The Spring Grind

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – No one has ever described football practice as a pleasant experience. Blood, sweat and tears are often met with a coach's boisterous criticism, highlighting the minute details that go unnoticed by the untrained eye. But if that's the case, why were the Tar Heels smiling so much on Monday?

The thunderous roar that rose from Navy Fields and echoed through the heart of UNC's campus marked the start of the 2010 season, despite the opener against LSU in Atlanta still being six months away. Spring football has arrived in Chapel Hill, and as evidenced by arguably the largest media contingent to converge on the practice field during the Butch Davis era, basketball has taken a rare back seat to the pigskin.

Perhaps the best compliment that you could give North Carolina's football program on Monday is that the opening spring practice looked more like Day 22 of fall training camp.

Four years ago, Davis joked half-heartedly that his staff had to spend practice time teaching the large collection of underclassmen how to appropriately break a huddle. Now, nineteen of those players are listed in the spring two-deep as seniors.

Gone are the days when this coaching staff roamed Franklin Street looking for able bodies to fill out the special teams units. Combine solid recruiting with the mass decision of six juniors to push aside the temptations of the NFL, and you're left with as deep and talented a roster as North Carolina has boasted in several decades.

Consider this staggering statistic – UNC's nine returning defensive starters have 233 career starts on their collective resume.

"It's taken a couple of years to build the program to have enough quality athletes that there's legitimately decent pressure put on players to be starters, second-team players or role players," Davis told reporters prior to Monday's practice. "Hopefully we'll have enough competition in the spring where guys will have to really challenge themselves and push themselves."

Regardless of what is said the remainder of this spring session, the primary goal in March and April is to build depth behind the known quantities that reside in the starting lineup.

"The second and third teams are probably going to get more reps than the first team to begin with, just from the standpoint that they need more reps," Davis said. "The starters, whoever those perceived guys are, they've had three seasons worth of practices and game experiences. We've got to grow the guys that are going to grow behind them."

It may seem odd to assume that the starters don't need a lion's share of the reps; after all, North Carolina has lost five games in each of the past two seasons. But the upperclassmen's comfort level with their assignments, as well as each other, was glaring on Monday.

In the first official 5-on-5 drill of 2010, safeties Deunta Williams and Da' Norris Searcy barked out calls and linebacker Quan Sturdivant echoed their words along the front line. During a later team drill, reserve defensive backs LeCount Fantroy and Matt Merletti shouted out adjustments to the first-team unit from the sidelines.

When mistakes were made on the offensive side of the ball, it was T.J. Yates that corrected his teammate before a position coach could get a word in. And when mock-center Alan Pelc and third-string quarterback Braden Hanson botched a snap, offensive coordinator John Shoop simply asked for an explanation. No need for an overreaction – been there, done that.

The power of knowledge has allowed this roster to relax and focus on the task at hand. Four years ago, these players didn't even know what their own responsibilities were in certain sets. Now the seniors are teaching the underclassmen about their specific assignments.

Somehow, that makes the meat grinder otherwise known as practice not only tolerable, but enjoyable.

"Spring is always fun," Marvin Austin said following practice. "And I think we're going to have a lot more fun because it's natural now. Your natural ability gets to come out. You're not thinking as much and you just get to go out there and play the game like a little kid… You get to have fun with the game."

But football practice was never intended to be fun though, right?

"That's a lie; whoever said that wasn't telling the truth," Deunta Williams said. "It's supposed to be grueling, it's supposed to be challenging and it's supposed to push you, but I think if you're doing those things with the right mindset, it can be fun. It's all about perception, you know?"

As soon as the sextet of juniors decided to return for the 2010 season, the entire senior class raised the proverbial bar and began the arduous process of attempting to lift this program to the next level. Davis indicated that strength and conditioning coach Jeff Connors felt like this current group of players was the hardest-working bunch that he's been around in 23 years during offseason workouts.

That renewed mindset was evident in Yates' interaction with the media following practice. After a 2009 season in which the red-shirt senior was beaten down with offensive injuries and criticism, the Marietta, Ga. native was upbeat and sharing laughs with a handful of reporters.

"It was good getting out there," Yates said. "Everybody had extremely high energy and everybody was flying around. Usually, on the first day back, everybody is kind of dreading it, but we were flying around, yelling and hooping and hollering, so it was a good day."

North Carolina has yet to reach the ultimate goal of becoming a national power, and as such, there are numerous areas where the Tar Heels must improve this spring in order to legitimately challenge for the ACC Coastal Division crown this fall. But if Monday is any indication, the Tar Heels are anxious to attack those issues head on.

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