Defense Shines In Spring Scrimmage

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Going into North Carolina's football scrimmage at Kenan Stadium on Saturday, John Bunting had some clear objectives for this spring. Although there were some early offensive miscues, he was pleased overall – especially with the defense's tackling and the impressive play of several individuals who he hopes will key the Tar Heels success this fall.

UNC mostly worked out 11-on-11 and seven-on-seven in front of paid referees, in what began as a beautiful sunny day before deteriorating into a raw, chilly rain-soaked afternoon.

"We want to see some individual players get better and we'll be anxious to see on tape if that happened," Bunting said. "We want to see great effort and playing hard, and I know there were a number of guys that did that. We're looking for those backup guys to make a move on offense and on defense.

The fourth-year head coach spoke specifically of junior Xavier Rainey, who made a couple of tackles for loss on the end and at the tackle position. He's also keeping a close eye on sophomore guard Donnell Livingston, in hopes that he can contribute to the depth on the offensive line this year.

"This is the time of year to show that they have some ability to help us," Bunting said.

Cornerback Jacoby Watkins, strong safety Mahlon Carey, defensive tackle Khalif Mitchell and running back Ronnie McGill also received gold stars from Bunting in the form of complimentary comments to the media following practice.

McGill scored an exciting 20-yard touchdown run in the goal line drill, breaking several tackles as he found the pylon.

Mitchell received a gracious congratulations from defensive tackles coach Ken Browning and defensive coordinator Marvin Sanders for his play (pictured above), prompting Sanders to say, "Khalif, you made more tackles today than you did all last year."

Not so notable were a couple of fumbles and a few interceptions thrown. With centers Steven Bell injured and out for an extended period of time, and Scott Lenahan missing the last two practices, the Tar Heels currently have no one available who has hiked the ball in a collegiate game.

"We have a snap problem right now; anybody that watches us can see that. "It's real ugly. It's not something we haven't seen before," ," Bunting said, referring to All-America center Jason Brown's struggles when he first moved from guard to center prior to the 2002 season.

Also, Bunting said defensive tackle Shelton Bynum is not practicing with the team due to "personal" issues. He declined to discuss his situation further, only saying that he hopes Bynum could return, but he wasn't sure if or when he would. But despite Bynum and Terry Hunter's unexplained absences, along with the earlier dismissal of Isaiah Thomas, Bunting said he's not concerned about depth at the defensive tackle position.

"We're doing OK there," he said. "We're playing with three or four guys there and that's basically what you need for a season. I would like to have more, but we are what we are."

The four guys Bunting considers his top defensive tackles right now, in no particular order, are Mitchell, Chase Page, Kyndraus Guy and Kenny Price; while he's cautiously optimistic that Rainey will step up his play this year.

Page said he is frustrated that Thomas is gone, and Hunter and Bynum are unavailable. But like Bunting, he's not overly concerned with depth at the position either.

"That's why you play them early, so they can come back and contribute," Page said. "But I think the guys we have now are capable and we'll have a good rotation."

Page said his coach's comment earlier in the week – in which Bunting said Page could not be blocked – was somewhat of an exaggeration. However he admitted he does feel good and has been enjoying spring ball.

"I'm trying to set high expectations," Page said. "I want to make plays and be a dominate player in practice, so when I get into the games I'll be used to making plays. I'm almost there. I've just got to keep working and getting better."

Bunting and several of the tackles have been impressed with Browning, who moved back after coaching the tight ends last season. Browning and defensive ends coach Brad Lawing appear to be working well together.

"Coach Browning has a different style," Page said. "He's not as loud and fiery as Coach Lawing. They both have good styles, they're just different. We're focusing a lot on technique. Browning coached all of those guys into the NFL, so I'm just trying to be a sponge and soak it all up."

Spring is a time for optimism and Guy likes what he sees on defense. He said for the first time since his arrival, "everybody on the defensive line is a threat," a characteristic that benefits the linebackers as well as the secondary.

Yet Guy is still not sure he will ever get used to having to pull up before hitting the quarterback in practice. He was credited with one sack during the scrimmage, but of course, the whistle blew before he could plant Roger Heinz on the turf.

"It's a bad habit to practice," Guy said. "But we are teammates and we don't want anybody hurt, so we have to be disciplined."

Finally, it was learned the hit Jarwarski Pollock endured on Friday caused the senior wideout to suffer three broken ribs. It's doubtful he will return this spring.

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