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"I'm not Butch Davis – I'm Everett Withers," Withers told reporters following practice. "Learn me and learn how I do things. Not that I'm going to be this drastic ogre or anything, but I want to try and make sure we're accountable and do things right… I just want them to know me. I want them to get to know me because I want them to feel comfortable with me."
Withers was named interim head coach two days after Butch Davis was fired and only a week before the start of training camp. But despite the quick turnaround and chaotic last week, he indicated that the players have been fine and that "there hasn't been a problem at all."
"Here's what you've got to understand – [with] what these kids went through last year, there isn't anything that's going to shock these guys," Withers said. "So as soon as I was named the head coach, I got a bunch of texts saying, ‘Coach, let's go, let's move on.' So these guys are resilient, just like they were in that LSU game last year. They're ready to move on. They're looking forward to writing a story on this thing at the end."
The football program's leadership committee met with Withers prior to the team meeting on Thursday night, and according to senior defensive tackle Tydreke Powell, the head coach left it in their hands to get the guys on board and ready to play football.
"If I'm going to be a good football coach, I need to [get to know the players], especially the leaders on this team," said Withers, adding that he's already sat down with a number of players this week. "That's my goal."
Junior left guard Jonathan Cooper said Withers' message has been to push forward and that the entire roster is buying in, thus making the transition a smooth one so far.
** Only four players were available to speak to the media on Friday before the program closes up shop to the public until next Thursday's media day. As you might expect, that quartet of players – Cooper, Powell, quarterback Bryn Renner and safety Matt Merletti -- represents the leadership on this team, and their message was clear that the past is in the past.
"I really can't say what my original reaction was – I'd rather just leave that to myself,' Renner said. "But it definitely affected all of us. We were all recruited by Coach Davis and have a close bond. And I know I had a really close bond with Coach Davis, but I really think we're just trying to move on. I took my time to let it go and now have to move on and keep it rolling."
Merletti echoed his signal caller's sentiments.
"I feel like the disappointing and unusual part is kind of over with," Merletti said. "We're just trying to move on. Honestly, we're just back out there playing football again."
** One crucial element in the players' ability to press forward is the fact that all of their position coaches have returned, with the notable addition of Steve Sisa as the new safeties coach. Withers ran the opening practice essentially the same way that Davis did, with special teams work occurring before the flex-and-stretch period. After that, individual drills took precedence before moving to team drills.
"Honestly, it doesn't feel very different," Cooper said. "I feel like we still have a great coaching staff and great players, and we're all just trying to move forward. Yes, [Davis] was a great coach, but I feel like we're doing all right."
Davis was a master CEO, leaning on a strong coaching staff to delegate his coaching preferences. Withers adopted that same approach on Friday.
"They coach the same way," Merletti said. "As Coach Davis did, he sits back and lets the coaches coach. He's the one that coaches the coaches and he lets his assistants coach the players. And he's doing the same thing right now, so in a lot of respects, it's the same…"
"Honest to God, I did not see a difference today."
But while Merletti is accustomed to Withers' personality due to playing under him as a defensive back for three years, the offensive players were greeted with a fiery new leader making the rounds.
"It makes practice exciting because he's yelling and in your face and full tilt," Cooper said.
At the end of the day, it's still just football.
"They call the plays and we have to play," Renner said. "Nothing's going to change. We still have the same players, which is good this year. We're going out there full speed and we're going to play aggressive. It's going to be a good thing to see."
** For Withers, Friday marked his first time as a head coach and he acknowledged that it was a great learning experience.
When asked how the experience was different for him after 23 seasons as an assistant, he responded, "Just getting to see it all."
"It's the first time since I've been coaching that I get a chance to see the offensive guys go through individuals, so that's different," he said.
Withers stressed that it's too early to know what positions will have to rely on freshman talent to fill gaps, but he feels good about the offensive and defensive lines. He added that he expects daily shakeups on the depth chart to encourage competition.
** There is a tendency in the media to write off a team that enters a season with an interim head coach, especially considering the way that Davis was dismissed last week. But both Withers and his players were adamant that their goals for the 2011 season haven't changed at all.
"It's just another guy standing up in front of them in the team meeting," Withers said. "The goals are clear. We want to play and win as many games as we can and play in bowl games. That's what we want to do."
As for the barrage of negative media attention that has settled on Chapel Hill over the past year, this current group of players and coaches are well-seasoned in dealing with those types of distractions.
"Coach Withers made it a point that we don't pay attention to outside things we can't control," Renner said. "Even with this situation that happened, we try to just focus on things we can control. All we can control are the 12 games that we play and we're going to play those to the best of our ability."