But those trials and tribulations are now a distant memory, and while the players' knowledge of Davis' system has increased, so has the coaching staff's expectations.
"They've got to grow and develop a deeper understanding of our schemes," Davis said during his pre-practice press conference on Monday. "No longer will it be good enough to just know the play and the formation, but you'll need to do it at a faster pace and more intense."
The Tar Heels have assuredly heard those comments from their head coach in the days leading up to Monday's first practice at Navy Field, as they emerged seasoned and determined to use these 15 days of practice as a stepping stone for the 2008 season.
"It's like we just picked up right where we left off with the Duke game," rising senior linebacker Chase Rice said. "We know each other, we know [the coaching staff], they know us."
While the media and fans will be paying close attention to the quarterback position battle, Greg Little's development at running back and the frightening lack of depth at defensive end, Davis seems more concentrated on fundamentals and work ethic in the continued growth of his program in Chapel Hill.
"I hope that when we go to practice, I want it to be a business-like atmosphere," Davis said. "I want guys out there truly challenging themselves to become a better player. As much as you would like for the team globally to get better, it really starts at the individual level.
"That if guys go out on the practice field and they don't go out there with the expectation that when they walk off that field an hour and 55 minutes later, they're not a better football player because of their understanding of the scheme, better fundamentals, better technique, better understanding for how hard you have to play to be a [Division-I] player, then they took a step backward."
Through the first practice, at least, the players felt like they delivered a strong opening performance.
"Today was a testament [to the fact] that we have made strides," said junior quarterback Cameron Sexton, who is sharing reps with red-shirt freshman Mike Paulus in the absence of rehabbing incumbent starter T.J. Yates. "We had a pretty smooth practice today. Obviously, you knock off the rust the first day of practice no matter how much preparation you have coming into it, so we just have to be making strides and improvements, and that's what we all want to do."
One significant reason why practice should move along seamlessly this spring is that the Tar Heels return 18 starters and only have one new face on the coaching staff – defensive coordinator/defensive backs coach Everett Withers.
"The defense is a little different …," Rice said following Monday's practice. "So we stepped back a little bit just to learn a couple of new things, but basically, it's the same defense."
Davis and his staff dedicated countless hours following the season-ending Duke victory to determining which players would work best at other positions, and those changes highlighted Monday's initial practice.
Former running backs Johnny White and Richie Rich worked in the defensive backfield at cornerback, while 2007 starting offensive guard Aaron Stahl slid over to help alleviate the loss of Scott Lenahan at center. Former defensive backs Cooter Arnold and Anthony Parker-Boyd are taking snaps at wide receiver, and former H-back Ryan Taylor (linebacker) and running back Anthony Elzy (fullback) have also changed positions.
The Tar Heels will be without vital members of their roster, however, as injuries have sidelined five players for the spring – Yates (shoulder), starting free safety Trimane Goddard (left hand), defensive end Darius Massenburg (right wrist), starting left tackle Kyle Jolly (left foot) and linebacker Linwan Euwell (right knee).
Senior linebacker Garrett White had offseason microfracture surgery on his right knee and will receive a medical hardship.