Running Backs: Searching for Depth

One bright spot concerning North Carolina's 2005 future with a brand new starting quarterback was the potential of Matt Baker being surrounded by veteran talent. But that possibility took a major hit on June 13, when projected tailback starter Ronnie McGill suffered a torn pectoral muscle and subsequently had surgery that will keep him out at least half of the coming season.

On Monday at ACC Kickoff, John Bunting shed a little light into who he expects to pick up the slack for the Tar Heels, which finished fourth in ACC last season with 176.2 rushing yards per game.

Baker will still have four proven starters returning on the offensive line, as well as plenty of experienced receivers to throw to. But with McGill unavailable, and Chad Scott and Jacque Lewis departed, finding the bodies to carry the ball will be a major focus once camp begins Aug. 12.

"I'm concerned about the depth," Bunting said. "It's a doggone shame that happened to McGill. He is a great kid. He is a tough kid. He always does all the right things."

McGill, a rising junior, played in seven games last season and finished third on the team with 419 yards rushing on 79 carries. He scored five touchdowns and averaged 5.3 yards per carry.

As a true freshman in 2003, McGill played in 12 games and started eight, leading the team with 654 yards on 128 carries. He scored seven touchdowns that season and was seventh in the ACC in rushing yards per game (54.5).

McGill, who hurt his ankle against Georgia Tech and missed five games last year, has yet to play a full season without injury. But Carolina coaches and fans were expecting to have him fresh for the start of the season, with the luxury of working in Barrington Edwards.

"With Ronnie going down like he did, it's a tragedy," Bunting said. "But, we've got to take a hard look at some of the guys we've got – those freshman guys."

Although it will count against Carolina's 105-man roster, Bunting has insisted McGill remain active on the team, especially when practice gets underway.

"I had thought about not bringing him, but he's too important not to have around our players," Bunting said. "I'll bring him in just because he's such a great kid and has such a great affect on everybody."

So enter Edwards, who sat out the 2004 season after transferring from LSU last August. He rushed for 69 yards on 12 carries in the spring game, which was mostly dominated by the defense.

As a freshman with the Tigers 2003 national championship team, he played in all 12 games on a squad ample with talent at running back. He rushed 41 times for 169 yards (4.1 yards per carry) and caught a pass.

A SuperPrep All-America while at Bowie High School, Edwards was widely considered one of the top five backs in the country.

There appears to be plenty of upside for the confident Edwards, who is anxious to get back into action. But he hasn't played in a regulation game in two years, and while optimistic, Bunting has yet to get 100 percent assurance he can be the feature back.

"We think he has the talent, now whether that happens or not remains to be seen," Bunting said. "Barrington hasn't played much. He has got a tremendous opportunity in front of him; and yes, we need him to perform."

Entering the spring, sophomore Vince Wilson was next on the depth chart, but Bunting isn't so sure he's the answer either.

Wilson was one of 13 true freshmen to see action last season for the Tar Heels. He played in eight games and totaled minus-3 yards on seven carries. His longest effort tallied just three yards.

"Vince Wilson has got some things he's got to do to improve and show that he belongs on that field," Bunting said. "No. 1, he's got to know what to do. He's a tough kid. He's physical despite his size; we saw that on special teams. He's got to learn how to be involved in all the pass protections. He's got to learn to catch the ball well. He's got to learn to do the things on and off the field that I expect from our football players."

Senior Mahlon Carey, who is battling for the starting spot at strong safety, doesn't appear to be an option either – at least not at this point.

"I'm not going to say that's not going to happen," Bunting said. "But I'm not going to go that route now. That's something we can cross later. It's certainly something that has crossed my mind, but it's not a point of heavy discussion with my staff."

Carey played in the last six games at tailback in 2002. He rushed for 216 yards on 56 attempts, but failed to score a touchdown.

And then there are "those freshman guys" Bunting keeps talking about. The four he will be examining are Kennedy Tinsley, Nick Starcevic, James "Cooter" Arnold and Richie Rich.

"Tinsley and Starcevic are very mature kids," Bunting said.

At Greensboro Dudley, Tinsley's 1,205 yards of total offense and 12 touchdowns – all while battling nagging ankle injuries – led the Panthers to the state 3-AA final.

Starcevic led Charlotte Catholic to a 16-0 record in 2004 and a 2-AA state title. He was named MVP in the Cougar's 14-7 win over Western Alamance with 93 yards on 20 carries and two touchdowns. The game-winner came with just 1:00 remaining at Wallace Wade Stadium. For the season, he ran for 1,994 yards and 30 touchdowns.

Rich, from Marietta Wheeler, was ranked the No. 24 player in Georgia by SuperPrep. During his recruitment, he made it clear the opportunity for early playing time was key in his decision to attend UNC.

During his career at Davie County, Arnold rushed for 5,172 yards and 67 touchdowns – both school records. He also had 10 interceptions during his senior year, returning two for scores.

And although he didn't mention him by name, redshirt freshman Antwain Carey may also get a look. Carey, who has excellent speed, averaged 133 yards rushing per game in an injury shortened senior season at Deep Creek (Va.) High School.

So the Tar Heels, who also just picked up a commitment for 2006 from Asheville's Johnny White, have plenty of running back personnel for the future. But when practice gets underway in two weeks, the UNC coaching staff still won't know who will figure prominently in the lineup – especially coming off the bench.

"We're going to get the freshmen involved," Bunting said. "We've got to design our training camp in a manner which we can find out which one of those kids can play and help Barrington Edwards."

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