"I think the biggest improvement with our football team should come in the fact that we know our players better and they know us better. I think that looking back in retrospect at last year's spring practice, we were clearly shooting from the hip -- brand new coaching staff, didn't really know the players, didn't know their capabilities and their strengths and shortcomings. You're at ground zero in installing offenses and defenses and special teams.
helm "Fast forward the clock a year later and fortunately with [most of] the kids we played with last year are all coming back. Now they were very, very young and experienced and sometimes a little bit on the short side as far as talent is concerned, but we know them. We were able to specifically direct them in the offseason. We could say with each kid, look them in the eye and say ‘you need to lift more,' ‘you need to gain more speed,' ‘you need to work on your lateral quickness.' And then they were able to watch cut ups, they could watch themselves do what we're going to continue to ask them to.
"I think certainly with experience, the environment is much more football oriented around the building. You see kids there all the time, watching film, meeting with coaches. You know we've moved the meter a great deal. Expectations, I think, go a long way, so they move up the meter just a little bit."
Do you like the way the schedule sets up for you out of the box?
"Well, it won't take long to find out if we're any good or not. We're going to get challenged. You know, so many of the non-conference games are always scheduled so far in advance and I'm sure that five, six, eight years ago, whenever Rutgers and UConn was put on the schedule, somebody probably tongue-in-cheek thought, ‘that will be two somewhat non-competitive games.' Now all of a sudden they're the No. 1 and No. 2 pick in the Big East conference. Greg [Schiano] has a done a phenomenal job at Rutgers building that program. And Randy [Edsell], you can't say enough about Randy Edsell and what he's done, taking UConn and building that every single year and the consistency they're playing with – and then with Notre Dame coming to town. So, we've got Virginia Tech. We've got Miami and Virginia Tech in the first half. So we'll find out real quick whether we're making the strides we'd like to make."
Hakeem [Nicks] said that he was hopeful that maybe the Rutgers game can be kind of a coming out party for North Carolina, to put some attention back on the program. You've got some opportunities for that awful early…
"Oh, no question about it. I think that's one of the upsides about playing a real challenging schedule. At Miami, as the head coach, we always loved the idea of having somebody really big early. We opened with Ohio State one year in the Kickoff Classic; a lot of years we would open up with Florida and you like that. It gives you something exciting for your players to shoot for early in the season. We want to get off to a fast start, we want to play well, but it'll be a challenge. And I think our players really, truly realize how good Rutgers has become over the last four or five years since Greg's been there."
Are you concerned at all that expectations may be too high too quickly?
"You know, it was kind of surprising to be honest with you. I had no preconceived notions as to where we would've been picked. My question is, how many of those people that voted did they give sobriety tests to? Did they check everybody after they voted? Where people pick you at the beginning of the year is really insignificant. We try to do as good a job with our players from a psychology, emotional standpoint that the first game against McNeese – it's all that really matters right now. We want to play well and then every week we want to try to get better. And whatever happens at the end of the year, then that's where we'll be."
Having said that, some of the young guys on the team – they're hearing all this preseason hype saying they're going to challenge Virginia Tech. Does that concern you at all?
"Well, I would a lot rather those guys have huge expectations of themselves then really self-doubting themselves. Guys that are sitting there like ‘gosh, oh we're never going to win a game' and are beating themselves up psychologically and emotionally. But, I think they have to temper themselves and they have to understand what a challenge it is. Frank Beamer's team, rightfully so, they should be picked [atop the Coastal]. Frank's been there for a long time and they don't rebuild at Virginia Tech, they just kind of reload. They'll be an earlier benchmark in our conference to find out if we're making strides and closing the gap on people."
What are the plusses and minuses of being in a place that's viewed as such a basketball school?
"Last time I checked, I think, all the 117 Division 1-A schools, they all have a basketball program. The basketball program is a great thing for us. We use it as a recruiting tool, but outside of that this is about our football program. Our board of trustees and our administration has given us all the resources we need to try and build a football program. It takes time. You're not going to just snap your fingers and instantly acquire the type of athletes and the depth that you need. But, slowly but surely we're building a team. I think there is no reason that a great football program can't co-exist at Chapel Hill."
How many guys from your first two recruiting classes do you anticipate to be in your starting lineup this season?
"Oh, gosh, in the starting lineup? I'd have to go back and take a look at it. I know that last year we started six freshmen and red-shirt freshmen in last year's defensive line. There's a significant amount of guys and some of the marquee players, Hakeem Nicks and Deunta [Williams], they are kids that I didn't recruit that were already there. Garrett Reynolds, who is probably our best offensive lineman and Kyle Jolly, who is probably our second best offensive lineman, those are guys that we inherited.
"But, I think, probably, the biggest difference with our classes is we really tried to put an emphasis on speed. We really need to dramatically upgrade the speed to compete in that conference. Because, when I think about the years as a coach in the National Football League, when I think about the ACC, you think about speed. If you don't have great overall team speed, you're really not going to have a very good opportunity to compete in the ACC and that's kind of where our emphasis has gone in the last two recruiting classes."
Talking about the ACC, where do you see the league at right now?
"I just look at it from an objective standpoint, not as a coach that's in it. I think it's extraordinarily competitive. I know that there were years that I coached in the Big East and it was basically get ready for like one game a year. You get ready for Virginia Tech maybe or maybe you get ready for West Virginia and outside of that it was pretty much a cakewalk. You just walked through the Big East and after you won that particular game, you'd get one game and you were a lock to go to a BCS game.
"In this conference, there are a lot more haves than there are have nots and you probably put us at the bottom of that stack, at least certainly last year and trying to fight our way to the top. Is it the best football conference in America? Maybe not. But, I'm not too sure that it's not at least the second best football conference in the country. You take a look at the players that get drafted that come out of this conference and guys that make it in the NFL. That's a pretty good endorsement as to the quality of athletes in this league."
Can you talk about coaching at North Carolina and compare it a little bit to Miami?
"The biggest challenge certainly is in the recruiting aspect, trying to acquire enough athletes. Miami went through a significant amount of time, for the better part of 20 years, with Lou Saban that the cupboard was almost virtually never empty, no matter who the head coach was. There was always a lot of athletes there, so you never really felt like, ‘well ok, we're starting at zero.' Coming to Carolina, there'd been enough years where they struggled and the team had been down since the last two or three seasons that Mack Brown was there, when they were as physically gifted as any team in the country. They had great players, Brian Simmons and Julius Peppers. It's conceivable that we can get back to that, we've just got to do a good job recruiting and it's going to take a couple of years to do."
What about the culture of the fans…?
"I'll tell you what, the fans at North Carolina have blown away my expectations for fans. I mean, it's a sellout -- you can't get a [season] ticket to the games in Chapel Hill. Their passions, showing up for the Old Well Walk, coming into the stadium. There is plenty enough passion and excitement for Carolina football in North Carolina. I think that there are a significant amount of people who went to school in Chapel Hill as graduates, particularly in the late 1990s, that have been out of school 10-to-12 years and they were there in those years when they were 11-1 and are really fired up and passionate about the program.
"I always felt like a pro football team in Charlotte, I think that has enhanced the football awareness in this state. More kids now growing up – as opposed to the old days when it was tobacco road and there were six schools in the ACC and it was all about basketball -- now all of a sudden it's not all about basketball, it's about the Carolina Panthers, Virginia Tech, Boston College, Miami, Florida State and North Carolina. There's such a dramatic influx of ideas about football that for the last 10-to-12 years, there's been a lot more passion just for football, in general, in the state."
What does it mean to you that the administration has been able to push through stadium expansion this quickly?
"Well, that goes along with the excitement and passion of our fans. We're going to start a dramatic football expansion in November. I think it's exciting, the recruits are excited about it and the fans are excited about it. And it's about creating a great atmosphere for them on game day. It's already a gorgeous place to go, but it's going to be even that much more enjoyable to go to games there. All the parking issues and restrooms and concessions and skyboxes, they'll be significant things from an athletic standpoint that'll really help us compete. I think it makes a huge statement about your administration and your new chancellor getting behind that and them really wanting that to happen."
When you were hired did you think or hope it'd be done this quickly?
"Well, that was part of the thing. When I first met with Chancellor Moeser and Dick Baddour, they instantly brought it up. They said these are things we've had on the backburner for the last six or seven years and they said they think this is the time now that we want to go forward with all of this. All that did was make me more excited about the opportunity at North Carolina."
The contract extension that you received, do you think that increases expectations on the program. Will fans expect winning to happen faster?
"Not necessarily. I look at that like the commitment to the stadium. All of that is a commitment to the recruits you're recruiting, the current team you're coaching and stuff that they're happy with the direction of the program. They like what they see, they like the fact of how competitive the games were last year and how close we were. I'm not sure that fans' expectations will ever exceed players' and coaches' expectations. We're going into the season thinking we're going to win 12. So it'd be hard for the fans to have higher expectations than us."
Before you got here, everyone said North Carolina was a "sleeping giant." Did you see the same thing - did you see the potential there?
"Sure, I did. That was one of the reasons that I felt like that it was a good place to go. That it had great academic integrity, it's a beautiful place, so it's easy when you start sitting and down and say, ‘what are the four or five reasons that kids make a decision to go to a school?' Chapel Hill's got most all of them. It's got all the things parents want to hear about great academics, great education, great network after education for alumni associations for job opportunities. Obviously, with the administration and board of trustees talking about new stadium and enhancing that – because that's so critical and so important to recruiting.
"And then proximity to athletes, you cannot win if you're in a very isolated [area] because it puts too much strain to have to travel six to seven states away to get the lion share of your players. But, if you can recruit from Washington, D.C., Virginia Beach area through the Carolina's down to Atlanta – you're talking about a major population exposure that you should be able to get 18-25 kids and then if you're lucky enough to be able to recruit nationally and cherry pick a half-dozen kids, last year we got lucky. By no stretch of the imagination is Los Angeles going to be our backyard in recruiting – but we got in on a kid that loved Carolina, signed a kid from Arizona and got a couple of kids from Florida [the year before]. Chapel Hill appeals to a lot of kids, they see the Carolina blue and they remember Michael Jordan -- all that stuff helps you attract kids."
How big of a focus is Florida?
"A little bit. We've spent the lion share of our first 18 months here trying to solidify Carolina. We've got to dig our heels in, in that state. Then once you get that going – I know obviously in '09 we've got a significant amount of commitments and a lot of those are from Carolina – but once you kind of entrench yourself with the high school coaches, then you can start moving out past that. But it was more important to establish ourselves locally, than it was to jump out and go some place else."
You mentioned on Signing Day that you still felt like you were a little bit behind in terms of building relationships…
"I didn't realize how badly -- we were probably two years behind the day I took the job compared to everybody else in the country. Recruiting has changed so much and it's changed even more just in the last year. With kids pushing to try and get commitments from 2010 kids, we hadn't even gotten the '08 kids into school yet, and we're already half-through the '09 class and already talking to 2010 kids.
"When I took the job so many kids – you pick up the phone and call the high school coach and you'd like for the kid to visit – and he goes ‘well, coach, Carolina's ok, but I've gone to Phil Fulmer's camp the last three years' or ‘I've gone to a camp since I was in the ninth grade.' So, we were trying to recruit kids and it's like trying to talk to somebody that's engaged and going to get married next month, to somehow break up and that doesn't happen very often, you know?
"But, the longer we've been here now we're getting 500-600 kids every summer into camp. We're starting to build relationships and now we're starting on an even playing field with a lot of the coaching staffs, for the kids in the ninth and 10th and 11th grade. Now, they don't have those committed loyalties because of where they've been going. Now, hopefully recruiting starts to swing a little bit."
Where are you personnel-wise, right now, heading into the season?
"We're still not … I mean, I think that we're better. We're faster and more experienced than we were, certainly, a year ago. We've got a greater appreciation for our kids. But, we're still a little bit away from some of the elite programs in the country. Having said that, that doesn't mean we won't have chances to win a lot of games, but we're going to have to play well. Injuries will play a part of it. The coaching staff pretty much stayed intact and that helped us. I expect us to be better. I'll be disappointed if we're not better."
Is it more of a depth issue than a competition issue?
"Depth is a little bit of an issue. We clearly don't have as much depth at linebacker and the secondary as you like to have. We've got pretty good depth at the wide receiver position. It'd be a little bit of a stretch to say we got one really, truly established running back. I take this blame – we were so stupid – it took us to the 10th game to figure out the best running back on the team is playing wide receiver. When we moved Greg Little there the last two games, he started to emerge, but one guy isn't going to be enough at any position for us to be any good. We've got to find at least one or two other kids at running back that can come in, that can give him a blow and change of pace, maybe somebody that brings a little different element to the game than Greg does. But that was a huge step for our football program, was when we got him to go to running back, because he made a difference. He can catch the ball, he's a big, strong powerful kid and playing basketball probably wasn't the best thing in the world that he did, but he's probably up to 220 now, so he looks the part. He looks like a Marcus Allen, he's got some power. We're excited about what he can do."
(Check back Monday for Part II ...)