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UNC held its first scrimmage on Saturday, working through 79 designed plays while fielding a legitimate third team for the first time in Butch Davis's tenure as head coach. True freshmen primarily filled out that third unit and received the bulk of the snaps – 30 in all – at Kenan Stadium.
"It was a good clean practice," quarterback T.J. Yates said of the scrimmage. "The ball was never on the ground [and] the ball was never in the other team's hands throughout the entire scrimmage, so as an offense, we did really well."
Yates is currently entrenched in a quarterback duel with red-shirt freshman Bryn Renner, and it appears as though the competition is paying off for all parties involved.
"They were both over the 75 percent completion [mark]," said Davis, who also noted that the best news coming out of the scrimmage was that there were no injuries. "The encouraging thing was that we did not have one single turnover on offense. We didn't throw any interceptions. We had no fumbles. They were both very, very effective. I thought that they did a nice job."
The Tar Heels were forced to play five freshmen for significant minutes on offense last fall, one variable in a failed equation that led to a total offensive ranking of 108th nationally (307.8 yards per game). Two of those players – Erik Highsmith and Jhay Boyd – reside in the wide receiver corps, and that entire group now has the experience to be effective targets in the passing game.
"All of the young guys have completely picked up the offense now – there's no indecision or confusion whatsoever," Yates said. "They're running the routes more confidently and they're going out there and blocking better."
Outside of Gio Bernard's ACL injury, the running back position hasn't received much preseason attention due to the known quantities in seniors Shaun Draughn, Ryan Houston and Johnny White, but Davis praised that group's effort on Saturday.
"I thought that they ran about as hard as I've ever seen them run," Davis said. "We had four running backs in that scrimmage that probably averaged over five yards per carry… It was Hunter Furr's best practice as a Tar Heel. He ran the ball well, he protected well [and] he caught the ball well out of the backfield."
And while Draughn was thought to be a lock to reclaim his starting tailback position, White has applied enough pressure from down the depth chart to make this an interesting competition to watch over the next two weeks.
"That kid is so explosive," Yates said. "As soon as he catches the ball, he'll get a quick burst up the field. We hit a check down to Johnny in the scrimmage the other day and he was 12-15 yards up the field before he even got touched. He's just so explosive and so quick out there."
There's no doubt that North Carolina's strength this fall will be its defense, which returns nine starters from the '09 version that ranked in the top-15 nationally in six different statistical categories. But that defense is not overwhelming its offensive counterpart near as often as it did last August.
"The offensive line is very strong," starting linebacker Bruce Carter said. "T.J.'s got some great receivers to throw to, and we've got a running back competition going on with Johnny White and Shaun, so I think that's going to be good. It's just making the team better overall."
Yates echoed his teammate's sentiments on Monday, saying, "The offense as a whole has taken a step forward."
About the only direction this offense can go in Shoop's fourth season as coordinator is up, but any incremental improvement furthers North Carolina's opportunity to challenge for the ACC title and beyond.