Spring Is In The Air

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina began its 2005 spring practice a little earlier than normal amidst a chilly backdrop at Navy Field on Friday afternoon.

The top questions surrounding the team were obviously the recent dismissals of two one-time top recruits, a new starting quarterback, the return of a defensive leader and two new assistant coaches, with other ones changing positions.

First off, enter new starting quarterback, rising senior Matt Baker, who is the heir apparent to departing record-setter Darian Durant. Baker, who has shined in limited "mop-up" action thus far, was recruited heavily as a high school senior by Division I powerhouses Syracuse and Maryland, among others – for lacrosse.

"I knew this was coming," Baker said. "I've been waiting around for four years. Maybe when the spring comes around I'll feel some pressure, but I'm all right right now. It's mostly just getting the timing down with the new receivers. In the playbook, nothing has changed."


The Tar Heels improving defensive unit can only be better with fifth-year senior Chase Page back in a leadership role at defensive tackle. He says his hand is completely healed.

"It's kind of weird, because those were all your brothers," Page said. "It was great seeing how well they did. They had a great year. It was sad not being a part of it, so it's great being back out there. I can't wait to put the pads on and start hitting again."


Linebacker Doug Justice has lost a significant amount of weight during the off-season which has added to his improved quickness. The new look has his new position coach Tommy Thigpen calling him a "player."

"We lost a lot of great guys, but we've got a lot of great guys coming back," Justice said. "We can't replace those guys, but we've got a lot of great guys moving into their positions and we're going to be all right."


Veteran assistant coach Kenny Browning is thrilled to be back on the defensive side of the ball again, coaching the tackles. He admits it's a little too early to tell what he's dealing with from a personnel standpoint.

"I enjoyed getting back out there again," Browning said. "I had to knock some rust off. If we can get those guys back out there playing like we want them to play, then they will impact the game a lot."


The Tar Heels survived the courtship of offensive line coach Hal Hunter. He could of wound up at almost any Division I school in the country, but instead he'll be back instructing another experienced unit that must find a way to replace future NFL draftee Jason Brown at center and Willie McNeil at tackle.

"We have a lot of guys with experience," Hunter said. "Having all this continuity and experience in coaching always helps. Replacing a quarterback and our fullback up the middle will take some time. We have five guys working at center right now. The guy who was a backup has a broken leg right now."


One of the rising seniors Hunter is talking about is tackle Brian Chacos, who played in all 12 games last season. He feels when everyone develops, the Tar Heels will have an even better offensive line than last year.

"Obviously losing J. Brown and Willie is going to set us back a little bit in the beginning of spring, but we've got guys filling in right now that can help us," Chacos said. "Kendall High has developed as a player. He's come along way nicely and put on the weight that he needs. I really think he can be a good player. Scott Lenahan is going to be a really great player."


Don't tell up and coming sophomore Roger Heinz that he won't factor in the equation at quarterback either. He says the coaches are calling Baker – "1A" and him – "1B."

"He has the advantage from his game experience," Heinz says of Baker. "Hopefully they're going to give me the shot to prove my ability and I can take over the job. I'm just going to try and help the team whatever it is."


Tailback Ronnie McGill is still smiling despite missing the latter part of last season due to injury. He's also game for the challenge at starter with the addition of LSU transfer Barrington Edwards.

"He's a little more shifty – kind of like Jacque [Lewis] and Chad [Scott] were last year; where I'm more of a power back," McGill said. "It just looks like it's going to be a ‘thunder and lightening' combination with us.

"I feel really good. My foot has finally healed. It used to get really sore, but now I feel like it's 100-percent."


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