Tough Schedule Contributes to Development
The Tar Heel football team has played opponents ranked in at least one poll in the previous six games. They haven't all been wins, but they have all contributed to the development of the team.
"I think they have more confidence," head coach John Bunting said. "I think they know they can move the ball on most anybody, offensively. I think they know that we can play special teams with anybody. And I think they know we can, at times, play well on defense if we do things right."
It has also built on the change in attitude surrounding the team's mentality towards how to practice and prepare that the coaching staff has been trying to instill since their arrival.
"At times, when I first got here, I think people weren't used to this," Bunting said. "'We work too hard,' that kind of stuff. I think we are breaking down that culture."
No "B-Word" Talk
At 4-5 on the season, with two games remaining, two victories would make the Tar Heels eligible for a bowl, but Bunting is not ready to talk about that possibility this week.
"You can't win six until you win five" he said on Sunday afternoon.
He is willing to talk about achieving "something special," but he wants the focus on Wake Forest.
Wide receiver Mike Mason says that it is possible to think about a bowl game without losing sight of the task at hand.
"We know if we lose a game we are not going to go to a bowl game," he said, "so our complete focus right now is on Wake Forest. And then our focus will be on Duke. So this week we really haven't been talking about going to a bowl game. All we are talking about is beating Wake Forest, playing Wake Forest."
Lively crowd at Wake Forest
UNC and Wake Forest will meet for the 101st time on Saturday, the ACC's second-oldest rivalry, a series in which the team that has gained the most yards on the ground has emerged as the winner the last 14 years. And Bunting expects a battle in a hostile environment from the moment the team arrives.
"We'll be playing in [front of] a very active crowd," he said. "I know one thing--they got after me right off they bus, they were coming at me. I expect the same [this time]
Another Walk-On Contributes
Tom O'Leary is the latest walk-on to contribute to the UNC football team with his blocked punt against Va. Tech. that allowed D.J. Walker to pick it up and fall into the endzone for a touchdown late in the game. Others include receiver Wallace Wright, tight end Justin Phillips, special teams member Ronald Brewer, and deep snapper Greg Warren.
O'Leary was a quarterback in high school, but he has played wide receiver and safety on the scout team, and he has made contributions on special teams because he goes all-out all the time.
"Many times people assume that they are going to get blocked, so they go three-quarters speed and, all of a sudden--bang--they are free and clear and they weren't going hard enough to get there… Tommy O'Leary was going full speed when he came through that A-gap between the center and the guard. Whatever their mix-up was it helped us make a big play because he was going full speed."
The blocked punt against Virginia Tech has garnered the most attention, but it's not his biggest source of pride.
"It's the biggest play I've made since I've been here," O'Leary said, "but the thing I'm most proud of was last year when I was on the kick-off return team when I blocked for Michael Waddell and he led the nation in kick-off returns. I have it up in my locker right now; I'm proud of that."
Every week, administrative assistant Nick Schiralli, four-year letter winner from the University of Florida under coach Steve Spurrier from 1995-99, designs a block. D.J. Walker was supposed to get the block on that play.
"I was supposed to pin the personal protector," O'Leary explained, " and [Walker] was supposed to come off my hip and block the punt. But they didn't react to the rush the way we thought they would. The P.P. stepped the other way, I shot the A-gap, and I was looking at the punter--I just ran and blocked it."
Running Back Situation Unclear
The running back situation for the Wake Forest game will not become clear until the end of the week. Bunting likes to go with the hot hand, and Chad Scott as put together back-to-back 100-yard games, so he likely gets the start. Ronnie McGill and Jacque Lewis are finally expected to be healthy and were getting the majority of the snaps until they were injured.
"I need to get Jacque Lewis out there," Bunting said, "and there is going to be a place for Ronnie. I think Ronnie's role will be the third role based on the circumstances, but that remains to be seen."
Edwards Victim of Circumstances
After a freshman season in which he amassed 89 tackles, including at least 10 in six of his eight starts at outside linebacker, Larry Edwards has found his second season to be a bumpier ride. Extra weight and injuries kept him out of action early, but an eight-tackle performance with a fumble recovery and a 54-yard interception return in a start against NC State earned him ACC Defensive Back of the Week honors. Shortly thereafter, he was asked to learn a new position.
"You talk about fate and circumstances and things early on that contributed to him not playing as much," Bunting said. "He got to play against [NC] State and played better. He made some big plays for us. Of course, then we go up to play Utah and we are in a nickel situation or a dime situation all night. We didn't play base defense at all that game. He played OK.
We knew that we'd be playing, from that point forward a lot of teams both nickel and base defense, and we made a move that we thought would help us the most--that was moving Richardson to 'Will' linebacker and keep Larry at 'Mike' to train him. It's different. All the reads are different. There are few linebackers who can go out and be guys who finish games and are utility players and are back-ups that are really instinctive that might not have the talent that a Larry Edwards has. Larry Edwards has a tremendous amount of talent. We are now training him to be in the middle. That's it--period. He needs that training."
At the middle linebacker position there is a lot more to know, with not as much "read and react."
"I took the move as that I should just learn every position--all three linebackers--so I can play anywhere, keep offenses off-balance, and so I can be versatile. I enjoy playing outside; inside is more responsibility, so I'm picking it up step by step, taking it slow."
In spite of it all, Edwards doesn't appear to be letting the circumstances get him down.
"It's been up and down," he said. "With any player coming off a great season there will be expectations. With those expectations comes responsibility, a work ethic, being focused, and doing whatever it takes to make plays for his team. That's been my mentality."
Special Team Pride
Through recruiting, the UNC football staff knew that they were going to have more speed after their first year. Assistant head coach and special teams coordinator James Webster has instilled a sense of pride in special teams play over the course of the past several years.
"That's one of our major things this year--special teams," Mason said. "We put a lot of emphasis on special teams. That can decide the game. You start off the game with special teams. It can start a lot of momentum.
"If we train hard on special teams and do what we are supposed to do, as much emphasis as we put on special teams--Virginia Tech, they are supposed to be one of the best special teams in the country, but we matched that. As a matter of fact, I think we did better than their special teams, and it makes a big difference in the game."
With the recruiting season about to heat up, the UNC coaching staff is still looking to fill some needs.
"Recruiting-wise, we need work on a number of positions, but the immediate one on defense is linebacker and [defensive] end," Bunting said. "The immediate one on offense is--we have a quarterback here, Joey Bozich, who I think is going to be a good quarterback. We've got Roger Heinz. Matt [Baker], of course, has a year left. We are recruiting a couple of quarterbacks right now very hard. We want them here, particularly if I could get one in-state--I really would love that. And, the tight end position. We are going to lose Scott Brumett. We will lose Jacques Dumas. We have Jon Hamlett who returns, playing some ball, Justin Phillips the walk-on player that returns, and Lewis Burnham, but we desperately need to get a couple-three tight ends that can play. And there are a couple great running backs in this state we are very, very interested in."
"I'm thrilled to be able to help those kids get into those all-star games," head coach John Bunting said. "They are great kids. Most of those people, they trust me. To get a guy into the Senior Bowl every year since I've been here is really good for our program and for our kids."
Duke Game Time
The Duke game time will either be at noon on Jefferson-Pilot or at 1:00 p.m. with no TV--to be announced on Sunday Nov. 14.