A combination of youth and starters having to serve dual roles created a travesty in the kick coverage departments for North Carolina in 2007.
The Tar Heels' kickoff return yardage defense ranked 112th nationally (12th ACC) with a 24.9 yards per return average that included one touchdown and just eight touchbacks. Their punt return yardage defense was only marginally better, ranking 92nd nationally (11th ACC) with a 10.88 yards per return average.
"[It] was a big sore spot with us last year – we didn't at times do as well as certainly you need to to win ball games," head coach Butch Davis said during his Monday press conference. "It's an area that we need to get better [in], and we hope that we're starting off with a better pool of players that are more experienced, they understand the schemes that they are going to see and hopefully we'll have a little bit faster unit of guys that are covering the kicks."
Davis indicated that with more experience and a brand new group of freshmen to depend on, he expects to have a nucleus of 20 to 25 players specifically for special teams, so that he does not have to overly tax his starters. North Carolina will continue to mix in starters on one or two of the various units – players such as Brooks Foster, Brandon Tate and Quan Sturdivant – as well as including as many as seven true freshmen on special teams for Saturday's game against the Cowboys.
Having experience on those units allows for smoother in-game adjustments.
"If they do come out with something totally new – a new look or a new pressure or some kind of a block – then we can get on the sidelines and just instantly draw it up on the board and the guys will go, ‘Oh yeah, now I understand what calls we need to make to take care of that,' Davis said. "Where, a year ago, it might have not been as easy to fix some of the mistakes."
And while a starter has yet to be named for the placekicker position between red-shirt freshman Jay Wooten and true freshman Casey Barth, Davis was pleased with that unit's efficiency during this weekend's mock game, pointing to operation times south of 1.25 seconds.
Issue No. 2 – Rushing Attack
Davis has spent his career around high-profile running backs such as Emmitt Smith, Frank Gore and Clinton Portis, but he entered his first season at North Carolina with a handful of options in the backfield with essentially no experience at the Division I level, and it showed.
The Tar Heels finished the season ranked 117th nationally (10th ACC) with a 99.17 yards per game average and a below-average 2.96 yards per carry mark. But Greg Little was moved to the position as the fifth different option in the 11th game against Georgia Tech, and he displayed flashes of brilliance in gaining 243 yards (4.86 ypc) and two touchdowns.
But to be fair, 154 of those yards came against a Duke defense that allowed over 180 rushing yards per game on the season. So will Little be ready to put up those kinds of numbers over the course of a full season against a better product than what the Blue Devils put on the field?
According to the Durham, N.C. sophomore, that answer is yes.
"I just feel comfortable now, knowing that I can tell when blitzes are coming," said Little, who added 10 pounds of muscle in the offseason. "Instead of just waiting for them to come, I can see things happening before they actually happen. You can play a lot faster that way… It feels like high school again. I feel like I can dominate this game now that I know what to do and where to be."
There is also hope behind the 6-foot-3, 220-pounder on the depth chart. Sophomore Ryan Houston went through an offseason physical transformation that has him leaner and stronger than last fall, and safety-turned-running back Shaun Draughn has emerged as a surprise for the UNC coaching staff.
When Little was asked on Monday how many snaps his teammates would see at running back against McNeese State, he responded by saying, "I hope that we're winning [by] so much that I don't even play the second half."
Issue No. 3 – Youth and Inexperience
If you ever happened to walk into a Butch Davis press conference last fall, there's a good chance you heard the second-year head coach talk about the 50-plus players that were seeing their first action in college football. Or that North Carolina used 12 first-time starters in the season opener against James Madison, in addition to having eight true freshmen on the depth chart.
The negatives of a trial-by-fire 2007 season are expected to result in the positives of a still young, but experienced squad this fall. The Tar Heels return 18 starters, and this season, only two true freshmen are on the depth chart for the McNeese State contest.
"We've gained so much experience in the spring and in this fall training camp that we're playing faster [and] we're playing smarter, and I think whenever you play fast and smart, that's when you have the best chance to be successful," senior linebacker Mark Paschal said.
But with that news comes high expectations unseen in Chapel Hill for the better part of a decade – numerous media outlets have picked UNC to finish second behind perennial power Virginia Tech in the ACC's Coastal Division.
With 33 underclassmen listed on the depth chart, will this media spotlight be potentially blinding?
"You can't read too many of your press clippings or somebody will pass you by," Paschal said. "I think that a lot of the younger guys have done a great job of staying smart and working hard every day to be as successful as they can on Saturdays."
Unlike many teams across the country, North Carolina has the pieces in place to correct its problems from the 2007 season. Now it just comes down to making that happen, and it all begins on Saturday night against McNeese State.
"We have to come out and make a statement – make a huge statement, actually," Little said. "That's why we don't want to have to come out and make this a good game. We want to come out and smash this team."