It's obvious that Charlie Weis has a lot of respect for North Carolina head Butch Davis.
"Coach Davis has been there now for a couple of years, one of the best coaches around having coached at both levels with a high rate of success," Weis said of Davis. "He's been at the top of the college world, he's been at the top of the pro world. He's had a lot of success in coaching both as a head coach and for that matter as a coordinator as well. He knows what he's doing. He's a tough guy, his players play tough and I know that that's what we're going to face when we go against them this week."
Davis is a Jimmy Johnson disciple, having coached on Johnson's staffs at Oklahoma State, Miami and in Dallas with the Cowboys before winning a national title as head coach of Miami and earning a head coaching job in the NFL with the Cleveland Browns.
Weis sees plenty of similarities between his program and the one that Davis is building in Chapel Hill.
"I could see a lot of things that these programs are heading in the same direction because there's a lot of young, good athletes that are getting into the mix and are producing," Weis said. "Obviously we're two different schemes and all of that other stuff, but as far as personnel goes, they've done a nice job recruiting and they're not afraid to play the young guys. I'd like to say that's very similar to how we think."
With both teams trying to get to the same place, Saturday's game will put one squad a bit ahead of the other on that journey."You've got two programs that have both lost just one game. Well, one team's going to be sitting in a lot better shape after this week. Whoever wins this game is going to be sitting in a lot better shape than the other team," said Weis. "We understand how good North Carolina is and we have a lot of respect for them, but we're going down there. This is not a pleasure trip."
"They're averaging over 32 points per game and they're really showing that they can pound people by running the ball," Weis said of a North Carolina attack that features multiple halfbacks. "They play three of them and they all have a little different style and it seems to be like sometimes they'll just go with the guy with the hot hand.
"Greg Little has been starting every game, he's a north-south downhill runner that runs hard. He's got good size and speed. He'll lower his shoulder and he'll run over you. He's a very good athlete. They have a very good change of pace in both directions from Greg. Where Greg's the guy that's been starting every game, they can go to the smaller, faster guy in (Shaun) Draughn, who had a great game last week. He was a safety that converted to halfback and last week he had 19 carries for 109 yards. He's a smaller, faster guy that has great quickness and make-you-miss ability. Then they can go the other way. They can put Ryan Houston in there, who is 250 pounds. He's a big body, they definitely use him in short yardage, but he's their hammer-slammer running back. They have three different styles of running backs and they can kind of feed all of them."
The Irish are very familiar with Little as the sophomore initially committed to Notre Dame out of high school before changing his mind and signing with Carolina.
"Anytime you're involved in recruiting, the toughest thing to do is get a guy to leave his home state," Weis said. "At the end of the day, he felt more comfortable staying home. Hey, do I like that happening? No, but at the end of the day the kid wanted to stay home. Who can really shun a guy who wants to stay home?"
In addition to having three solid running backs, the Tar Heels have a trio of wideouts who will also present problems. Junior Hakeem Nicks is fifth in school history with 2,030 receiving yards and already had four touchdowns on the year. Senior Brooks Foster has 10 catches for 102 yards and a pair of scores thus far, while classmate Brandon Tate has 16 receptions for 376 yards and three touchdowns.
"We have a group of three wide receivers that's probably as good as we've seen all year," Weis said.
Nicks and Tate will also make impacts in the return game.
"(Tate) is averaging 27.7 yards a kick return with a long of 56, has three touchdowns in his career and he's probably just as explosive as a punt returner. This guy is a problem, he is a problem," Weis said. "When you're kicking away from Tate it's not really any big bargain because you're kicking to Nicks and he's pretty darn good as a kickoff returner too."
Another problem for the Irish will be making sure to protect the punter as North Carolina linebacker Bruce Carter got through to block three punts last week against UConn, all in the second quarter.
"We definitely have to get special attention to him," Weis said. "It wasn't even on a block. Three times last week, they're setting up a wall return and three times last week he beats his guy. He beats his guy three times, on the exact same thing. Anytime a guy can beat a guy one-on-one three times, you definitely better give him some special attention."
Defensively, North Carolina is allowing 19 points per game, identical to the Irish defense.
"One thing they do do though, is they lead the nation in interceptions," said Weis. "They have 12 interceptions, so that'll be a challenge for us. When you're going against a team that gets that many turnovers, usually some bad things can happen."
Sophomore defensive tackle Marvin Austin leads a front four that has shown the capability to pressure the passer, while their linebackers are as athletic as any Notre Dame has seen and the secondary has proven its ability to make plays led by safeties Trimane Goddard and Deunta Williams.
The push of Tar Heels' defensive front allows North Carolina to play a different style than the Irish have seen all year and that will require some adjustments on the part of Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen.
"What he's going to need to do this week is he's going to have to be patient and that's a little different," Weis said of Clausen. "I'm not sure what percentage North Carolina will blitz this game, but for the year it's been a lot lower than most of the teams that we've played against. Because they believe that their front four can get to the quarterback, pressure the quarterback and that allows them to just play coverage with everyone else.
"When teams are playing coverage, which is what they've been doing most of the year, it forces the quarterback to be more patient. That's where you really challenge a younger quarterback. Will you be patient enough to take what they give you rather than wanting to sling it down the field on every play?"
It's clear, at least to the coaching staff, that the Tar Heels represent one of the toughest challenges that Notre Dame will face this year east of Los Angeles.
"I think they're good on special teams, I think they're solid on offense, I think they're solid on defense and I think they're well-coached," Weis said plainly.