A Step Backward

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Butch Davis wasted little time during Monday's press conference in addressing his program's offensive concerns and indicating that a simplification process had begun.

The statistics are humbling, if not embarrassing. If North Carolina's 280.8 yards (113th nationally, 11th ACC) and 18.6 points (107th nationally, 12th ACC) per game weren't bad enough, consider that UNC is averaging just 198.7 yards and 7.3 points in three contests against BCS opposition.

There are excuses readily available. The offense has lost 18 starts this season due to injury, Hakeem Nicks and Richard Quinn bolted to the NFL before their eligibility was exhausted, and on and on. But with the Tar Heels returning a third-year starting quarterback in T.J. Yates, a stable full of veteran running backs and immense young talent at the wide receiver position, offensive coordinator John Shoop has come under fire for his unit's lack of production.

"I think it's unfair," Davis said of the criticism. "… People would inform me that Larry Coker had no clue what he was doing. He couldn't coach a lick as the offensive coordinator at Miami. And then, unbelievably, when Reggie Wayne got there and Kellen Winslow, Jr. got there and Andre Johnson got there and Clinton Portis got there and we started averaging 40 points [per game], all of a sudden Larry Coker looked like a genius."

That comment implies two things – (1) that UNC's offensive statistics under Shoop will increase dramatically once this coaching staff loads the roster with elite-level talent; and (2) that it's not a matter of if those high-end football players will matriculate at North Carolina, but only when.

As for the latter, maybe the roster restocking hasn't occurred as quickly in Chapel Hill as it did for Davis in South Florida, especially along the offensive line.

According to InsideCarolina.com sources, the Tar Heels aimed to sign two or three offensive tackles in the 2008 recruiting class. But Nick Becton signed with Virginia Tech, Barrett Jones inked with Alabama, Ben Jones took up residence in Athens, Ga., and Matt Patchan stayed home to play for the Florida Gators.

Worst of all, in-state offensive line prospects R.J. Mattes and Andrew Wallace are both currently listed on N.C. State's two deep. So instead of a handful of tackle prospects, North Carolina managed to sign only guard Jonathan Cooper in the '08 class. The Wilmington, N.C. native joins Cam Holland and Carl Gaskins as the only offensive linemen from Davis' first two classes that are currently on the roster.

Combine those recruiting struggles with a rash of offseason injuries and attrition, and North Carolina's offensive line two-deep is littered with first-year players like true freshmen Brennan Williams and Travis Bond. Greg Elleby and Tavares Brown moved over from the defensive line in attempt to provide depth in filling the ever-growing holes up front.

"We got younger this year because we lost a lot of players prior to the start of the season," Davis said. "I don't think it would have been as big of a struggle to this point if we don't lose Aaron Stahl, if we don't lose Carl Gaskins, if we don't lose Lowell Dyer, if we don't lose [tight end] Zack Pianalto. I think that changes the complexion of the people on the front line… We got younger and more inexperienced in the offensive line than we had anticipated."

It speaks volumes that the third-year UNC head coach points to front identification as a basic key that the current offensive line has yet to nail down.

"We've been beleaguered for two straight weeks where we have turned guys absolutely loose in the hole," Davis said. "Whether it's been on runs or even on passes, where the guy was misidentified and instantly he was right in the quarterback's face or he was right in the backfield and at the point of attack… Getting our offensive line all on the same page with the right identification – I think that's one thing that hopefully is fixable."

When the problems are that fundamental along the offensive line, it prevents new and creative packages from being rolled out to help aid Yates and the skill players. For example, A.J. Blue's "Diesel" package may be put on the shelf until the blocking schemes can be executed properly.

"Here's another 10 or 11 plays that are totally different than everything else you're doing – how much practice time can you devote to the stuff when T.J.'s the quarterback to when A.J.'s the quarterback?" Davis said. "That's just more things. They've got to learn more blocking schemes, they've got to learn more protections [and] it's new runs. So sometimes that compounds the problem more than it helps the problem."

It's become obvious that Shoop's woes directly relate to the offensive line, which is troubling. It's one thing to plug in a new wide receiver or running back to correct a problem. But wideout Erik Highsmith learned his position responsibilities in a matter of weeks. It sometimes takes offensive linemen years to master their craft, and years are something this North Carolina offense doesn't have.

Yates was asked on Monday if it was disheartening that UNC's offense had been forced to simplify and readjust in Year 3.

"Yes, it's a little surprising," the Marietta, Ga. quarterback said. "It's kind of frustrating, because I think this offense is better than what we've shown on the field. If that's what it's going to take to get this offense moving a little more, then that's what we've got to do."

When you factor in that starting left tackle Kyle Jolly left Saturday's game with an ankle sprain, the gruesome reality of more potential struggles becomes more likely in Chapel Hill.

InsideCarolina.com football recruiting reporter Don Callahan contributed to this article.

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