Wideout Weaponry

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – While the quarterback battle is one of the more intriguing stories during North Carolina's spring practice, one thing is certain – whoever earns that starting spot will have a bevy of talent to throw the football to once the season finally arrives this fall.

There is no position group for the Tar Heels that will return more talent and productivity than the wideouts. Everyone returns for wide receivers coach Charlie Williams, with the exception of the departed Joe Dailey (two receptions for 38 yards).

"We definitely have the ups on the offensive side of the ball, but there are still things that we need to get better at," rising junior standout Hakeem Nicks said. "We've got guys stepping up to the plate, which makes us better and pushes us, and as a unit, we get better."

The luxury of having everybody back is that spring practice can be spent working on the integral details, instead of having to re-teach the position to a whole new workforce.

"Some of this stuff is just recall for them – just polishing things, learning how to do things better, faster and to that effect right now," Williams said.

The 23-year coaching veteran stated that his position group is focused on improving on the little things this spring.

"Fundamentally, just getting to the proper depth of your route, understanding where you are on the field, if it's man or if it's zone, little things like that because they can turn into big things," Williams said.

Nicks is the headliner after a stellar sophomore season in which he caught 74 balls for 958 yards and five touchdowns.

"Hakeem is just a tough, hard-nosed guy with the ball in his hands," Williams said. "He'll battle you for the ball, he's strong after the catch, and he'll go in there and catch the ball in traffic."

Brooks Foster returns as the lone fifth-year senior after his breakout season in 2007 (29 receptions, 417 yards, two touchdowns).

"Brooks Foster has tremendous speed," Williams said. "The things that he can do with the ball in his hands are outstanding as well. The thing that has been impressive to me this spring is just his ability to run good routes and get open."

And then there is the ever dangerous senior Brandon Tate (25 receptions, 479 yards, five touchdowns) – a multidimensional weapon that threatens to take the ball to the house every time he lays his hands on it.

"Brandon is the elusive guy of the three," Williams said. "He's the punt returner, the kickoff returner – he has the shake-and-bake. He's learning how to play inside a little bit, which is a real good thing for him as well."

While those three battled each other for T.J. Yates' attention last fall, Nicks indicated that their friendship is more about encouragement and improvement than jealousy and resentment.

"If we drop a ball or something, we'll get on each other because we know that's not like us," said Nicks, who added that he works one-on-one with a quarterback three times a week in the offseason. "We don't like to get too familiar with dropped balls. We get on each other and like to push each other to the limit."

Junior Kenton Thornton (three receptions, 40 yards) has continued to develop as a fourth option, which is crucial with Greg Little's (13 receptions, 99 yards, one touchdown) permanent move to running back. But one highly-touted recruit from the 2007 recruiting class is expected to emerge over the next six months and contribute in the fall – 6-foot-5, 220-pound Rashad Mason.

"He's a tall target, but he just has to learn to be consistent," Williams said. "He knows this, but he's had a good spring up to this point. He's making plays – he has to eliminate the bad plays, but he's making a lot more good plays than he is bad plays."

And in the end, that's the primary purpose of spring ball – to gradually get better by smoothing the edges and polishing the parts in need. But those things don't occur naturally, as it takes a concerted effort by all parties to properly build the program to a championship level.

"Everybody's improving their game, because everybody wants to win," Nicks said. "It's a good environment we're in right now. We've got good coaches that are pushing us to the limit, practicing hard and getting good practice reps and mental reps. We're working hard inside the film room, as well as on the field."

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