Playing Healthy

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The hype surrounding North Carolina's defensive line has been prevalent across a multitude of media platforms this preseason. But while legitimate questions linger regarding last season's performance, a regrettable truth has recently surfaced.

The fact that Butch Davis and defensive coordinator Everett Withers turned to nickel packages and three-man fronts on numerous occasions last fall has been a heated topic of discussion for nearly a full calendar cycle, but there's little debate from either side that a more effective pass rush from the front four would slice and dice enormous chunks of yardage off UNC's 64th-ranked total defense statistics (365.4 yards per game).

The Tar Heels ranked 80th nationally in both sacks (1.69) and tackles for loss (5.23) in 2008, good for 11th and 12th in the ACC, respectively. Strongside linebacker Bruce Carter totaled as many sacks (5.0) as North Carolina's entire starting defensive line, consisting of end E.J. Wilson (1.0), end Robert Quinn (2.0), tackle Marvin Austin (1.0) and tackle Cam Thomas (1.0). Providing sufficient run defense was seemingly a little better, as the group combined for 16 tackles for loss.

Things turned for the worse down the stretch, starting with Georgia Tech rumbling for 326 rushing yards on a 6.0-yards-per-carry average. But fans brushed those numbers aside, highlighting Paul Johnson's run-oriented offense and the fact that 115 of those yards came with UNC holding a three-touchdown advantage in the fourth quarter.

Against Maryland in College Park under rainy conditions, the Terrapins totaled 259 total rushing yards, although the net number shrunk to 195 when a 42-yard loss on a botched punt play helped to disguise UNC's struggles. N.C. State posted 187 rushing yards – a full 64 yards above its season average – in that rivalry rout, and despite holding Duke to 72 rushing yards in the season finale, Pat White and his West Virginia Mountaineers ignited for 455 total yards in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, 123 coming on the ground.

The defensive line's potential has been obvious, ranging from Quinn's 4.5 40 to Austin's 35 reps of 225 pounds this offseason, so why the struggle to put adequate pressure on opposing quarterbacks and stop the run last fall?

One reason came to light at the ACC Football Kickoff in Greensboro two weeks ago.

"Some of us played kind of heavy last year – like myself, Cam and Marvin," Wilson said. "We worked hard this offseason to cut down a lot of weight. That was one of the most important things that we focused on in the offseason."

When pressed on the issue, Wilson added, "Toward the end of the season, I started gaining some of the bad weight. So I just wanted to start all over and cleanse my body and get some of my weight off me."

Austin was asked about Wilson's comments during UNC's Media Day last Friday, and the 6-foot-3, 300-pounder agreed about some of the line playing heavy, saying, "Most definitely."

"You just go into the season and you're not eating right, not paying attention to what you eat," Austin said. "The season's winding down and you're not really paying attention and you just get heavy and one day you're like, ‘Dang, I'm big as heck.' But this year we can't have that. We've got to stay in shape and be able to run all day."

Both players were adamant that a change in approach had taken place in the offseason.

"We've gotten nutritionists and Coach Davis gives us everything we need – protein shakes to everything to get down to the weight we need to be at," Austin said. "… We cut down on a lot of greasy foods [and] fried foods. We're eating chicken breasts and just trying to eat smaller portions and eat a lot more meals during the day, smaller portions."

When coaches talk about offseason conditioning, most people immediately think about intense weight-lifting sessions, grueling runs up and down the Kenan Stadium stairs and forever-long jogs around the campus. But as North Carolina's defensive line found out last season, what you put in your body is just as important as any other football-related activities that take place on the field of play.

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