Five years is a long time. Ask Merceda Perry.
When Merceda Perry first came to North Carolina, he came as a highly-recruited linebacker out of Asheboro High School to a college team with soaring expectations. North Carolina had just finished the 1996 season at 10-2 with a victory over West Virginia in the Gator Bowl.
Even as a freshman, at 6-4 and 230 pounds the coaching staff believed Perry was good enough to skip a redshirt year. The 1997 linebacking corps was deep and talented, featuring Kivuusama Mays, Brian Simmons, and Keith Newman. Brandon Spoon was a sophomore on that unit. Sedrick Hodge and Quincy Monk joined Perry in the freshman class.
The 1997 season built on the previous year, the Tar Heels finishing 11-1 and again having one of the top defenses in the nation. The Tar Heels were on a roll and Perry was a part of a great defense with a growing national reputation for defense and for linebackers. Mays, Simmons, Newman, Spoon and Hodge are all in the NFL.
Then the music stopped. Mack Brown left for Texas. The Tar Heels would finish the next three seasons 7-5, 3-8, and 6-5. The good times seemed over. What is next for the Heels?
A coaching change brought John Bunting from the New Orleans Saints to his alma mater. Times have changed again. Perry likes what he sees in this UNC team. What is different? "Probably the intensity level, Perry says, "In practices in the past, guys have been kind of lackadaisical in practice. This year is a lot different. Everyone is trying to work hard, accomplish the same goals, and win games."
Winning games was on Perry's mind last season as well. In the second game of the season, fate stepped in and Perry went to the sidelines with a fractured right ankle. The season before, he had been the second leading tackler on the team.
"There's no doubt that he was having as good a game as he had played here at Carolina when he went down," said then-head coach Carl Torbush at the time of Perry's injury. Perry's participation in spring practice was limited because of the ankle. He is back full tilt at fall practice.
The ankle is better, but still gets sore. "It is wearing down on me right now because of two-a-days, says Perry, "but my other ankle is sore too, so I don't think it is that big of a deal. I am real pleased with it right now. Right now I think it is at about 90-95%."
At 6-5 and 245 pounds, Perry is a big part of the hopes for the 2001 defense. Two other seniors, Quincy Monk and former walk-on David Thornton are the starters at linebacker. Perry says, "We came in together and we formed a close bond as freshmen. It means a lot to go out with them and hopefully have a good season. We have had good chemistry together for years."
Has there been a big change in defensive schemes? Yes, and no. "Defense is defense, says Perry. " Terminology-wise, yes, it is different. Lot of the same stuff, but just different terminology. Coverage-wise though, we are doing a lot of different things this year."
Perry is far from complacent about his own performance so far in fall practice, "I am performing pretty well, but I am not the level where I want to be at, but I am doing well enough to impress the coaches and hold my own."
Behind the three seniors at linebacker is a group of untested players. How does Perry feel about the depth? "Bobby Harris is stepping up big. He has become the leader of the second-team defense, I think he will be a good first-team player next year for this team. Also, Clarence Gaddy is doing real well," says Perry.
North Carolina's defense was second in the ACC in total defense, yet seemed to collapse in big games. Perry expects that to change. "[We can] accomplish what we did last year, and beyond. A lot of times last year we gave up big gains. This year, we want to go out and play to our best ability. We have a lot of talent."
Many experts say that North Carolina could be an improved team in 2001, and finish with a worse record than 2000 because of their brutal schedule. That schedule is just fine with Perry.
"We are looking forward to playing Oklahoma. Playing games like Oklahoma, Texas, Florida State -- that will only help us out. Big-time players like to play in big-time games. We have a lot of big-time players on this team."
Perry has seen it all in his career at North Carolina. From an 11-1 season to 3-8, he has been on teams that were ranked in the top five, to teams no where to be seen in the national rankings. Which way will this season go? Perry seems to have summed it up pretty well.
"This year is a lot different."