Take a look at any reasonable college football expert's predictions for the most improved teams for 2008 and there is a good chance that you'll find Notre Dame on that list. However, there is just as good of a chance, if not better, that you'll find North Carolina on the very same list. There are plenty of similarities between the two programs and it should make for an interesting Oct. 11 matchup in Chapel Hill.
Both schools have entrusted their reclamation projects to former professional coaches, although Charlie Weis has more experience in the pro game and Butch Davis is more familiar on the collegiate level. Both teams took their lumps with a young cast in 2007 as Notre Dame finished 3-9 and the Tar Heels finished a game better at 4-8. Weis and Davis have both brought in some of the top prep players in America and now is the time for that potential to start turning into production.
Although the Irish played the tougher schedule in 2007, one difference is that North Carolina was competitive in more games than Notre Dame was. Carolina lost just two of its eight by more than a touchdown while the Irish lost its nine games by an average of more than 21 points.
Davis has made it clear that things will be different in Chapel Hill this season. In the first team meeting of 2008, he was brutally honest with his players. He told the team, in no uncertain terms, that some of them got the chance to play last year because there were no other options, but that as he continues to add his own players to the roster he will have alternatives.
Davis is a firm believer of internal competition and with so much young talent on the squad, there could be many changes among the two-deep throughout preseason camp and even during the season. Offensively, the Tar Heels return virtually every statistical leader except for leading rusher Johnny White, who was shifted to cornerback.
Sophomore quarterback T.J. Yates had a record-setting redshirt freshman season in 2007. The 6-3, 210-pounder set school records in passing yards (2,655), completions (218) and attempts (365). But even Yates will not be immune to any challenges from his backups.
Yates showed a nifty ability to move around in the pocket early in the season, but without a running game to keep defenses honest, teams started to come after him and he took some hits. Yates sat out spring practice after having offseason surgery on the labrum in his throwing shoulder. He did throw 14 touchdown passes, but will need to prove that he can make better decisions after being picked off 18 times.
In Yates' absence this spring, junior Cam Sexton (6-1, 190) and redshirt freshman Mike Paulus (6-5, 215) split reps with the first-team offense. Sexton saw considerable time as a freshman, starting five games and completing 57 of his 136 passes for 840 yards for four touchdowns and eight interceptions. Paulus, whose brother Greg is the starting point guard at Duke, did not play as a true freshman but will eventually get his shot.
Yates figures to have a solid grip on the position, but the amount of time that Sexton and Paulus saw in his absence should give Davis some more confidence in his reserves.
Assuming Yates is the guy, he will have plenty of targets to throw to. Junior Hakeem Nicks (6-1, 210) was last year's leading receiver with a school-record 74 catches for 958 yards and five scores. Nicks was selected as an All-ACC Second Team performer by the Associated Press and has big-play capabilities.
Senior Brandon Tate (6-1, 195) figures to be the number two receiver after making 25 catches for 479 yards and five touchdowns in 2007. Tate is also a standout kick returner and set the ACC record for career kickoff return yards (2,383) in just three seasons. He led the conference with 147.1 all-purpose yards per game last year.
Senior Brooks Foster was second on the team with 29 receptions in 2007 for 417 yards and a pair of TDs. Along with Nicks and Tate, Foster is a deep threat who will stretch the field for the Carolina offense.
Junior Kenton Thornton (6-4, 230) brings some size to the receiving corps and will give Yates a threat over the middle. Rashad Mason (6-5, 220) sat out his freshman season in 2007, but could see time this year.
North Carolina has two capable tight ends that it can use. Senior Richard Quinn (6-4, 260) is a prototypical tight end, who excels at run blocking while sophomore Zack Pianalto (6-4, 240) is the pass-catcher and will also play H-Back. Pianalto started eight games and had 24 catches for 204 yards to earn First Team Freshman All-ACC honors.
Incoming freshman Christian Wilson could also contribute at tight end. As a sophomore Wilson was featured on the ESPN reality show Bound for Glory featuring Dick Butkus. He initially committed to Michigan, but chose to sign with the Tar Heels after the coaching change in Ann Arbor.
Notre Dame fans will recognize the Tar Heels' starting running back, sophomore Greg Little (6-3, 210). Little initially committed to the Irish as a wide receiver, but his National Letter of Intent wound up in the North Carolina offices on Signing Day.
Little started off at receiver for North Carolina, but was shifted to the backfield where he started the final two games of the season. Little rushed for 247 yards on 50 carries in those two starts and had a 25-yard touchdown run in overtime to beat Duke in the last game of the season.
Little, who will obviously be a weapon out of the backfield in the passing game, turned heads in the spring and has Davis comparing him to Willis McGahee. Redshirt freshmen Devon Ramsay (6-2, 240) and Robert Houston (6-2, 255) will give Little some relief, but their size will continue to wear down opposing defenses. The North Carolina staff is also hoping that incoming four-star freshman Jamal Womble (5-11, 215) will compete for carries.
Sophomore Anthony Elzy was the team's second leading rusher behind White last year with 350 yards and five touchdowns, but Davis felt comfortable enough with his tailbacks to move Elzy to fullback. Elzy will compete for time with junior Bobby Rome (5-11, 250).
Line is no different than any of the other position groups on offense as the Tar Heels bring back four of their five starters from 2007. The only starter not coming back is center Scott Lenahan, who is expected to be replaced by junior Aaron Stahl (6-2, 290). Stahl started all 12 games at left guard last year, but the staff feels that center is his natural position. Junior Lowell Dyer (6-3, 280) started six games when Lenahan was injured last year and will compete with Stahl.
Junior Kyle Jolly (6-6, 300) missed the spring session with a broken foot, but is expected to be back starting at left tackle in the fall. Senior Bryon Bishop (6-3, 300) is the sole newcomer on the line and is expected to start inside of Jolly.
Senior Calvin Darity (6-3, 310) was a highly rated recruit in the Class of 2004 and started every game at right guard over the last two years. Darity will hold down the right side with senior right tackle Garrett Reynolds (6-7, 310), who graded out at a team-best 88% last year.
Davis wants this group to develop an attitude and to take pride in running the football. The players behind the starters have talent, but are thin on experience, so it will be interesting to see what happens if injuries occur.
Like the Irish, Tar Heels have plenty of young offensive talent, but after averaging 325 yards (105th in the nation) and 21.2 points per game (97th nationally) in 2007, 2008 is the time to start achieving that potential.
Last year's defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano left for a job with the Baltimore Ravens and was replaced by Everett Withers, after one season at Minnesota in the same position. Withers would like to install an aggressive scheme, but in order for that to work he will have to rely on the secondary. Withers spent three years as the defensive backs coach at the University of Texas before six years as DBs coach with the Tennessee Titans, so expect the group to improve on last year's 27th-ranked pass defense.
Again, there is no shortage of experience or talent as the Tar Heels return all four of last year's starters led by sophomore free safety Deunta Williams (6-2, 205). Williams was listed as a receiver when he came to Carolina, but started all 12 games at free safety as a freshman. Williams had 57 tackles and three interceptions to go with numerous awards. Williams was named ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year, First Team All-ACC Freshman Team and was a First Team Freshman All-American.
Starting next to Williams at strong safety will be senior Trimane Goddard (5-11, 195). Goddard started all 12 games in 2007, but sat out the spring with a broken wrist. Goddard tied for second on the team with 59 tackles and was second in the ACC with three forced fumbles. Goddard is the most experienced member of the secondary, having played in all 35 games since he arrived in Carolina.
North Carolina started a pair of freshmen at corner last year, Charles Brown (5-10, 190) and Kendric Burney (5-9, 180). Brown made 59 tackles and was selected to The Sporting News' All-ACC Freshman Team while Burney had 50 tackles and four pass deflections. The pair make up for their lack of size with speed and quickness, but they are vulnerable to larger receivers.
Look for Notre Dame to try to exploit this weakness with guys like Duval Kamara and Robby Parris, or incoming freshmen Michael Floyd and Joseph Fauria. It is for this very reason that the Carolina staff is hoping that junior college transfer Melvin Williams (6-0, 205) can make an impact. White was brought over to the defensive side of the ball from tailback to see if he can make an impact with his 4.3 speed.
The most talented position on the roster is the defensive line, defensive tackle in particular where the Tar Heels boast four players with pro potenial. Sophomore Marvin Austin lived up to his prep billing by earning Freshman All-American honors with 26 tackles, six for a loss and four sacks.
Austin is joined on the first string by junior Aleric Mullins (6-3, 295), who started five games as a sophomore after sitting out his freshman year with academic issues. Austin and Mullins will be backed up by junior Cam Thomas (6-3, 330) and redshirt freshman Tydreke Powell (6-3, 310). Scout ranked Powell as a top 10 defensive tackle in the Class of 2007 while Thomas played in seven games despite an ankle injury.
While North Carolina will have one of the ACC's top interior rotations, defensive end is not as deep. Junior E.J. Wilson (6-2, 280) is the most consistent after starting all 12 games last year. Wilson can play both the run and the pass, but there are questions on the other side where sophomores Darrius Massenburg (6-3, 280) and Greg Elleby (6-4, 285) will compete. Massenburg played in eight games as a freshman while Elleby played in six. Sophomore Darius Powell (6-2, 230) played in 11 games last year and is expected to be in the rotation again this year.
Davis kicked middle linebacker Wesley Flagg off of the team for a violation of team rules after spring ball, which means that senior Mark Paschal (6-0, 230) has a firm grip on the position. Flagg was the starter coming out of camp last year, but lost his position midway through the season. Paschal came on late and had his best game of the season in the final against Duke when he registered 17 tackles. Junior Ryan Taylor (6-3, 240) has moved to linebacker from tight end and will back up Paschal.
Senior Chase Rice (6-3, 230) was the starter at strong side linebacker last year, but an Achilles injury in the first game sidelined him for the remainder of the season. He is expected to compete with sophomore Bruce Carter (6-3, 225), who started seven of the games that Rice missed last year.
Sophomore Quan Sturdivant (6-2, 230) started in five of the 12 games at the weak side last year and finished with 47 tackles and a spot on the All-ACC Freshman Team. Junior Kennedy Tinsley (6-0, 220), who started his career at fullback, will back up Sturdivant.
The Carolina defensive unit may be more talented than the offense, but it needs to step up and become the anchor of the team as the offense grows. Together, both units will need to improve its -6 turnover margin (97th nationally).
The Tar Heels will bring back Tate as one of the top return men in the country, but they will have to replace the top kicker in school history in Connor Barth as well as their long snapper and holder. Snapping was an issue during the spring as freshman Jay Wooten and sophomore Trase Jones competed for Barth's job. Davis says that the competition is still open at kicker, but senior Terrence Brown will start at punter again in 2008. Brown averaged 41.4 yards per punt last year.
The game will be a good test for both schools to see where they are with the Irish figuring to be a slight underdog by virtue of Carolina's home field.