Southpaw Stepping Up

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – There are plenty of football players across the country that shine during practice only to cower on game night. But there are a select few that perform better under pressure than on the practice field, and early returns suggest that red-shirt freshman Braden Hanson may fit that mold.

The news that leaked out of North Carolina's 2008 practice sessions concerning the Charlotte, N.C. lefty was not ripe with acclaim. Hanson directed his high school offense out of the shotgun, so when he arrived in Chapel Hill last summer as a true freshman, learning to take snaps at the line of scrimmage presented a whole new list of challenges.

"It was a slow adaptation," Hanson said on Friday. "Every time I got under center, it was probably about a 50-50 chance that I would actually get the snap. Now, I don't have to worry about that. I know I'm going to get the snap. I know where I'm going after the snap and I know who I'm thinking to throw the ball to."

While he admits to some "hiccups" in '08, Hanson settled in and soaked up everything he could while watching from the sidelines and in film study. The 6-foot-6, 205-pounder hit the weights and packed on 10 pounds of muscle this offseason, and then it happened – as spring practice drew to a close, head coach Butch Davis heaped praise on his southpaw signal caller.

"One of the things that I think has been very impressive is that his scrimmage performances have been more impressive than his practice performances," Davis said in April. "... I think this is a great trait of all quarterbacks if they're going to be any good, that they can't see the rush coming. They've got to keep their eyes down the field, they've got to see receivers that come open late and if the pocket holds open enough, they've got to slide and find that open receiver and he did some of that."

On Monday, Davis once again highlighted Hanson's play in a scrimmage situation, commenting that the red-shirt freshman connected on all five of his pass attempts in Saturday's scripted series at Kenan Stadium.

"I like to think that I play well in game situations," Hanson said. "I'd love to be able to play well all of the time, but for some reason, even in high school, my coach used to tell me that I did better once we were playing in a game. But I just need to keep working in practice and keep pushing myself and hopefully I'll be playing in games, not just scrimmages."

The lefty just shakes his head and lets out several "I don't knows" while trying to explain the trend, but the only explanation that gains friction is that the adrenaline rush that occurs on game day is nearly impossible to replicate.

"With the spring game and all of the different scrimmages, there's just a little bit of a different feeling," Hanson said. "It feels like I'm in a real game, because that's the closest I've been able to come so far."

With Cam Sexton's decision to transfer out of the program this offseason, Hanson understands that his opportunity may only be a play or two away.

"Anything can happen," Hanson said. "You've got to be ready to play, whether you're second, third or fourth on the depth chart. Three quarterbacks got to play last year, so that could happen again this year – you never know. So you've just got to keep preparing and keep getting ready."

The long-held belief has been that Mike Paulus is secure as T.J. Yates' backup at quarterback, but in judging how evenly offensive coordinator John Shoop has split the repetitions between Hanson, true freshman Bryn Renner and Paulus, it appears as though the depth chart lines are blurry, at best.

"We've alternated – there's been days when Bryn has worked with the second team, when I have, when Mike has, and then a little with the first team," Hanson said. "That's helped us a lot to adjust to playing with the guys that are starting and the guys that are playing."

His goals this season are right in line with what you would expect – continuing to gain the coaching staff's trust, getting more reps and mastering the playbook. But it's obvious that Hanson is anxiously waiting for his opportunity to shine under the new lights at Kenan Stadium.

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