ACC Kickoff: John Bunting

GREENSBORO, Ga. – The wonderful memories of North Carolina's 2001 Peach Bowl championship season have gotten another year older. UNC head coach John Bunting is certain that the 2003 Tar Heels will be improved, but just how much remains a mystery even to him.

In just one year after reaching the pinnacle of happiness that New Year's eve in Atlanta, Bunting witnessed his alma mater plummet to laughing stock status following a 3-9 campaign in 2002.

Primarily due to an inexperienced defense, the Tar Heels were missing that fourth quarter advantage they seemed to be able to summon easily in Bunting's first season at the helm.

No one on the UNC sideline felt the pain more last year than the head coach, especially for the fans. After all, Bunting is a fan.

"Watching that scoreboard light up is one of the toughest things I've ever been through as a football player or a coach; looking out there at our fans and feeling – at some points – helpless," Bunting said.

"In the Maryland and Clemson games, where they just ran away with it in the second half, we're on the ground a ton. That was disgusting. We were in the Virginia and N.C. State games, but in the fourth quarter we just could not come through. Even though those games were not ugly on the scoreboard, they were ugly on tape.

"We didn't have the stamina to hang in there. I think they will have that stamina this season. We're still very, very young, but we're going to be more competitive and continue to get better every single game."

Monday at ACC Football Kickoff, the league media contingent voted the Tar Heels would finish in sixth-place. That's about as generous as it gets for a team coming off one-win conference season.

But this year there is renewed hope, though personnel-wise, many believe Carolina is still a year or so away from dwelling in the upper-tier of the league.

"At some point we are going to have a number of fourth-, fifth- and sixth-year players," Bunting said. "This year I've got a pretty good senior class, and I am dependent upon them to play their best football and provide the best leadership that they can. Our junior class is small. So when we reach the point where we have 20 or so fifth-year players, 25 fourth- and fifth-year players and 20-25 third-year players, then we'll be able to compete for real. That's what the good teams usually have."

Carolina's rugged early season schedule leaves little room for the turnaround to start soon either. Just like in 2001, UNC has a humdinger of an opener scheduled – this year with Florida State, which was just named the ACC favorite.

"People think I'm crazy sometimes when I say I like playing the tough schedule," Bunting said. "Opening with Florida State is an outstanding way to begin the season. It's been out there, just like when Oklahoma was hanging over their heads [in 2001]. We may have gone out there and [expletive] in our hat to start with, but we picked it up and competed with those guys. That's important for our football team once again.

So how long will it take for the rebuilding to take place? A stellar 2003 recruiting class and a quick start to 2004 has hopes high in Chapel Hill, but the newcomers' impact will likely be minimal this year.

"Our best athletes are our incoming players," Bunting said. "That's the question of the day, ‘How improved can we be?,' asked Bunting. "We can be significantly better, because of the exposure that those new players had last year. Even Malcolm Stewart had never played before last year. It was all brand new to him. But Clay Roberson played, Jeff Longhany played, Doug Justice played, Clarence Gaddy played, Kendall High played… If you think about all those guys who had never been on the defensive field before… They know what it takes now. You can talk about it, but until you've experienced it…there's no substitute for that.

"The question is, ‘Can we stop the run, can we get off the field on third downs and can we create turnovers?'

"The great teams…somehow, someway, they create turnovers. It has been a big emphasis of ours this spring, and we will emphasize the heck out of it during the summer. Hopefully we can create some, because that saves a lot of defenses."

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