T.J. Yates and his single-season record 3,418 passing yards in 2010 masked a UNC ground game that ranked 94th nationally in rushing offense (125.69). That statistic also avoided heavy criticism due to the fact that the Tar Heel rushing attack has been a work in progress dating back to the John Bunting era. North Carolina's 3.7-yards-per-carry average last season marks the highest since the '04 squad posted a 4.9 ypc mark.
But in order for red-shirt sophomore Bryn Renner – and his career stat line of one completion, two attempts and 14 passing yards – to be able to grow into the quarterback without the weight of the 2011 season on his shoulders, UNC's ground game will have to deliver consistently.
Departed tailbacks Johnny White, Shaun Draughn and Anthony Elzy provided instances of how strong UNC's rushing attack could be last fall, churning out 263 and 255 yards against East Carolina and Duke, respectively, but that group was held to 91 yards or less in five games.
Head coach Everett Withers opened his press conference on Monday by naming Ryan Houston (713 rushing yards, 9 TD in ‘09) as the opening day starter at running back, settling nerves across the Tar Heel fan base. The fifth-year senior will remove his orange no-contact jersey for the first time on Tuesday after having offseason shoulder surgery.
"Having Ryan behind you is a world of confidence back there, just handing him the ball," Renner said. "I know he's looking forward to playing after sitting out last year and he's got a lot to prove. I'm just going to try to get him the ball and get out of the way."
Red-shirt freshman Gio Bernard will also take off his orange jersey on Tuesday after fracturing his left hand on Aug. 13, giving Renner a healthy two-deep at tailback for the first time all training camp.
"It's like thunder and lightning," Renner said. "Ryan's more of the bruiser and then Gio is the kind of guy you can give it off to and he might take it 80 [yards]."
The final piece of the rushing game puzzle is hard to miss up front. Left guard Jonathan Cooper is the small one of the group, checking in at 6-foot-3, 305 pounds. Cooper joins left tackle James Hurst and center Cam Holland as returning starters along the line and guard Travis Bond and tackle Brennan Williams bring experience on the right side.
DEFENSE – PASSING D
North Carolina's secondary was in a state of constant flux in 2010 due to suspensions to all four starters, as well as two backups. The result was a pass defense ranked 50th nationally, but despite players returning as the season played out, the numbers got worse. UNC's last six opponents averaged 247.7 yards through the air with 14 passing touchdowns.
Three of the 2010 starters – Deunta Williams, Kendric Burney and Da'Norris Searcy – have since exhausted their eligibility, leaving behind gaping holes in the defensive backfield.
Charles Brown is a known quantity at cornerback, but he hasn't played since 2009 and will miss Saturday's opener. Starting cornerback Jabari Price is out for another month after tearing a ligament in a finger that required surgery 10 days ago, prompting wide receiver Todd Harrelson to jump the aisle to defense at cornerback.
"[Todd's] done an absolutely fantastic job," senior safety Matt Merletti said. "In the five years I've been here, I've never seen somebody pick cornerback up that fast."
Merletti and fellow fifth-year player Jon Smith anchor the safety spots while Tre Boston will help out at cornerback until Brown returns and Harrelson and freshman Tim Scott get comfortable at the position. Renner believes the blend of experience and talent in the secondary will solidify the unit after an up-and-down '10 campaign.
"They get to the ball so well," Renner said. "They really have football instincts and being in the secondary, that's what you've got to have… It's just so tough to fit a ball in there because they're so quick moving laterally."
North Carolina's talented defensive line – boasting All-ACC caliber talent across the first unit – is expected to frustrate opposing quarterbacks into making throws under duress and sooner than they would like. The Tar Heels ranked 40th nationally in sacks (2.23 per game) last season, but totaled 14 during the final four games.
"We'll get a lot more pressure on the quarterback," defensive end Kareem Martin said. "Everyone has grown as a player. We've gotten more experience now on the line. Since we've played together during my first year last year and the other guys playing together for a couple of years, we have a feel for each other and I think that will help us rushing the passer and that should help our young secondary."
SPECIAL TEAMS -- RETURN & COVER
North Carolina returns one of the top placekickers in the country in senior Casey Barth (19-22) and sophomore punter C.J. Feagles now has a full season under his belt after suffering through some growing pains in ‘10, but the bigger concerns for UNC's special teams resides in the return game and coverage units.
The Tar Heels ranked 53rd nationally in punt returns (8.53 ypr) and 92nd in kickoff returns (20.38) in '10. No one on the current roster returned a punt last season, while Harrelson averaged 23.0 yards on 11 kickoff returns.
UNC released its official depth chart on Monday and Harrelson is joined by a group of freshmen in both return roles. T.J. Thorpe, Sean Tapley and Reggie Wilkins follow Harrelson at kickoff returner, while Thorpe is listed as the starter at punt returner, followed by Harrelson, Tapley and Scott.
"I think we have three or four guys that it doesn't matter who's back there [because] we have somebody dangerous back there and he can break it for a touchdown at any second," Merletti said.
Don't be surprised if those depth charts are different come kickoff on Saturday, however, as Withers made it clear that the return game is still a work in progress.
"We want to make sure at the end of the week that we've got the right guy back there for this football team," Withers said.
With 14 Tar Heels sidelined by suspension for various lengths of time last season, not to mention a wealth of injuries, it was UNC's coverage units that absorbed the hardest hit. North Carolina ranked 86th in kickoff return defense (22.53) and 92nd in punt return defense (11.0) in '10.
Just the sheer increased volume of available bodies would point to improved production in those coverage units, but Merletti is not willing to tout the group's ability quite yet.
"There's definitely still room for growth," Merletti said. "I'm not going to say it's the best we've had yet because I don't know. We haven't played a game yet. I hope so – that would be great. The talent is there, it's just a matter of executing."