There's no debating the fact that North Carolina's defense had a flair for the dramatic in 2008. Whether it was game-winning turnovers in the final seconds against Miami or Notre Dame, or heartbreaking collapses at Virginia or Maryland, you just never knew what you were going to get from defensive coordinator's Everett Withers' squad.
"During the course of the season last year, at any given time, there were pieces of the defense that played brilliant," head coach Butch Davis told reporters during Monday's press conference. "There were games where we created turnovers. There were games where we played extraordinarily well against the run – against Georgia Tech, in particular. There were games that we played extremely well against teams that threw the ball. But we've got to put those kinds of games together for 60 minutes throughout the entire game."
With nine returning starters from a defense that ranked 11th in the ACC in total defense (365.4 yards per game), yet fourth in forced turnovers (29) and sixth in pass efficiency defense (116.6), this preseason's focus was on consistency – playing every down like it's the first one – or the last one – of a game.
"The one big thing would probably be pursuit and consistency," senior defensive end E.J. Wilson said. "We need to consistently chase the ball all game, because that's how turnovers are made. When you see a big defensive lineman coming at you and he nails you, the next time that pass comes across the middle for a wide receiver, he's going to think twice about catching that and it might bobble out of his hands and cause an interception."
The players know the statistics all too well. Against Virginia Tech, the Tar Heels led 17-10 heading into the fourth quarter. At Virginia and Maryland, UNC lead with 15 minutes to go 7-3 and 15-14, respectively. And in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, North Carolina owned a 30-24 lead over Pat White's West Virginia squad heading into the final stanza.
The Tar Heels lost all four of those contests.
"Last year we let a couple of games slip away because we weren't consistent," junior middle linebacker Quan Sturdivant said. "That's the main thing – just be consistent each week and try to get better every week… You've just got to play for four quarters. Last year we didn't play for four quarters the whole time."
OFFENSE – Balance
Hakeem Nicks, Brandon Tate and Brooks Foster accounted for 53.3 percent (2226 of 4178) of North Carolina's total offense numbers in '08. While offensive coordinator John Shoop would have been certifiably insane not to prioritize that triumvirate that currently resides in the NFL, Davis' offense at Miami chewed up large sums of yardage because no one position group dominated the headlines.
"I want us to be a lot more balanced on offense," Davis said. "We had three phenomenally talented wide receivers last year and they deserved all of the opportunities to touch the ball. I think it would have made us an even more lethal and a better offense had we been able to incorporate other people besides those three. You're talking about running backs and you're talking about tight ends."
That change in approach began during spring practice, with Shoop installing new drills geared specifically at the short passing game. Those goals carried over into training camp, where starting running backs Shaun Draughn and Bobby Rome worked to hone their skills to provide legitimate options for quarterback T.J. Yates.
"One of the things we worked on this summer was definitely getting more of the passing concepts, more of the balls to the running backs and tight ends," Yates said. "… We definitely have to distribute the ball more throughout all of the skill players in the offense."
But that doesn't mean that Shoop will hold back in testing out his new corps of receivers, including talented freshmen such as Jhay Boyd, Erik Highsmith and Josh Adams. Their development in short order has been an integral part in making sure this offense has the necessary firepower to compete for the ACC this fall.
"Clearly, I think that we are better in the passing game than we were 24 practices ago," Davis said. "I would have been extraordinarily disappointed had we not. We spent a lot of time trying to bring those guys [along], kind of spoon feed them and put them on the fast track.
"Are we where we need to be? Absolutely not… This game [on Saturday] will hopefully be a great measuring stick as to who are going to be the playmakers, who's going to be dependable, who's going to be accountable [and] who can you count on every play to be in the right spot and make plays and catch the football?"