"He's really trying to push us to be the best that we can be," junior center Alan Pelc said. "He's determined next season that we're going to have the best season that Carolina has ever had. I believe it and all of the guys on the team believe it."
The juniors' decision to return to school only added more fuel to that fire, but in order for the Tar Heels to reach those high expectations for 2010, there are question marks on both sides of the ball that must be answered this offseason.
Football has yet to reach the statistical paradise that resides in the baseball world, but America's new favorite pastime is rapidly ascending to that level. Take North Carolina's 2009 defense, for instance.
The Tar Heels finished the season ranked in the top-15 nationally in five key categories – total defense (6th – 269.6 yards per game), rushing defense (10th – 95.6 ypg), scoring defense (13th – 17.1 points per game), pass efficiency defense (14th – 105.3 rating) and pass defense (15th – 174.0 ypg).
So when the five starting juniors announced their decision earlier this week to return to school for the 2010, it was understandable for the fan base and local media to clamor about how good this unit would be next fall with nine returning starters and talented depth to match.
The potential is obviously present in Chapel Hill, but there is serious work to be done, regardless of how the statistics may read.
While offensive coordinator John Shoop and T.J. Yates have taken the brunt of the criticism surrounding UNC's five losses in '09, it's important to note that the Tar Heels entered the fourth quarter with a lead in their last three defeats to Florida State, N.C. State and Pittsburgh, but Everett Withers' unit was unable to maintain those leads. Over the past two seasons, North Carolina has lost seven ball games despite holding a lead in the final 15 minutes.
The Tar Heel defense allowed 69 points in the fourth quarter this season, tied for most in a period with the second quarter. Having flashy statistics on your resume doesn't mean much if you don't take care of business when it actually matters.
It's akin to the basketball player that leads his league in free throw percentage but has a knack for missing the crucial ones in the final minute of regulation.
"We played pretty good defense last year, but we had some situations where we should have played better," defensive tackle Marvin Austin said.
Safety Deunta Williams echoed those comments, saying, "We had a lot on our backs, but at the same time, I think towards the end of the year we got a little bit lax. I think at the beginning of the year we were really going out and shutting teams down and taking away a lot of things that they like to do."
There's little doubt that North Carolina's defense will be standing at the threshold of greatness when the 2010 officially begins on Labor Day weekend. But entering that rare air involves possessing more than immense talent and savvy experience – it's about playing smart football and thus, avoiding devastating letdowns such as Pitt's 17-play, 79-yard game-winning drive in the final 10 minutes of the Meineke Car Care Bowl.
"We didn't come back to be subpar," Williams said. "We came back to be great."
Moments following North Carolina's 19-17 loss to Pittsburgh in the Meineke Car Care Bowl on Dec. 26, quarterback T.J. Yates was asked if he would like to forget about 2009. He responded with an emphatic "yes."
"This wasn't one of my good years," the red-shirt junior said. "I've just got to get better. I've got another year to come back and redeem myself."
For the season, Yates completed 214-of-355 passes for 2,136 yards, 14 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. The Marietta, Ga. native often redirected numerous inquiries about the offense's woes – due in large part to youth and inexperience – to focus on his play.
But while Yates is routinely criticized for his poor outings against Georgia Tech and Boston College, he is rarely credited for manufacturing a 10-point fourth-quarter rally at Connecticut behind a patchwork offensive line and nonexistent ground game. In a similar vein, some observers only remember Yates' late interception return for touchdown against Virginia Tech while forgetting his mammoth 16-play, 78-yard game-tying fourth-quarter drive that included a clutch 4th-and-7 completion to Greg Little.
The starting offensive line endured a stretch of 54 consecutive days during the season without taking a snap together due to injury. Those circumstances rendered UNC's ground game essentially useless during the program's first four games against FBS-level opposition (239 yards on 116 carries). Toss in a wide receiving corps missing five of its top-six options from '08, and the offensive struggles (108th nationally in total offense, 307.8 ypg) were not completely shocking.
But when North Carolina's defense allowed Florida State to roll up 290 yards on four straight second-half scoring drives in rallying from a 24-6 deficit, it was Yates that was pelted with an object from the student section. And despite leading UNC to its largest yardage output in over five years against N.C. State (481 yards), Yates was again labeled the scapegoat for a fan base that had watched Russell Wilson lead his team back from a 10-point deficit.
Even so, there are critics demanding that Davis find another option at quarterback for the 2010 season and there are legitimate reasons to consider that direction. Yates may not deserve the sizeable helpings of blame thrown his way, but it's also clear that his play must improve dramatically if North Carolina is to challenge for the ACC Championship and a BCS bowl bid next fall.
But it's not as though the coaching staff had many other options. Braden Hanson and former Tar Heel Mike Paulus combined to complete 32 percent (6-of-19) of their passes for 40 yards, four interceptions and zero touchdowns in six opportunities in '08 and '09. Heralded freshman Bryn Renner earned rave reviews during fall practice and he will undoubtedly be given an opportunity to challenge Yates for the throne in spring ball, but throwing a rookie into battle against LSU on opening night is a frightening thought.
Whichever quarterback emerges will be joined by nine returning offensive starters and an influx of talent along the offensive line.
The likely best-case scenario for North Carolina's offense in '10 is to remain healthy upfront, continue the late-season surge in rushing offense and receive an efficiently productive season from a seasoned fifth-year quarterback by the name of T.J. Yates.
"We can't make mistakes," Yates replied when asked about how the offense could improve in '10. "We've got to sustain the running game and not turn over the ball."