Up Close: Mike Paulus, Part I

SYRACUSE, N.Y. --- Mike Paulus feels the pressure, and he welcomes it. He could have accumulated early bench time at schools such as Michigan, Notre Dame and Southern Cal while seasoning his potential. And that might have been easier. But Paulus, a 6-5 prototype passer at Christian Brothers Academy, wants nothing to do with easy.

And signing on to help resurrect North Carolina's underachieving football program is a challenge he's accepted, and been preparing for since making his decision to become a Tar Heel a year ago.

"At North Carolina the job is open, and I have to be ready," said Paulus in an interview at his school this week. "It's not like I can sit, wait and redshirt, because there's no one there right now that has taken control of the job.

"Obviously there is pressure," he said. "I'm aware of what people are saying. I read those message boards, and I use them as motivation. I know half of them say start him right away, and half of them say redshirt him."

And you can't really compare him to his older brother, Greg, who led Christian Brothers before opting to fulfill his dream as a basketball player now at Duke.

Mike, the most highly regarded UNC quarterback recruit since Ronald Curry, faces a much more rigorous road to success than his older brother. Whether or not he wins over the starting job for the rebuilding Tar Heels this season or next, he faces an intensive set of expectations from a fanbase thirsty for the football revolution promised by new head coach Butch Davis.

"The fact of the matter is I want to play as soon as I'm ready," Paulus said. "I'm working towards that. I don't know if that is going to happen, but I definitely feel the pressure. If I'm not ready, I don't think those coaches will put me in a situation where I'm not going to be able to help the team.

"I do feel pressure because of all of the hype and being committed so long and so highly ranked. It's like they expect me to go in there, beat everybody out, and lead them to an 11-0 season."

Dave Paulus said he was intensely involved with his son's recruitment, but that the decision was ultimately Mike's. They sat down and looked at the opportunities such as education, the realistic possibility for early playing time, the coaching staff and the environment.

"I think Mike did very good job going through all those things," said the elder Paulus. "I think ultimately his decision centered on the opportunity he would get to play early at North Carolina."

The season following Greg's graduation, Paulus earned third-team all-state honors, passing for 2,084 yards and 23 touchdowns with nine interceptions and leading his school to an 11-1 record in 2005.

"The first year, I didn't understand what I was doing," he said. "I just said, ‘Hike' and was looking for guys. I was hesitant to send my tape out to a lot of people, but people like Southern Cal came and offered. I think so many people offered because it was my first year, and I was already doing what I was doing.

"But this year, I really learned to understand coverages, and I got my mechanics down. I think I made my biggest leap between my junior and senior years," said Paulus, who threw for 2,309 yards, 29 touchdowns with eight interceptions in 2006.

His coach Joe Casamento, who played at Syracuse and whose son enjoyed an outstanding career as a quarterback at I-AA Villanova, said, "As a sophomore Mike didn't even want to play football. But we got him out there as a sophomore, and this is how far he's come. He's developed his body and taken it as far as he can take it.

"He might be about 212 or 214 (pounds) now. He's lifting hard and working very hard. We're used to working around here. We're a tiny school, and we play the big schools."

"I just want to be set when I get there," added Paulus, "so they don't have to say, ‘Hey, he not only has to learn the playbook, he has to bulk up to.' I want them to say, ‘Hey, he's physically fit, so now let's just work on his mindset.'

"Why I looked at USC so hard was because in that program, you're groomed for two or three years and then you go play. At Michigan I would have sat out. But at North Carolina I'm going to get thrown in right a way to compete."

Paulus, who spent nearly an entire week in Chapel Hill surrounding the spring game, said he's been embraced by the community and his future teammates, including those whom he'll be competing with for playing time this fall.

"I've met all the [quarterbacks] – Cam [Sexton], Joe [Dailey] and B.J. [Phillips], but probably me and T.J. [Yates] talk the most. We talk on the computer through Facebook," Paulus said.

Stay tuned for Part II and Part III of this on-location feature …

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