Two neck-and-neck candidates, Nebraska transfer junior Joe Dailey and red-shirt freshman Cameron Sexton, will battle to see who trots out on the Tar Heel's first possession against Rutgers. The battle for the most important position on the field heightens the intensity of this year's fall practice. Dailey has the edge in experience, having starting 11 games at Nebraska, but Sexton has prolonged the discussion with his live arm. Surprising production from this position next fall could mean a surprising season for the Tar Heels, and the staff knows that better than anyone else.
2 – The Offensive Line – How young is too young?
The Tar Heels will start only one senior, and only two seniors show up on the entire roster of offensive linemen. Brian Chacos was handed an extra year to compete by the NCAA, and he'll be joined by only one other seasoned veteran, junior Charlston Gray. The offensive line could consist of Chacos, Gray, sophomore Ben Lemming, true sophomore Garrett Reynolds, and red-shirt freshman Kyle Jolly (pictured, right). While young, all seem to possess the size, strength, and maturity to be successful on the line this year. How will this line fare in practice against a more veteran defensive line?
3 – The Wide Receivers – Can the Heels catch the ball?
Senior Jesse Holley is the lone returning receiver of note from a group that dropped far too many passes last season. Sophomores Brooks Foster and Brandon Tate weren't part of the passing game last year – Foster did not have a catch and Tate spent all his time becoming a force as a kick returner. Both have some high hopes pinned to their jersey's this fall. Red-shirt freshmen Kenton Thornton and Dirk Engram had healthy reputations in high school, but now have to prove themselves against ACC caliber defenders. Two highly sought-after true freshmen wide receivers, Hakeem Nicks and Deunta Williams, arrived in summer school as if they knew they had a chance to compete for playing time in 2006.
4- The Defensive Tackles – How many are enough?
Defensive tackles are the leviathans of the defense, the big guys in the middle where defense starts. UNC has two solid starters in senior Shelton Bynum and junior Kyndraus Guy, but spelling these big guys often is imperative in September heat, and injuries often plague these players – they make serious contact every defensive down. With one starter gone from last season, Chase Page, and one important reserve suspended indefinitely from the team, Khalif Mitchell, ensuring that there is adequate depth at defensive tackle will be a focus this fall. While red-shirt freshman Cameron Thomas should help, as well as moving defensive end Kentwan Balmer to the middle, the chances are that the Tar Heel staff won't rest easy until they see if true freshmen Aleric Mullins and Tavares Brown are ready to help.
5- The Offense – How much of a learning curve?
Exit Gary Tranquill, the only offensive coordinator to work under Bunting at UNC. Enter Frank Cignetti, most recently of a high-powered in California. Cignetti comes to UNC from Fresno State, and describes himself as a disciple of the West Coast offense. While there will be significant differences in the schemes used by Cignetti at UNC and those run by Bill Walsh while head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, there is bound to be some transition time required because of the types of plays favored by Cignetti, and his approach to the game philosophically.
6- The Linebackers – Who fills the vacant spot?
An offseason of speculation has concluded with the assumption that Durrell Mapp will start at some linebacking position, but which one? He started last season at weakside linebacker, but moved to the middle when Doug Justice's season ended the second game of the year versus Wisconsin. There is a potential starter at middle linebacker in hard-hitting sophomore Mark Paschal (pictured, right), and a potential starter at weak side linebacker in Chase Rice. At this point, either one could wind up as a starter.
7 – The Cornerbacks – Who wants the job?
Senior Jacoby Watkins returns at one corner spot, and barring injury, will start every game there. Watkins was injured during the last part of the 2005 season and two sophomores, Quinton Person and Bryan Bethea, shared playing time in his absence with mixed results. It remains to be seen if these rising juniors can withstand the challenge of two precocious red-shirt freshmen, Jordan Hemby and Jermaine Strong.
8 – The Defensive Ends – Who is the edge rusher?
Senior Brian Rackley (pictured, right) hopes to have a breakout season in his final year much like Tommy Davis did for the Tar Heels last year. But whether it is Rackley, senior Melik Brown, or junior Hilee Taylor, the hope is that UNC can find an edge rusher that can pressure opposing quarterbacks and decrease dependency on blitzes that expose other areas of the defense. Superlatives have been swirling around both Brown and Taylor during the off-season, but the proof is in the pudding.
9 – The Running Backs – Here's to your health, Ronnie
Injuries have dogged Ronnie McGill during his Tar Heel career, likely preventing what would have been a thousand-yard season at some point if he could have stayed out of the infirmary. It is now or never for McGill, and he knows that better than anyone. Behind him there is more depth and experience than last year, but few would dispute that a healthy McGill would be a huge boon to the UNC offense this season.
10 – The Leadership – Who is going to step up?
Younger players will take their cues from their elders – both the good examples and bad examples. If the leaders complain about practice, the running and lifting, the playing time, the heat, the time demands, the music – the whatever – so will the younger players. It is up to players like Larry Edwards, Jacoby Watkins, Brian Rackley, Shelton Bynum, and other upperclassmen well acquainted with what it takes to be a leader, to establish a unified and positive feeling in the locker room and on the field. They don't have a choice about whether or not they will be leaders, only what type of leaders they will be.