head coach Butch Davis talked to reporters just minutes before the horn blew to huddle the players.

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* With 17 seniors departed from last season's squad, Davis pointed to two positions that will require plenty of work in replacing key players.

On the offensive side of the ball, Allen Mogridge's tight end position group no longer has the wealth of bodies that it enjoyed in 2010 with Zack Pianalto, Ryan Taylor and Ed Barham exhausting their eligibility. Red-shirt junior Nelson Hurst and red-shirt freshman Sean Fitzpatrick are the lone tight ends listed on the spring two-deep.

Defensively, the Tar Heels must replace the multitude of starts lost with the graduations of Kendric Burney, Deunta Williams and Da'Norris Searcy.

"In some respects, we have to almost rebuild the entire secondary from a year ago," Davis said.

Senior cornerback Charles Brown and senior strong safety Jonathan Smith return after sitting out last season due to their involvement in the academic side of the NCAA investigation. That situation thrust true freshmen Jabari Price and Tre Boston into starting roles, but now that duo must develop the consistency needed to earn those roles.

Price is listed as the starter at one cornerback position while Boston is working with the first unit at free safety, but it doesn't appear as though any lineups are close to being nailed down.

"You're going to see us experiment and move guys around at corner [and] safety, trying to find the right combination at that particular position," Davis said.

There won't be much need for experimentation along the defensive line, however, as all four starters return along with several key reserves. Davis did emphasize the need for growth in sophomore backup defensive ends Kareem Martin and Tim Jackson.

"These next 15 days should represent an opportunity for them to improve as football players," Davis said. "I want them to leave here after 15 practices being better fundamentally, having a better understanding of our schemes and our concepts. We want them to learn to compete and push the envelope to find out how good they can actually be."

* The Delvon Simmons saga is officially over. The five-star defensive tackle out of McKeesport, Pa. signed with UNC on Feb. 2 and then promptly asked for his release two weeks later.

InsideCarolina.com recruiting analyst Don Callahan reported earlier this week that North Carolina had not granted Simmons his request as the school was waiting for him to provide a legitimate reason for seeking his release.

It appears as though the Tar Heels got tired of waiting.

"We have granted Delvon Simmons's release and allowed him to pursue other options," Davis said.

* As expected, the first questions Davis received on Wednesday centered on the NCAA investigation lingering on the back burner, but the fifth-year UNC head coach didn't have much information to share.

"Haven't really thought that much about it, to be honest with you," Davis said. "They haven't been here in several months. That's something that's obviously more in the university's area of expertise and stuff that they're monitoring right now. Ours is to try to get this football team prepared to play the 2011 season."

When asked if he felt any anxiety about what the NCAA's resolution might be, Davis responded, "Nope, not at all."

But that's not to say last season's experience hasn't changed how the Tar Heels have gone about doing things this offseason.

"I think there's been a lot more seriousness in the nine or 10 weeks leading up to spring practice in the way that they've approached the offseason lifting and conditioning program," Davis said. "Certainly from an academic standpoint, there's a lot more seriousness in realizing that there's a lot of things that can derail [you] and it doesn't necessarily have to do with talent on your football team.

"I think there's a lot more accountability of looking after each other, putting an awful lot more peer pressure within the football team to look after each other and helping guys make good, smart, wise decisions."

* Considering the shock of losing 13 players less than 48 hours before the season opener against LSU last September, there should be no surprise that the concept of building depth will be hammered home this spring.

"You never know when you're going to be the guy that has to step up because of some kind of injury to somebody on the football team," Davis said. "We may need you to win a football game. Those kinds of messages today have a lot more meaning than do [at other times]. Sometimes they don't ring as true or sometimes they're a little bit hollow, but I think a lot of our guys realize that everybody could be counted on to have to win games."

* After electing to sit out the second half of the 2010 season, senior Ryan Houston is now ready to assume the starting role as North Carolina's starting running back.

"He's worked very hard in the offseason to try to maintain," Davis said. "He worked really hard going into last season to try to get his weight down. We wanted to get him out of that 245-250 pound category. We thought that would help his quickness and his endurance, and he's somewhere probably in the mid-to-low 230s. I know he's anxious to go through spring practice just to get back into the role of playing."

Red-shirt freshman running back Giovani Bernard (ACL) has been cleared for participation in all aspects of spring practice, but the coaching staff will likely hold him out of contact drills.

"It's more important to make sure that he gets to August than it is [finding out] how good he can be in the middle of March," Davis said.

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