Wideout Concerns Move to the Forefront

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – When North Carolina's fall practice begins on Aug. 7, there will be a strong emphasis on the youth and inexperience at wide receiver. Butch Davis didn't pull any punches during Thursday's Triangle Pigskin Preview, highlighting the difficulty in having to replace five veteran wideouts.

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Butch Davis

The Triangle Chapter of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame hosted the seventh annual fundraising event, which featured Davis, N.C. State head coach Tom O'Brien, Duke head coach David Cutcliffe and North Carolina Central head coach Mose Rison.

"We've got to replace an awful lot of very talented players offensively," Davis told the crowd of roughly 300 people at the Sheraton Imperial Hotel and Convention Center in the heart of the RTP. "We lost five wide receivers, three of which got drafted, and a tight end that got drafted in the second round."

Gone is the human highlight reel otherwise known as Hakeem Nicks, as well as Brandon Tate and Brooks Foster. That triumvirate combined for 114 receptions, 1,932 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2008, and when you factor in the departures of Cooter Arnold, Kenton Thornton and tight end Richard Quinn, it's easy to understand Davis' concern.

Junior Greg Little is the lone returning wide receiver with any legitimate playing time, grabbing 11 balls for 146 yards last fall.

"Little is going to have to be the go-to guy for our receiving corps," Davis said. "He's the oldest and the most experienced and the most mature guy. He's got a lot of playing experience… I think the only reason that he hasn't flourished is because he hasn't had the opportunity to stay at one particular position. It's kind of the curse of being a talented athlete."

But while the other options at wide receiver are young and inexperienced, their reputation as highly-touted recruits precedes them. Davis reeled off a list of names that are expected to contribute this season, indicating that red-shirt freshman Todd Harrelson and true freshmen such as Joshua Adams, Jheranie Boyd and Erik Highsmith will be utilized to the best of their abilities. Sophomores Dwight Jones and Rashad Mason also factor into the equation.

It might be asking a little much for a freshman or true sophomore to progress enough during fall camp to be able to play 60-70 snaps a game, so the coaching staff is considering designing packages for each of the receivers. One wideout may solely focus on nickel situations, while another may only learn the slot position until the season progresses and additional responsibilities can be added.

"There needs to be a disproportionate amount of time spent on the passing game, just from the standpoint that we've got to elevate their experience level," Davis replied when asked about the training camp approach for the wide receiver corps. "We've got to put them in some situations that they're going to see during the course of the season… We've got to get some of these younger guys to come around for us and be able to play."

It would seem that Adams, Harrelson, Jones and Mason would have a head start on the incoming true freshmen, as a summer in Jeff Connors' workout program is proving to be a place of contagious development. Davis praised the offseason strength and conditioning results as "the best summer that we've had."

Connors hands out awards that focus on improvement, dedication and work ethic, and the number of recipients grew dramatically in '09.

"In the first year, I think we had 11," Davis said. "Last year we had 18, and this year, we had 40 [players] that are going to be recipients of that award, so that's definitely moving in the right direction."

Despite the concerns at wide receiver, North Carolina returns a three-year starter at quarterback in T.J. Yates, its entire offensive backfield and three starting offensive linemen. Add in nine returning starters on defense, and there's no debating which direction the Tar Heels plan to travel this season.

"There are always high expectations," Davis said. "You want to push the meter. You want to try to get better each year and hopefully we can do that this year."

The third-year UNC head coach will be joined by Yates and defensive end E.J. Wilson at the 2009 ACC Football Kickoff in Greensboro, N.C. on Sunday and Monday, before reporting to preseason camp on Aug. 6.

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