'Let's Go to Work'

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The 2008 football season has finally arrived, complete with high expectations for Butch Davis' second season at North Carolina. As the Tar Heels took the practice field Friday afternoon, there was no doubt that optimism and enthusiasm has saturated this program.

"We're very excited to get the 2008 season underway," Davis said during his UNC Media Day press conference Friday morning. "There's an awful lot of buzz and excitement about the program."

That hype has slowly built since Greg Little's 158-yard rushing performance in North Carolina's season-ending victory against Duke. Another strong recruiting class in February added more flames to the media fire, and with 19 returning starters on the roster, the Tar Heels were picked to finish second at the ACC Kickoff in what many consider to be a weak Coastal Division this fall.

But Davis and his staff realize that while the preseason love is a compliment, if the team doesn't take full advantage of its allotted 29 practices before the season opener against McNeese State on Aug. 30, then the media attention won't matter much when the regular season rolls around.

"The most important thing that this football team has to focus on is that [our success] has nothing to do with the twelve opponents," Davis said. "It really doesn't. Our success this year for the football team is going to be directly related to us. It is things that we can control… There is nothing in the world more important than the first game of this season. All we want to be is the best prepared football team that we can be for that Saturday."

That type of commentary sets a high level of expectation for this program entering training camp, and the anticipation of both the players and coaching staff was clearly obvious at Navy Field on Friday.

Davis broke the opening huddle in an animated fashion, encouraging everyone to clap and get psyched for the practice session, shouting, "Let's go to work, let's go to work."

The initial flex-and-stretch period provided a unique mix of strength and conditioning coach Jeff Connors barking instructions and players providing amusing pep talks to their teammates.

There are no wasted moments in a Davis-led practice, and that was evident Friday as the head coach and several assistants were walking the rows and giving the players instructions on where their position groups would move to once the warm-up period was completed.

Two large game clocks counted down for each practice segment, giving both coaches and players full knowledge of how long each drill would last. With temperatures reaching the mid-90s in Chapel Hill, efficiency on the field cuts down on the amount of time the squad has to remain in the heat.

The No. 1 question heading into training camp has been how well T.J. Yates and his surgically-repaired shoulder will perform in their first official action since the Duke victory, and offensive coordinator John Shoop appeared as anxious as anybody to try it, quickly telling the red-shirt sophomore, "Come on, T.J., let's do this," when the flex period ended.

Shoop is always good for comedic relief on the practice field, and that held true again on Friday, softly throwing his hat to ground after several poor quarterback-center exchanges, saying, "Nobody in the country is doing that."

And then later correcting a wide receiver on his route-running, saying, "I don't need any head fakes, I just need some suddenness."

Despite this Tar Heel squad being a year older, it is still relatively young, with the two-deep loaded with underclassmen. As such, fundamentals were the primary focus of the first-half of practice, with basic drills consisting of hand-offs, snaps, footwork and special teams.

New defensive coordinator Everett Withers was active with the field goal unit, stopping the action at one point to tell the defense, "Listen up real quick – put your hand down behind the neutral zone, then put your head behind your hand to not get caught offsides."

Kenny Browning was his normal boisterous self in his teachings, telling his running backs to, "Always finish with a burst and a move."

When one back lost his balance running through a gauntlet-style drill, the 62-year-old said, "Got to have a better finish – that's not a scoring play. I believe I could tackle you on that one."

The energy level was high, and the action was fast-paced, although it seemed slower than last season, most likely because the players are more familiar with their responsibilities this time around. There was less time spent on instructing the players on how to perform a drill, and more time spent on perfecting the drill.

Though the media has only been granted one hour of exposure for the first practice of training camp, it's fairly obvious that the honeymoon is over, and that this coaching staff and their players are on the same page. That's a crucial development for a program that is expected to make some noise in the Coastal Division this fall.

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