The Ramblin' Wreck has won six straight over the Tar Heels – three coming in Chapel Hill – to take a 20-16-3 lead in the series that dates back to 1915. But before winning at Kenan Stadium in 1998, Tech had not won there since 1945.
The Jackets hope it can take advantage of the struggling Tar Heels and enter their home game with Miami undefeated.
Reggie Ball (5-11, 195, So.), named the league's best freshman after throwing for 1,996 yards in 2003, threw four touchdown passes against the Tigers last week. For the season, he has completed nearly 60 percent of his passes – 34 of 57 attempts – for 452 yards, with six touchdowns against just two interceptions. In last season's 41-24 defeat of the Tar Heels in Atlanta, Ball passed for 122 yards and three touchdowns. With Ball the only player on the roster to have taken a collegiate snap, the backup is Patrick Carter (6-3, 190, Fr*), brother of NFL wide receiver Tim Carter.
The centerpiece of the Jackets' offensive attack is All-ACC tailback P.J. Daniels (5-10, 210, Jr.), off to a great start in 2004 with a league-best 272 yards and two touchdowns. He recorded the eighth 100-yard game of his career with 103 yards versus Clemson. Behind Daniels are a pair of backs' Chris Woods (5-10, 190, Jr.) and Rashaun Grant (5-10, 192, Fr.*). Woods was Tech's third-leading rusher last fall after transferring from now defunct Morris Brown. In his one start, when Daniels was injured last season, he ran for 122 yards on 31 carries and scored a touchdown. Grant is a promising talent with good speed and elusiveness. The starting fullback is Jimmy Dixon (6-1, 225, Sr.).
Dependable Nate Curry (5-10, 195, Sr.) returns, but the Yellow Jackets miss the play-making ability of Jonathan Smith, who set a school single-season record last year with 78 catches for 1,138 yards. Calvin Johnson (6-4, 215, Fr.) is already making his mark as one of the teams best in his first collegiate season. And although he has been somewhat overshadowed by Johnson, Levon Thomas (6-0, 195, Sr.) is one of the Jackets' most improved players. Through the first two games, he has already eclipsed his totals for all of last season with 11 catches for 154 yards. His touchdown reception with 4:36 remaining at Death Valley jump started Tech's improbable comeback win last week.
The Yellow Jackets lack a proven player following the graduation of conference honorable mention selection Paul Foschi The most experienced returnee is Darius Williams (6-6, 270, Sr.), who showed great improvement last year. Michael Matthews (6-4, 265, So.) has moved over from the fullback position.
Three starters and six letterman return. However, Tech lost two All-ACC performers in Hugh Reilly and Nat Dorsey, who elected to enter the NFL draft a year early. Tackle Kyle Wallace (6-6, 295, Sr.) leads the way with 25 career starts to his credit. At the other tackle position is Salih Besirevic (6-7, 290, Jr.), who earned the starting nod with a solid showing this past spring. The top backup at tackle is Kenton Johnson (6-6, 320, Sr.), who also transferred from Morris Brown. Tech has experience at the guard positions in returning starters Andy Tidwell-Neal (6-4, 315, Sr.) and Brad Honeycutt (6-4, 308, Jr.). Another veteran that adds depth to the unit is guard Leon Robinson (6-4, 318, Sr.) with 19 starts. At center, Kevin Tuminello (6-4, 275, Fr.*) will attempt to fill the void left by Reilly, while Tidwell-Neal can also snap it.
The end positions look to be one of the Jackets' strongest, led by All-America candidate Eric Henderson (6-3, 265, Jr.). A first team All-ACC selection last season and an Academic All-America honoree, Henderson led the league with 11 sacks in 2003. Playing opposite him is Travis Parker (6-5, 260, Jr.), an honorable mention all-conference performer in his own right that collected 15 tackles for loss last season. Chirod Williams (6-4, 235, Sr.) and Adamm Oliver (6-4, 250, Fr.*) are the primary backups. At one tackle on Tech's four-man front, massive Mansfield Wrotto (6-3, 305, So.) returns after starting 13 games last season to earn third-team freshman All-America honors. With Parker moving to end this season, Joe Anoai (6-3, 255, So.), who played as a true freshman, will work primarily on passing downs. Also adding depth is Omar Billy (6-2, 278, Jr.).
This is clearly the position of most concern, simply because the Jackets must replace a pair of All-America honorees in Keyaron Fox and Daryl Smith – a duo that combined for 284 tackles, 35 tackles for loss, seven sacks and six forced fumbles last year alone. Throw in a third graduated starter in Ather Brown, and that experience and productivity has been hard to replace. However, Tech does have one returning starter in Gerris Wilkinson (6-3, 230, Jr.), who moved from defensive end back to his original position at linebacker. At strong side outside linebacker, another veteran Chris Reis (6-0, 215, Jr.) has moved over after starting at safety. KaMichael Hall (6-0, 225, So.) will start, while Tabugbo Anayansi (6-1, 225, Sr.) and Nick Moore (6-1, 228, So.) are the primary backups as well as special teams performers.
Free safety James Butler (6-3, 210, Sr.) should be considered among the nation's top defensive players this year after being named first team All-ACC a year ago. He finished second in the league with five interceptions, while setting a school single-season mark for tackles by defensive back with 119. Returning at strong safety is former quarterback Dawan Landry (6-2, 215, Jr.), who excels in run support and was Tech's fourth-leading tackler in 2003. Veteran backup Nathan Burton (6-2, 205, Sr.) provides excellent depth at safety. At cornerback, Reuben Houston (6-0, 190, Jr.) returns along with Kenny Scott (6-1, 185, So.) and Dennis Davis (6-0, 185, Sr.).
The Jackets have had the luxury of reliable place-kickers with Dan Burnett last fall and Luke Manget before him, but have no such commodity this year at kicker or punter. Kicker Kyle Belcher (Fr.) is handling the kickoffs and was outstanding against Samford with three touchbacks and two other kickoffs that were handled at the goal line. Place kicker Travis Bell (Jr.) has been perfect on eight PATs, although he did miss from 46 yards on his only field goal attempt. Punter Ben Arndt (Jr.), named the starter just two days before the season opener, is averaging a net 36.5 yards on four punts. But Tech does have experience back at the kick return position in Scott, who averaged 22.3 yards per kickoff return last season.