Owning the Football

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina head coach Everett Withers spoke with reporters prior to Thursday's practice, providing injury updates and touching on turnovers and the secondary following the loss of fifth-year senior safety Matt Merletti.

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* Withers has spent most of his media availability this week detailing how UNC's six turnovers against Clemson was the primary distinction separating the two teams in the Tigers' 59-38 victory on Saturday. The problem for the Tar Heels is that turnovers have plagued them all season long.

UNC ranks 103rd nationally and 11th in the ACC in turnover margin with a minus-0.75 ratio. North Carolina has been average in the turnovers gained category (12; T-63rd overall, 6th ACC) but the predominant issue has been in taking care of the ball. The Tar Heels' 18 turnovers lost is tied for 107th nationally and tied for 11th in the league.

The coaching staff has stressed "owning the football" in an effort to overcome those woes.

"It's a mindset, focusing on it in practice," Withers said. "I think the big thing is not having them in practice and really focusing on protecting the ball and ball security in practice. We do drills on it all of the time, so again, I think it's more of a mindset of owning the football."

Withers doesn't buy into the theory that placing too much emphasis on not turning the ball over can have an adverse effect.

"I don't think so," Withers said. "I think you have to stress it. I think every team in America stresses it, so we've just got to continue on with the focus of it and let it be part of our daily plan."

* The interim head coach indicated that red-shirt freshman wide receiver Reggie Wilkins (high-ankle sprain) and red-shirt freshman tight end Sean Fitzpatrick (head) will sit out Saturday's game against Wake Forest due to injury.

Roughly 20 hours after telling his radio show listeners that senior fullback Curtis Byrd would likely miss Homecoming with a knee injury, Withers changed his tune on Thursday and said the Durham, N.C. native would be available to play.

* Another player who appeared on last week's injury report under the "probable" heading with a hip injury is tailback Gio Bernard. Senior Ryan Houston started in his place at Clemson, but the red-shirt freshman churned out 44 rushing yards on 11 carries.

Withers confirmed that Bernard would start against the Demon Deacons.

"Gio's fine," Withers said. "Gio's ready to go. He's more healthy this week than he was last week."

Bernard leads all freshman runners nationally with 101.4 rushing yards per game. He's third in the ACC with 811 yards and stands just 189 yards away from becoming the first 1,000-yard rusher at UNC since Jonathan Linton in 1997.

* Former head coach Butch Davis preached the importance of remaining even keel and approaching each and every game the exact same way. Withers hasn't shifted any from his predecessor's belief, and it's clear that the players are firmly set in the same mindset.

"I think it's been pretty status quo as far as work ethic and practice habits and those types of things," Withers said. "We've been in the mode now and it's just a matter of knowing that we can and need to play better on Saturdays. We know that."

* Matt Merletti's exit from the secondary with a MCL sprain was a significant blow to a unit already struggling in pass defense, but Withers believes he has adequate depth in the back four to sustain the loss.

"Tre [Boston] was back there last week and he's back there again this week," Withers said. "Jon Smith's back there, Brian Gupton. I feel like those kids are into their positions and they're ready to go."

Boston and Smith manned the starting positions at safety during the media portion of practice on Thursday, while Gupton and Gene Robinson rounded out the two-deep.

* With local media prepping for UNC's Committee on Infractions hearing in Indianapolis on Friday, that topic was guaranteed to be brought to Withers's attention in his final media gathering before kickoff.

And as expected, he indicated that the team has not discussed the proceeding this week and offered this response when asked what impact the hearing will have on his team on Saturday: "I don't think it will have one bit of an impact."

* Houston and junior wide receiver Jhay Boyd (3 catches, 95 yards, 2 TD vs. Clemson) were both wearing orange no-contact jerseys during Thursday's practice.

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