Midseason Review

With the bye week serving as an unofficial halfway point to the 2007 season, Inside Carolina takes a look back at the highs and lows of the first seven games.

Offense: If you simply look at the stats, the North Carolina offense has been mediocre at best. The Tar Heels rank 92nd nationally in total offense (345.43 yards per game), 104th nationally in rushing offense (105.43 ypg) and 47th in passing offense (240 ypg). But if you dig a little deeper, you will find that UNC has faced five opponents ranked in the top-35 nationally in total defense and performed well against all but one of those teams (376 ypg), with the lone exception being No.2 South Florida.

Not bad for an offense that failed to gain over 285 yards in eight contests last season. Offensive coordinator John Shoop has worked his magic with red-shirt freshman T.J. Yates (1,671 yards passing on 122-of-205 completions, 10 touchdowns, 10 interceptions) under center and with three freshmen getting the bulk of snaps at running back.

The ground game was problematic in early season losses to East Carolina (34-31) and Virginia (22-20), as the Tar Heels averaged only 79.5 yards during the first four games of the season. Creative play calling and a gelling offensive line have helped to boost that number over the last three weeks to 140 yards per game.

Defense: There were plenty of concerns heading into Chuck Pagano's first season as defensive coordinator in Chapel Hill. For starters, the opening day lineup in the secondary was full of players that had never taken a collegiate snap. Then things seemingly went from bad to worse, as first-teamers LB Chase Rice and CB Kendric Williams suffered season-ending knee injuries.

But despite the youth, inexperience and injuries, as well as a new coaching staff, this is not the same North Carolina defense that gave up 44 points to Duke and 42 points to Furman last fall. The Tar Heels have cut 21 yards from last season's averages, as well as reducing their opponents scoring by five points. The Tar Heels are currently allowing 347.43 total yards (44th nationally) and 24.57 points per game (49th nationally). And the best part about Pagano's work is that this unit is getting better with each passing week.

Granted, it helps having a senior performer like Durell Mapp directing the defense from his linebacker position. The former walk-on has been one of the top performers in the ACC since last season's loss to Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., totaling 117 tackles over the last 11 games. Mapp (76 tackles, five tackles for loss, one sack, one interception) and senior defensive end Hilee Taylor (seven sacks, 10.5 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles) appear to be on their way to All-ACC selections this fall.

Top Offensive Newcomer: T.J. Yates. While his numbers have not been overly impressive since his red-hot start, the red-shirt freshman signal caller has stabilized the quarterback position in Chapel Hill. The 2006 QB tandem of Cam Sexton and Joe Dailey were known to make crucial mistakes at the most inopportune times, preventing the Tar Heels from being competitive in most ball games.

Yates has been the exact opposite. Never mind his stats – even though he's on pace to shatter several of Darian Durant's UNC freshman records – this young man's cool and calm approach has put the Tar Heels in position to win a number of contests this fall. His mental toughness in late game situations bodes well for the future of this North Carolina program.

Honorable Mention: Brandon Tate, Anthony Elzy

Top Defensive Newcomer: Deunta Williams. The red-shirt freshman free safety has stepped into the departed Kareen Taylor's shoes rather seamlessly. After enrolling at North Carolina as a projected wide receiver last fall, Williams made the move to the secondary in the spring, and has responded with 39 tackles and one tackle for loss. Even more impressive has been his playmaking ability, as the Jacksonville, N.C. native has turned three interceptions into 84 yards of field position.

Honorable Mention: Marvin Austin, Quan Sturdivant

Top Special Teams Newcomer: Terrance Brown. The Fresno, Calif. native has quietly become the most important offseason recruit for the 2007 season. The junior punter is averaging 42.9 yards per punt, and has landed 14 kicks inside the opponents' 20-yard line, with only one touchback on the season. The Tar Heels rank 26th nationally with a net punting average of 37.42 yards.

Biggest Surprise: Offensive Coordinator John Shoop. The 38-year-old was considered by many to be the one dud in head coach Butch Davis' coaching staff hires. His previous offensive coordinator positions in the NFL at Chicago and Oakland displayed a conservative approach – something that North Carolina fans thought would be devastating with one of the worst-returning defenses in Division I-A football.

But Shoop indicated from his first day as a Tar Heel that he would focus on utilizing the abilities of his offensive roster, and he has done just that. His offense has orchestrated 28 plays of 20 yards or more through seven games this season, eight more than the 2006 season mustered all year long.

The Oakmont, Pa. native turned special teams phenom Brandon Tate into an offensive weapon (148.43 total yards per game) and has called a myriad of diverse plays, including a flea flicker, a wide receiver pass and even lining up wide receivers Greg Little and Joe Dailey at quarterback.

Baucom, Barth
Biggest Disappointment: Technical problems in the kicking game. Most fans take the fundamentals of the kicking game for granted – snap, hold, kick. Sure, the place kicker is going to miss an attempt from time to time, but getting the kick off should never be a problem. Unfortunately for the Tar Heels, that has already happened twice this season at crucial times.

Senior Ryan Baucom botched a snap in the final minutes against East Carolina, preventing Barth from trying a potential game-winning field goal in Greenville, N.C. A similar situation occurred on an extra point attempt last Saturday against South Carolina, as the Tar Heels were trying to cut the lead to 21-10 in the fourth quarter. The mistake kept the Tar Heels 12 points behind on the scoreboard, meaning they would need two touchdowns to pull ahead, instead of a touchdown, two-point conversion and a field goal to tie the game.

Best Play: Hakeem Nicks' 53-yard reception against Virginia. With North Carolina down 19-7 in the third quarter, Yates threw a high pass to the sophomore receiver near the left sideline at the UVa 40-yard line. Nicks jumped and extended to bring the ball in, and then sprinted to the right side of the end zone for the touchdown, dragging two UVa defenders five yards in with him.

"That one individual catch that he had for a touchdown – I told Hakeem after the game and I think I mentioned it at the press conference – was one of the most inspirational, great individual efforts to try to get into the end zone," Davis said.

Best Play Call: Brandon Tate's 54-yard reverse against Miami. With the Hurricanes in a 20-0 hole in the second quarter, some of Randy Shannon's players decided to break into dance on the Kenan Stadium field to pump up the defense. Knowing that the Hurricanes would be increasingly aggressive on the next play, Shoop called a reverse to the left side of the field. Miami's defense, as expected, chased the ball too much to the right, and Tate used a couple of well-executed Nicks' blocks to find a clear path to the end zone.

Worst Coaching Moment: Down 21-9 to South Carolina late in the fourth quarter, Davis sent the field goal team out onto the field on fourth down. By the time the North Carolina coaching staff realized that they needed two touchdowns to win the game, the Tar Heels' final timeout was used, leaving Yates with no way to stop the clock in the final minute of the 21-15 loss.

"That's clearly on me," Davis said following the game. "We screwed up… you're trying to play every single scenario in your mind, and we realized that you've got to have two scores. A field goal is not going to do it. There's not going to be enough time left in the ball game… So we wasted a timeout and that's clearly on me."

Best Quote: Davis on the creative play calling in the South Carolina game – "Right off the Xbox. No, we did. During the week, we'd go right straight to Madden and Xbox, and we looked for special plays and we just tried to put them in."

Honorable Mention: Ryan Houston, commenting on if he's ever crossed the goal line without a helmet – "Yeah. As a matter of fact, in high school, my helmet always came off. I don't know – I think I've got a funny-shaped head or something, but my helmet always comes off for some reason or another."

Davis' comments on the first seven games: "There are certainly some things that I think that we have made dramatic improvement - going back to the spring and training camp and then to the seventh game of the season where we've gotten better. Our coaching staff for the last couple of days – all we have done is dissect our football team in as many different ways [as we can].

"And we've looked at what we're doing well, what we're not doing well that we can fix before the end of the season, and the things that we're not doing well that we can't fix until the offseason. Those things we're throwing out, we're getting rid of… Hopefully that will give us the best chance to get better, for us to win games [and] for us to grow in all three phases."

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