Deems & Mark: State of the Heels

Inside Carolina's Buck Sanders conducts the weekly roundtable discussion with former Tar Heels Deems May and Mark Paschal, with insider insight into the win over UConn and analysis of the key topics moving forward.

Buck Sanders: North Carolina found a way to win a ball game that looked like a certain loss when Connecticut scored with 55 seconds left in the third quarter. They put together a couple of impressive drives to draw even, but won in an unusual way: on a penalty called in the end zone for a safety. How will the team's psyche be following that unusual ending? Will they think they "got away" with something, or will they just be relieved to have the "W"?

Deems May: UNC did not "get away" with anything. They went out and won the game and made big plays when they had to, whether it was the completion on 3rd and 18 to keep a drive alive or Quinn's pass rush resulting in a safety. I know the fans were "relieved" but I think the players should be excited about the way they fought, especially offensively. In the past UNC might have shut it down after getting beat up like that for 3 quarters. Instead they went out and pushed UConn around in the 4th quarter.

Mark Paschal: The guys played a tough game on the road and came away with a big win. A 2-0 (record) is exactly where they wanted to be, going into this upcoming game against a tough ECU opponent. I think that with two starters missing on the offensive line last game, the guys are just happy to come away with a win. The offense struggled, but found a way to take it down the field at the end of the game and give our defense a chance to win it. Winning is winning and no one will remember the score of that game at the end of the season.

Deems: I'll say this and I think Mark would agree; had they lost this game, it potentially could've been fractious to the chemistry of the team. When you have one side of the ball playing at a much higher level than the other, dissention can set in. Whether its high school, college, or NFL, when there is a big gap in productivity from offense to defense, frustration sets in and some finger pointing starts. I've been guilty of it when we had to outscore opponents and I'm sure Mark felt the same way that UNC's defense was probably feeling for three quarters Saturday. So this was a much bigger win than some realize.

Mark: I would have to agree to some extent with what Deems is saying, because it does happen. The only thing I think makes this case a little different is that this is the first time this season that the offense struggled. If this becomes a repetitive problem, then the defense could get frustrated and I can see that, but that's where the leadership of Coach Davis, Coach Withers and the defensive leaders are asserted. They will step in and let the defense know that it is the backbone of this team and pointing fingers and getting frustrated will only be counterproductive. All the defense can do is continue to play at an extremely high level and hold opponents to under 10 points and the Tar Heels will win a lot of games.

Buck: Mark, I know going into the year that you were a little concerned about Zach Brown's adjustment to a starting role on the defense. Saturday he seemed more comfortable out there. Did you notice any changes?

Mark: Zach has done a great job of preparing mentally for each game. You can tell he is comfortable out there and doing his best to make plays. He has been pretty strong fundamentally and has been very physical at the point of attack. His tackling has been solid, too. I'm proud of the way he has competed and worked on his game off the field. If he continues to work and watch film and couples that with his physical ability, he can be dangerous.

Buck: Deems, you talked a little about route-running habits on the radio this past Saturday. Do you think Erik Highsmith has separated himself a bit from the other freshman wide receivers at UNC, and if so, what is he doing better than the other freshmen at this point?

Deems: Josh Adams is struggling right now. The two picks (from my angle on the sofa) were his fault. Slants are thrown to spots and you have to beat the defender to the spot, but he didn't do it twice. He looks a little timid and that may be a result of the drops he had in the opener. I've had a case of the drops and it kills you; you tense up when the ball comes but you have to be relaxed to catch the ball or it bounces off your hands like rocks. Adams will be fine and he will be a great player, but right now No. 88 has separated himself from the others. Erik Highsmith had big, big clutch catches Saturday. I look forward to Adams, Boyd, and Jones making big contributions as the season progresses, but right now you have to go with Highsmith at the "X" position.

Buck: Some people I've talked to comment that they thought the Tar Heels were the better-conditioned team out there, particularly on defense. Some of that I am sure is attributable to the depth on defense, but there are more veterans on that side of the ball as well. What is the accumulated effect on players after two or three years of conditioning, Mark?

Mark: Coach Jeff Connors is the best strength coach in the country. He motivates those guys and inspires them to buy into the conditioning aspect of football. Summer conditioning is very demanding and tough, Coach C pushes them to the limit, but at the end of the day they all know he is doing the very best to prepare them to win, especially in the fourth quarter. He inspires the team every day in the weight room as well as on the football field and he was a huge part of that win Saturday.

Buck: Even though UNC was the better conditioned team, Connecticut seemed to expose UNC's issues along the offensive line, particularly with Lowell Dyer and Jonathan Cooper on the sidelines. Basically the Tar Heels could not protect T.J. Yates in their base offense and couldn't get anything going on the ground. Will the UNC staff have to dramatically alter their offensive approach, as they did in the fourth quarter of the UConn game, for the rest of the season by using more two tight end sets, rolling out Yates more, and making Yates take more three-step drops? What do you think Deems?

Deems: There is no way to sugarcoat how bad UNC was for three quarters on the offensive line Saturday. I don't know if it was because they took UConn too lightly, or they couldn't hear the signals, or if it was because the "QB" of the O-line (the center) was out, but it was definitely bad. The worst thing that anybody can label on O-lineman as is being "soft"; there is nothing worse. The Tar Heels were soft for three quarters and that has to get better. I know there were injuries, but those guys weren't walk-ons that came in, they are Division I players playing for a Top 25 team, so they need to step up and play like it. They certainly did play like it in the fourth quarter and that is encouraging. Injuries are part of the game. Unfortunately injuries are hitting UNC where it is thinnest. The offense will have to step up and protect the QB better and run the ball better or the Tar Heels will struggle mightily. Given this, the offense may have to max protect more, use three-step drops, and break contain. If they need to do this, look for A.J. Blue to get more snaps to take advantage of his speed.

Buck: Deems, I know it was just one series late in the game when the UConn defense appeared to be a little gassed, but Ryan Houston seemed to be improved over the 2008 season as a rusher. Do you think he's on track to earn a larger role at tailback, beyond a short-yardage rusher?

Deems: I've been impressed with Ryan since he lost all the weight last year and really committed himself to be a key player on the team. He runs hard and downhill and I think he deserves a look a little earlier this week. I'm not down on Shaun Draughn at all, I like the way he runs and how he's holding on to the ball. Let's not forget that when Houston was having success on those two drives, the Tar Heels were having success with the playaction game and the misdirection bootlegs. This slowed the linebackers down some and opened up some good lanes that, unfortunately, Draughn did not see for three quarters. Shoop essentially used the pass to set up the run, and I think Draughn would've had some success had he been in there. I like the fact that Shoop stayed with the "hot hand" in Houston and they finally developed rhythm offensively when it mattered most.

Buck: This will be a big game on Saturday. East Carolina will come in fired up to play the Heels. Will Butch Davis approach preparation for this game any differently knowing that East Carolina will come in emotionally charged? Mark, what do you think?

Mark: No. Coach Davis does not really believe in that stuff. He believes that you should put your very best effort into every game, and the guys have bought into it. UNC won't be focused on ECU as much as they will be on themselves. ECU is just another opponent standing in their way to success. For the fans this might be the most exciting atmosphere we see in Kenan Stadium until the Thursday night game and I guarantee the boys in blue will be fired up too.

Buck: As always, thanks guys. I look forward to seeing your insights again next week following the East Carolina game.


May
Deems May excelled at tight end for UNC and was drafted in 1992, playing eight seasons in the NFL. He's since become a fan favorite for his candid commentary on the Tar Heel Sports Network.
Mark Paschal was a team captain for the Tar Heels in 2008. As a middle linebacker, he led the team in tackles prior to a career-ending injury and didn't miss a game in his career up until that point. He's the host of the Inside Carolina Call-In postgame radio show.

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