Resurgent ground attack key for Heels

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – During spring practice, senior center Jason Brown guaranteed North Carolina would produce a 1,000-yard tailback in 2004. Then, he may have assumed that by this fall sophomore Ronnie McGill would have taken over the position full-time.

But during Tuesday's press conference, UNC coach John Bunting confirmed that McGill has a physical condition that affects his stamina, thus the Tar Heels continue to employ a three-tailback system which utilizes McGill and seniors' Jacque Lewis and Chad Scott – almost interchangeably.

With only one ball to go around in the course of a game/season – to both running backs and receivers alike – it would be easy for Brown to pull back from of his earlier prognostication.

But that may not be necessary considering the Tar Heels' 341-yard rushing outburst in last Saturday's 49-38 season-opening win over William & Mary. McGill rushed for 133 yards and three touchdowns on just 13 carries, Lewis added 123 yards and a score, while Scott chipped in a substantial 75 yards to the effort. The three combined to average 8.5 yards per carry.

"It feels great to have two backs rush for over 100 yards," Brown said following Tuesday evening's practice. "It makes my job a lot easier."

Now while optimism must remain guarded considering the success came against a Division 1-AA opponent, it is apparent that Carolina's already explosive offense will be much more balanced this season – especially if it can stay in games and not have to abandon the rush.

Surprisingly, only one other time in UNC Football's 116-year history (Oct. 4, 1980 vs. Ga. Tech), have the Tar Heels had two backs rush for over 100 yards and its quarterback throw for over 200. Durant had 234 yards passing versus the Tribe.

Last year, the Tar Heels led the Atlantic Coast Conference in yards per carry (5.1), which was 16th best in the nation. But due to frequent deficits, all too often the Tar Heels had to rely on the pass in an attempt to catch up.

"Last year when we came in, we weren't the focal point of the offense," McGill said. "When we can pound the ball, it opens up the opportunity for the passing game to come along. The more [Darian] Durant passes, the more pressure it takes off us. The more we run the ball, the more pressure it takes off Durant."

This season, if the defense can show just minor improvement to help keep the team in games, then the number of rushes should go way up, which will only help Carolina in it's rebuilding effort.

A great deal of the success can be attributed to the Tar Heels' experienced offensive line.

"Working with the guys on both sides of me, a talented group of guys…we're just focused," Brown said. "We're not going to let anybody outwork us this year on the practice field, watching film, studying the game concepts and every area of the game. We had one of our hardest practices today. We know the hardest battles are won in preparation. We're going to outwork our opponent – not just on Saturday – but in our preparation this week."

But the Tar Heels' offense will face a much stiffer challenge when they travel to Charlottesville to take on Virginia at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday. The 16th ranked Cavaliers, which have won 13 of the last 17 games in the series, have historically been able to keep Carolina's offense in check.

According to UVa Sports Information, since 1979 against the Cavaliers, Carolina has scored more than 27 points just twice (1997, 2001). The Tar Heels have averaged 250.3 yards rushing in their last six wins in the series dating back to 1982, but have averaged just 127.3 yards on the ground in their 15 losses since then (not including a 24-24 tie versus Virginia in 1984).

If history is any indicator in this, the South's oldest rivalry, then for the Tar Heels to have a chance at going 2-0 and snap an 11-game road losing streak at UVa, they must run the ball effectively.

"To tell you the truth, we're excited and have a lot of confidence going into this week," Brown said. "Virginia is going to be tough, but we're putting together an excellent game plan. We plan on going up there and executing very efficiently."

Virginia, which employs a 3-4 scheme primarily, will start Chris Canty, Brennan Smith and Andrew Hoffman – all three-year starters – on the defensive line. Canty, listed as the 10th best end by The Sporting News, has led the ACC's defensive linemen in tackling the last two years. Schmidt has finished second in the league behind Canty the last two years in tackles, while Hoffman picked up the first sack of his career in last week's 44-14 win at Temple.

"It's not a defense that you see every day," Durant said. "They use something similar to what our defense uses in a third down situation."

Provided the Carolina backs can penetrate the first wave of Cavalier defenders, they must then negotiate arguable the nation's best linebacking corps led by a trio of Butkus Award candidates' Darryl Blackstock, Ahmad Brooks and Kai Parham.

"They have size and speed - that's what you want in a linebacker," said Bunting, an 11-year NFL linebacker with the Philadelphia Eagles. "In today's game of football, team after team, down after down, the playing field changes with the personnel that is presented. Speedy, flashy, great-tackling linebackers are what you need."

Since 1996, the Tar Heels have scored just four rushing touchdowns against Virginia.

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