The 2002 offense has great expectations. With returning starters in the backfield, three of five starters back on the offensive line, the starting tight end returning, and a corps of excellent receivers, the North Carolina offense should begin to hit its stride next season.
Wednesday's practice was conducted in shorts, shoulder pads, and helmets. Since the team was not in full pads, contact was obviously not at full speed. Given those limitations, the offense was especially hard to evaluate, and the impressions that follow are, like the defense preview, only impressions.
The transfer of Darian Durant eliminated what was expected to be a fierce battle for the starter's spot. From all appearances, the reins of the UNC offense have been placed in the hands of Florida transfer C.J. Stephens. In many ways, Stephens at quarterback means a different style of offense for next season.
Stephens sets up
Stephens differs from 2001 quarterbacks Darian Durant and Ronald Curry in that, as a passer, he has a broader range of passing skills. No part of the field appears to be off-limits to the versatile Stephens. He can connect on short, medium, and long passes with equal accuracy In particular, he has better touch and control on short "dump" passes that arrive in the hands of backs and tight ends in stride than either Durant or Curry possessed last season.
As a result, expect the North Carolina offense to be less predictable in the passing game in 2002.
Matt Baker looks almost like a different player than he did when he arrived at UNC. In his lower body in particular, he has made tremendous strides, as evidenced by the fact he broke Darian Durant's record for squats. Baker appears to be the solid number two at this position, and though not as polished as Stephens, they almost appear to be twins on the field.
Aiding the development of the quarterbacks is a stouter UNC offensive line and a great corps of wide receivers.
The Running Backs
This position, in the absence of full contact practice, is especially difficult to evaluate. My initial impression was, however, that both Parker and Lewis have made significant progress since last season. Both appear to be quicker, make sharper cuts, and it is obvious that Parker has a much better understanding of the offense than he did at this time last year.
The question mark is how well Parker and Lewis can learn how to pick up blocking assignments. Andre Williams recently underwent back surgery, and if or when he returns to football is unknown at this time. Williams may have earned the lion's share of the snaps last season because he was a better blocker than Parker, although Parker was nicked up for much of the season, also contributing to Williams' status as a starter.
Jacque Lewis seems to have gained a step in the off-season and also seems more comfortable [as, by the way, does the entire offense].
Lewis breaks one in practice
The Wide Receivers
It would be easy to focus on the addition of Jawarski Pollock to the wide receiver corps, and adding Pollock into the mix at wide receiver does have significant implications. For me, however, the most notable difference in the wide receiver corps might be the development of players who are already familiar to UNC fans.
Senior Sam Aiken really emerged last season as the Tar Heel's top receiver. Aiken just got stronger as the season progressed, and he has continued his evolution as a receiver in the off-season. Last season he demonstrated on many occasions [recall the catch at N.C. State] that he is the most fearless of the UNC receivers. Even when he knows he is going to get hammered, he still manages to focus on the catch.
The thing that struck me at practice is that Aiken has developed a more explosive first step. To my eye, he is just getting off the line a tick of the stopwatch faster than he did last season. That extra explosion off the line should help him continue to develop into one the ACC's most feared receivers. Aiken has above average size for a college receiver, and well-above average strength. He will be difficult for most corners to jam at the line scrimmage because of his explosion off the line and his strength. Look for most corners to lay off five or ten yards on Aiken next season.
Aiken explodes off the line
Chesley Borders has also improved in the off-season, and is perhaps the second fastest receiver on the Tar Heel roster. Borders, who had contributed little prior to last season, emerged as the surprise of the wide receiver corps. Both Borders and Aiken are also excellent blockers.
Brandon Russell is scrimmaging with the team, albeit in a green no-contact jersey and a cast on his left wrist. Russell's injury prohibited him from playing baseball this spring for the Tar Heels, but the baseball team's loss is the football team's gain. He can only benefit from being able to practice in the spring.
The new kid on the block is Jawarski Pollock, a name already familiar to UNC fans. Pollock adds a new dimension to the UNC offense, one that will make it more versatile. On the scout team last year his quickness and cutting ability were legendary and those reports were on the button. At 5-8 and 166 pounds, his durability might be a concern, but their are few corners or safeties in the ACC that will be able to keep up with Pollock on his cuts.
Whether or not Bosley Allen will return to the team in the fall is still undecided, but should he return his speed and ability to get deep will add just another arrow to the UNC quiver on offense.
The Offensive line