Bunting: ‘Now the bullets are real'

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – To say the Tar Heels come into their 2003 season opener overmatched would be nothing short of an understatement. The quick, talented and experienced Seminoles expect to strike fear into the hearts of their opponents at the game's onset, and UNC is no exception.

Florida State has won 13 consecutive season openers, dating back to a 30-26 loss to Brett Favre and Southern Miss in 1989.

But UNC coach John Bunting, who addressed the media Tuesday, wouldn't have things any other way.

"I'm very happy with who we are opening against," he said. "Now the bullets are real. I'm excited about this game for multiple reasons, the biggest one being it's our first game and we're excited about playing a great football program. Based on what I've seen, our team is a better team than it was this time last season, mainly because we've ran a real good camp. Our coaches have done a good job, and I hope it is reflected in the way that we play."

The Tar Heels have lost four of their last five openers, including the only two of the Bunting Era. UNC lost the first game of 2001 at Oklahoma and fell to Miami (Ohio) in a rain soaked Kenan Stadium to begin last season. Carolina has never opened against the Seminoles, and will begin in conference for just the third time in the last 11 years.

The 2003 season also marks the third time in a row that UNC will play a 12-game slate. The Tar Heels will face nine teams that played in bowls last season, including five teams that are ranked in the AP Top 25 – Florida State (13), Maryland (15), N.C. State (16), Virginia (18) and Arizona State (22).

"This will be a game-by-game season," Bunting said. "I think we can win some games on our schedule, but it will be hard to win them all. So each week, whether we win or lose, we've got to regroup and put the last game aside and go on to the next one with the hopes that we can win that one."

Carolina's only win in 13 tries against FSU came just two years ago, when at 0-3, they dismantled FSU 41-9. In that game, Seminoles' coaching legend Bobby Bowden admitted he planned to run the ball down UNC's collective throats. That didn't happen, and the Heels broke open a 9-7 halftime deficit and hung 34 unanswered points on the Seminoles, en route to one of the biggest wins in school history.

In what was Bunting's first win as head coach, quarterback Darian Durant passed for two scores, Ronald Curry threw for a touchdown and ran for another, while defensive end Julius Peppers led a Carolina defense that allowed just 34 yards in the second half.

The Tar Heels forced five turnovers, registered five sacks and held FSU to just four of 16 on third down conversions.

But according to Bunting, he has forgotten all about Sept. 22, 2001 – a date UNC fans will likely never forget.

"It hasn't crossed my mind," he said. "That's irrelevant; that was two years ago. It has nothing to do with this year's game in my way of thinking. It has to do with how we play and how they play on this given day – August 30, 2003. End of story."

The FSU offense returns four starters, including senior tailback Greg Jones, an All-America candidate, who despite missing the final five games of last season with a torn ACL, led the ACC in rushing average with 104.2 yards per game.

The Tar Heels emphasis in training camp has been to get better running the ball and stopping the run. Bunting explained why fans can expect to see a better effort this year in the trenches.

"We're stronger up front," he said. "Chase Page is 25 pounds heavier. Jonas Seawright is learning how to play football. Isaac Mooring, who had a very good spring, has not practiced much, but I'm counting on him helping us some. Jermicus Banks has helped us inside, and we're counting on freshman Shelton Bynum to perhaps provide us with some backup in there.

"Then, I think our linebackers in general have a much better idea as to how to make plays."

As far as the rushing the ball, it appears the Tar Heels will start the season with Willie Parker at tailback, but Jacque Lewis, Chad Scott and Ronnie McGill will all play against FSU. In fact, at some point, at least two of the above will be in on the same play. Bunting said he will use this upcoming game to help determine who will get more snaps as the season progresses.

"I see all four playing, but I see them playing different roles during the course of this game," he said. "It will probably have something to do with down and distance and personnel."

When asked if he was concerned about revealing too many of his rushing weapons this early in the season, Bunting replied, "I'm not afraid to do that. That may be something that someone can pick up on, but they all can do the same things. Willie won the job partly because of [others injuries] and partly because he was [in camp] the whole time. And I say, ‘winning the job;' but all four will play and that's all subject to change."

The strength of the Seminoles throughout their preseason practice has been a defensive unit that returns 10 starters from last year. Senior linebackers' Kendyll Pope and Michael Boulware are back after finishing 1-2 in the ACC in total tackles last season. Senior defensive tackle Darnell Dockett, FSU's career leader in tackles for loss, is back to full strength after being limited by an Achilles' injury last year.

"They will play with a tremendous amount of confidence," Bunting said. "They will fly around, and they have unbelievable speed at linebacker. They have a strong, physical and athletic front, and they have corners and safeties that will come up and play the run."

So will FSU's perceived slip from the upper echelon of the nation's elite make for a kinder and gentler Seminoles' squad this weekend?

"Not a bit," Bunting replied. "We know who their second and third-string players are. They are very talented. They are going to be a force to be reckoned with for a long time, because they have great defensive players."

Inside Carolina Top Stories