When Ronald Curry drops back to pass for the first time Saturday night in Norman, OK, he will put his trust in an inexperienced offensive line. Also taking copious notes will be new North Carolina head football coach John Bunting and a horde of diehard Tar Heel fans.
Curry, a senior who has not fully lived up to his potential partly because of poor play from his front line, may be primed for a big year. But, he won't without a solid performance from his protectors.
UNC is deep and talented at the receiver spots and capable in the backfield. Defensively, the team is strong up front, in the secondary and solid in the middle. Thus, the play of the offensive line will likely determine UNC's success throughout a difficult 12-game schedule.
"When we lineup at Oklahoma, we are going to have one senior and four sophomores on that offensive line," Bunting said earlier this summer. "So we're going to learn a lot very quickly."
Nobody knows for certain what will come of that prime-time affair with the defending national champions, but even in defeat, there may be some positives.
In the eight months since Bunting was hired, promises have been made that the Heels will be a much tougher bunch this year. They will be more physical, in better condition, will play smarter and with more confidence than last year. They need to if Curry and company are to play in the postseason and exorcise the demons of the previous regime.
"Coach said right away we were going to get aggressive," senior center Adam Metts said. "He said we will have a burning desire. He set an aggressive tone that we definitely needed."
That tone permeates through the words of players and coaches alike. But will it show on the field? Will Curry be running for his life for the fourth straight year because his blockers are too tired, too weak and just don't have it in them?
Oklahoma returns nine starters from a defense that dominated Florida State, a club that hung 63 points on the Tar Heels last September. FSU managed merely a safety in January's national title game against Rocky Calmus, Cory Heinecke and the rest of Bob Stoops' wrecking crew. In fact, many respected football minds, including Stoops, the defensive coordinator of Florida's national title team in 1996, say that was the best defensive performance – ever!
"I haven't seen anyone play in a championship game like we did," Stoops told the Daily Oklahoman. "The (Baltimore) Ravens, maybe, in the Super Bowl. … Maybe when Alabama beat Miami (in the 1993 Sugar Bowl). That is what I compare it to."
ESPN analyst Beano Cook agrees.
"I think this one was better," Cook told the Daily Oklahoman. "That Miami team wasn't as good as this Florida State team. This was the second year in a row (actually third) Florida State had played in the game and fourth time in five years."
Many folks expect he Sooner defense to be even better this year.
Three of the top four tacklers return and the secondary, including Roy Williams and Derrick Strait, may be the nation's finest. One would think an experienced pass-rush coupled with excellent coverage would make life even more difficult for UNC's pups up front and provide Curry too many reminders of his first three seasons.
Carolina's offensive line, which is projected to include sophomores Marcus Wilson, Greg Woofter, Jupiter Wilson and Jeb Terry, must make a statement by combining toughness with athletic ability. The heavies are still heavy but have increased quickness. Explosion off the ball and use of hands are crucial when blocking, be it on a running play or gaining position to pass block. Slow hands and feet won't get the job done. Quickness also aids in picking up blitzes and various pass-rushing techniques, of which the Sooners use many.
Nobody really knows what will happen Saturday night. Do the Heels have the personnel to pull off the upset? Absolutely. However, the team's level of growth probably hasn't reached the point where it is in line with the overall talent, especially on offense.
But who knows. If Curry's protectors are at least average, anything can happen.
Andrew Jones is in his sixth year covering football and basketball for Inside Carolina. He also is a copy editor and staff writer for the Wilmington Star-News and hosts a nightly radio show on WAAV-AM980 in Wilmington. He has also written for ACCNews and once published The College Game and the former Total Sports. He can be reached via e-mail at: AJWAAV@aol.com.