Game Week on the Horizon

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – When the North Carolina Tar Heels entered their respective team meetings on Wednesday afternoon, a golden ticket awaited each and every one of them – otherwise known as the game plan for James Madison.

It was only three weeks ago that UNC started training amidst a cloud of uncertainty. Butch Davis had been dismissed just eight days prior and Everett Withers was elevated from defensive coordinator to interim head coach less than 48 hours later. For a roster that had been through so much turmoil and scrutiny over the past 13 months, it appeared from the outside that the walls of the Kenan Football Center were on the brink of collapse.

But adversity has served this group of Tar Heels well. While media members and fans questioned aloud how this team would keep it together, there has been no sign of wavering from the course that Davis laid out to his team during the offseason. And it didn't take long for players to begin going out of their way to compliment Withers in his new role.

"Coach Withers – I have to give it up to him," cornerback Jabari Price told Inside Carolina after just 10 practices. "He has made an excellent transition from D-coordinator to head coach. He's become more of a head coach than just being a defensive guy. He's really taken control of the team and we're just letting him lead, whether it's on or off the field."

The stability of knowing the entire coaching staff and understanding the schemes and philosophy – despite Davis's absence – has allowed the players to make a smooth adjustment to a new man in charge. That, in turn, has enabled the roster to once again block out the distractions and focus on improving as a team.

"I think every day we've gotten better and that's what we try to accomplish," quarterback Bryn Renner said. "Every day we've just shown little signs of improving from the day before. The mistakes we have, we try not to have them again… I know on Day One we weren't as good as we are now."

Renner has the unenviable task of replacing four-year starter T.J. Yates and his 37 school records, including a single-season record 3,418 yards in directing North Carolina to an 8-5 record and a Music City Bowl victory over Tennessee last fall. Renner dove into the James Madison game plan as soon as offensive coordinator John Shoop handed it to him on Wednesday.

"This time last year I was preparing as though I was the starter and every game I took that approach, but [this year] I have a little more focus," Renner said. "Not that I didn't focus last year, but maybe just a little more. Just studying the game film and making sure that I know it like the back of my hand, that's probably what I'll do in the days remaining until we play on Saturday – just knowing the plan and making sure I know what Coach Shoop wants me to do and just how to get the offense on a roll."

Renner is known for his excitability during practice and on the sidelines, and his confidence has received a boost due to the strength of the offensive line in front of him. Three starters return in left tackle James Hurst, left guard Jonathan Cooper and center Cam Holland, while right guard Travis Bond and right tackle Brennan Williams have seen significant action over the past two seasons.

The hype surrounding UNC's offensive line has blown up this offseason, but Renner ventured that the front five surpassed those expectations during training camp.

"The knowledge they have on the offensive line to make blitz checks and just to basically command the whole front… the glory doesn't always go to them, but I think it should," Renner said.

The offensive line intends to protect Renner in the pocket by taking the ball out of his hands.

"I think one of our biggest goals is just to be able to depend on the running game," Cooper said. "Whenever you have a lead, you just want to be able to finish a team off. Just drive down the field, eat up the clock and run the ball consistently."

Wide receiver Dwight Jones and running back Ryan Houston add All-ACC caliber talent at the skill positions, while red-shirt freshman tailback Gio Bernard has been the talk of the offseason despite donning an orange no-contact jersey for the bulk of the preseason.

"I think we've come together very well," Cooper said. "I think it's looking pretty good. I'm really looking forward to the rushing game. I feel like we've got some great backs who are going to do some pretty big things. They can be very special if they want to be. And the offensive line will do our best to help them do that. In the passing game, we have some great receivers. Dwight is still looking good and Jhay Boyd and Erik Highsmith, and even young T.J. Thorpe is looking pretty good as well."

Defensively, North Carolina was able to solidify the only two question marks in the front seven with the arrival of junior college transfer Sylvester Williams in January and the emergence of senior Ebele Okakpu at the strongside linebacker position.

Senior linebacker Zach Brown told IC last week that he believed UNC had "one of the best front sevens in the nation."

The biggest defensive issue entering training camp centered on the lack of experience in the secondary, and Price's hand injury and corresponding six-week rehab period only furthered those concerns. Safety Tre Boston will work at cornerback until no longer needed, but true freshman Tim Scott has impressed the coaching staff enough to likely earn his first start against James Madison and wide-receiver-turned-cornerback Todd Harrelson has made significant strides in just a week's time at his new position.

"Todd's a very good player," junior linebacker Kevin Reddick said. "He's very athletic. He's come in and impressed me a lot, so I feel like he'll do great once he starts playing."

Reddick indicated that the defense as a whole tended to its business during training camp.

"I think we've gotten way better than we were three weeks ago," Reddick said. "I feel like once we get rolling in games and everybody gets the feel of playing football again, I think we'll be alright."

North Carolina surprised a majority of pundits and college football fans in 2010 by winning eight games after 14 players missed at least one game due to the NCAA investigation. That success came due to intense team chemistry and an "us against the world" mentality.

That underlying theme of team unity is showing signs of carrying over to this season. When asked if he was excited about the season opener, senior defensive end Quinton Coples replied, "I'm ready to play and uphold my part, but I think I'm more excited about seeing the younger guys get after it and be a part of this program and actually get out there and play football."

North Carolina kicks off the 2011 season against the Dukes at 3:30pm on Sept. 3.

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