"They beat Virginia Tech last year and we're very aware of that," UNC quarterback Bryn Renner said. "We're not going to take them lightly at all. They're a great team."
North Carolina returns to the field after a long offseason of negative publicity, including the controversial decision by Chancellor Holden Thorp to fire head coach Butch Davis just eight days before the start of training camp despite admitting that no new information had materialized in the NCAA investigation. Former defensive coordinator Everett Withers was tapped as the interim head coach two days later, and to the Charlotte, N.C. native's credit, the transition has been as smooth as could be expected.
"He's done a much better job than anyone even anticipated," fifth-year senior safety Matt Merletti said. "Given the circumstances, I didn't think that anyone, no matter who it was, could really do a good job with things, but he did a phenomenal job. Honestly, it's like he's always been the coach right now."
Withers will benefit from the stocked roster that Davis left behind, highlighted by 2010 first-team All-ACC defensive end Quinton Coples and 2011 preseason All-ACC defensive tackle Tydreke Powell. Add in line talents such as junior college transfer tackle Sylvester Williams and ends Donte Paige-Moss and Kareem Martin and UNC could potentially have the top front four in the ACC.
"Whether it's Miami or Virginia or Virginia Tech, people really struggle to block them because they're so big and they're so athletic," James Madison coach Mickey Matthews said.
The Tar Heels return six starters to a unit that ranked 30th nationally in total defense (338.5 ypg) and 45th in scoring defense (23.2 ppg) last season, including their top-two tacklers in linebackers Kevin Reddick (74 tkls, 6.0 TFL, 2 INT) and Zach Brown (72 tkls, 3 INT).
The issues begin once you look past UNC's front seven into the secondary. Starting cornerbacks Charlie Brown (suspension) and Jabari Price (finger) are out for Saturday's opener, forcing recently-converted safety Tre Boston to man one corner spot and true freshman Tim Scott to secure the opposite side.
Red-shirt junior quarterback Justin Thorpe returns for the Dukes after missing the final 10 games last season due to a knee injury. The 2009 Colonial Athletic Association Rookie of the Year completed 82-of-145 passes for 1,260 yards and six touchdowns and churned out 654 yards and five scores on the ground as a freshman. Matthews is hopeful that Thorpe and red-shirt sophomore running back Dae'Quan Scott will revitalize a Dukes' offense that finished the '10 season ranked 98th nationally (293.5 ypg) in FCS play.
"Dae'Quan makes things happen," Matthews said. "It's our job as an offensive staff to make sure he has his hands on the ball. He's the kind of player on Sunday [in film study] who you count his touches, whether it's as a return man, a running back or a receiver. The place you start is at running back, so you just turn and hand him the ball."
James Madison will lean on a defense that returns 10 starters and finished 2010 ranked third in scoring (14.7 ppg) and eighth in total defense (286.9 ypg).
The Tar Heels will counter with an offense that boasts experience at every position but quarterback. Renner (one completion and 14 passing yards in his career) brings enormous talent to the position, however, and will benefit from a strong supporting cast.
Running back Ryan Houston (713 yards, 9 TD in ‘09) red-shirted in 2010 after missing five games before school officials ultimately cleared him of any wrongdoing related to the NCAA investigation. The fifth-year senior took off his orange no-contact jersey on Tuesday for the first time since having offseason shoulder surgery, but the bruising back plans to rely on his offensive line to work him comfortably back into game shape.
"It definitely excites me just knowing my (offensive) line is veteran and they know what to do and they're going to take care of me," Houston said. "It's just knowing the blocks are going to be there, the holes are going to be there and it's if I can produce and make them look good."
Renner will also have one of the top targets in the ACC to throw to in his debut – senior wide receiver Dwight Jones (62 catches, 946 yards, 4 TD in ‘10).
"Dwight Jones has an unbelievable amount of talent," Withers said. "We need to find ways to get him the ball. As that X receiver, he'll have opportunities to get single coverage on the backside and we need to find ways to get him the ball."
While North Carolina may have a decided size advantage in the trenches and plenty of talented skill position players, Matthews recently warned FBS programs that FCS schools are capable of putting up a tough fight on any random Saturday. Virginia Tech would likely agree.
"We live in an ESPN world. Unless Kirk Herbstreit talks about you, no one else knows who you are," Matthews told the L.A. Times last month. "That's not (right). There's a lot of good football teams that never get on ESPN.
"You don't have to be better than them for 365 days a years, you have to be better than them for three hours. Anything can happen."