ACC KO: A New Mentality

GREENSBORO, Ga. – For the first time in nearly a decade, North Carolina is making waves at the ACC Football Kickoff as the trendy pick to knock Virginia Tech off its Coastal Division perch. But the cause for change is more than about a new coaching staff and new talent – it's about a new mental approach.

John Bunting's final season in Chapel Hill started with hopeful pockets of optimism engulfed by heavy doses of pessimism throughout the fan base, and by the time that the fateful Virginia curse had finalized the head coach's exit, all hope was gone – with the fans and even with a percentage of the players.

Then-freshman Hakeem Nicks was one of the few bright spots in 2006, showcasing to the ACC that the cupboard would not be completely bare for the next man to take over the Tar Heel program, but the All-ACC junior receiver indicated on Sunday that the program needed a new mindset to arrive with the new coach following his freshman season.

"When I first came [to North Carolina], there wasn't too many guys that were fired up about it as much as we are now," Nicks said.

That sentence sums up what has happened at North Carolina – the days are gone when certain players had better things to do than hang around the Kenan Football Center.

"Guys now want to live football," Nicks said. "We're so fired up about the season, waiting for camp to start – we're just fired up. It's a good environment now. Everybody on our team feels like it's our time. "

Red-shirt sophomore safety Deunta Williams added that the atmosphere has allowed the players to build stronger bonds with one another.

"We've all just become extremely tight with one another, so when you have chemistry like that, it makes football a lot easier because you're able to communicate with each other a lot better," Williams said.

The change didn't come over night – Nicks estimated that it took a month or two for the players to buy into Butch Davis and his coaching staff's message. But when Davis gathered the team for a meeting early in his tenure and told them that they were not a 3-9 team, the door was immediately opened, and it didn't take long for the team to step through as a whole.

"I feel like these coaches know what they're talking about," Williams said. "Everybody trusts these coaches. With the talent that we have on this squad with the coaching ability that they have, I think they're just pushing us to the limit every day, and I feel like we push ourselves to the limit every day as well."

But it's more than that. The players are here to play football, but they're also here to succeed as students, as well as grow into adults. That's a trait that's lacking on far too many collegiate coaches' resumes.

"The coaches that we have make us believe, and they're always there for us," Nicks said. "It's not always football that you talk about. You talk about staying out of trouble. You talk about helping one another out, talk about being a brother, [and] talk about being a leader… All of those things can help turn a football program around."

There was plenty of evidence during last fall's 4-8 campaign that the Tar Heels were headed in the right direction, despite the record. Nearly two dozen freshmen saw action in the season-opening victory over James Madison. And in addition to the often-cited six losses by 24 points, North Carolina's season-long point differential was only (-40) – 254-294.

While that's not an impressive number by anyone's standards, it's shows a definite improvement over the previous five seasons. Those numbers? How about 150, 90, 63, 142 and 198 in decreasing order.

The abundance of young talent has provided Davis with a blessing of sorts – none of the underclassmen have had to deal with years of suffering and mockery on the football field.

"I don't have a losing mentality," Williams said. "I'm a young player. Everyone on our defense is really a young player. We've never had that losing mentality. I think we lost games because we didn't know what to do and when to do it, but we never had a mentality of losing. I think you'll see a big difference this year because we know what to do now."

So as the season opener slowly creeps across the calendar, the Tar Heels believe their new mentality will provide with an opportunity for the breakout season that so many media pundits are talking about.

"We've hit rock bottom already, and we can't go anywhere but up," Nicks said. "It feels like it's our time now. We've got guys in the right position. We've got guys that are hungry, that are wanting to compete and wanting to get on the field and play. [We've] got guys just wanting to get after it."

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