Durant confident for ‘04

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – On one hand, it's hard to believe nearly three years have passed since a freshman quarterback from Florence, S.C., relieved a rattled Ronald Curry in the second half of the Tar Heels' 2001 season opener at No. 3 Oklahoma.

That was the hot August night that UNC rallied behind Darian Durant and actually pulled to within less than two touchdowns with 7:00 left in the game, after getting ambushed in the first half, 31-7.

On the other hand, since the 16-10 Peach Bowl win over Auburn, time has moved at a snail's pace for Carolina fans. UNC is 5-19 in games played after New Year's 2002, and nowhere near a bowl invite in over two calendar years.

But for Durant, now a senior and seemingly with nothing to prove having already secured countless entries into his school's all-time record book, he feels his final year will look a lot more like his first from a team success standpoint. He attributes the confidence to several factors, but mostly to a bona fide belief his defensive teammates have stepped it up considerably during the offseason behind new co-defensive coordinators Marvin Sanders and John Gutekunst.

Durant and the offense have not only witnessed the coming of age of a defense that is now considered to be well stocked with raw talent and speed – especially up front; but they have also experienced it in practice this spring and summer.

"It's a great feeling," Durant said. "To feel like you don't have to go out there and do everything is really going to take a lot of pressure off me and my offensive teammates. Coach Sanders and Coach ‘Gute' made it hard for us to see some things, and I feel like with us being a pretty good offense ourselves, then for them to be able to stop us, they should be able to stop people that they don't play everyday in practice.

"It helps a lot. It gets you ready for the type of schedule that we have. Those guys coming together like that take a lot of pressure off us."

As difficult as the Tar Heels' 2004 schedule is, with home dates against new ACC members Miami and Virginia Tech, they will at least be a prohibitive favorite for the home opener against William & Mary. It won't get much easier after that. But still, it's just a fragment of relief considering in the previous three years, UNC opened on plus-100-degree turf in Norman, in a fumble-plagued driving rainstorm at Kenan Stadium against new Steelers' first round draft choice Ben Roethlisberger and Miami (Ohio), and on a muggy night at home against a far superior Seminoles' squad that exposed the 2003 Tar Heels' defensive ineptness to the college football world before many teams had even played a game.

Adding The Tribe to the leadoff spot should give Carolina a quicker start than it has been accustomed to recently, but it won't be enough to carry through what shapes up to be a brutal slate of opponents.

Again, if there is pressure, Durant says he's sure he isn't feeling it.

"We're very confident," he said. "If you look at the schedule this year – the bulk of our schedule is at home. Last year we had a ton of games where we were one stop or one score a way from winning. There is no reason why our confidence shouldn't be high.

"I think we will have extra pressure when we go on the road. But having [Miami and Virginia Tech] here, I'm not saying it's going to be an easy game, but if it gets close, hopefully our fans will be able to pull us through."

Suffice it to say, whatever unrest might have developed in the UNC locker room during the losing swoon over the last two seasons, Durant is certain it is all in the past.

He's even more convinced of formula for eliminating any potential distractions this upcoming season. It's a code employed by a notable pro sports' franchise in California, "Just win, baby."

"I don't think there was turmoil between the team," Durant said. "Anytime you lose nine games or ten games in a season, it's going to be tough; and a lot of people are going to point fingers when you're losing. The key is winning games. That would solve everything.

"If we can just come together as a team and realize that there is one goal and one goal only, and that's to win, then there will be no differences.

"I feel good. As bad as we were, or supposed to be…we were in the Clemson game, we didn't play well against Virginia or Florida State, but we were right there. If that's not enough to have confidence about…I mean, you see these teams ranked in the Top 25 in the country, and we had them on the ropes the whole game. That's all the confidence we need."

Finally, while on the topic of pressure, Durant stood behind the man who had the confidence to stand behind him during some crucial times in his career – including giving him plenty of time as a freshman, allowing him to return to the team after quitting, and making him the starter when it appeared that newly eligible Florida transfer C.J. Stephens might challenge for the starting position.

While UNC coach John Bunting can't possibly be immune from the rigors the fans and media are sure to run him through if Carolina is unable to get some big early wins, Durant spoke supportively of the team's fourth-year skipper.

"He's the same," Durant said. "He doesn't feel any pressure and the team doesn't feel any pressure. You hear a lot of people talk about the pressure. Like Patton said, if you see your generals feeling pressure, then you – the soldier – will feel it, too. He's a calm and collected guy."

Inside Carolina Top Stories