Opponents preview: North Carolina defense

Part three of BadgerNation.com's look at UW's first road opponent for 2005

North Carolina's defense was very, very bad last year. But in the past two seasons, the Tar Heels have used 15 true freshmen on this side of the ball. And this year UNC's defense effectively returns 10 starters. There is talent here and the experience necessary for a big leap in production. The defensive line should be sturdy, but desperately needs to improve upon its pass rush. The secondary was lit up last year, but there is reason for the Tar Heels to be optimistic about what returns at those positions. The big question mark is linebacker, where UNC returns three starters but needs all of them to step up and make more plays.

2004 by the numbers

Total defense: 446.50 yards allowed per game (No. 109 nationally)
Scoring defense: 31.8 points allowed per game (92)
Passing defense: 228.1 (77)
Passing efficiency: 133.6 (87)
Rushing defense: 218.4 (109)
Touchdowns allowed: 45 – 31 rushing, 14 passing
Third-down defense: 40 percent allowed, 65 of 162
Turnover margin: -4 (85); recovered 7 of 16 fumbles and intercepted eight passes
Net punting: 37.3 (29)
Kick coverage: 24.5 (111)
Punt coverage: 4.9 (5)

Defensive line analysis

Chase Page missed all of last season with a hand injury and redshirted. In his return this fall, he is expected to be one of the best defensive tackles in the ACC. A fifth-year senior, Page played five games at offensive guard as a true freshman in 2001, then switched to defensive tackle and started all 24 games his sophomore and junior seasons, contributing 96 tackles (54 solo) in those two campaigns.

Page (6-foot-5, 280 pounds) could be paired with returning starter sophomore Kyndraus Guy (6-2, 270) or sophomore Khalif Mitchell (6-6, 300). Guy made 14 stops last year, with 1.5 tackles for loss. Mitchell had 15 tackles, 4.5 for loss and 1.5 sacks. He was a star of the spring game with three sacks. Both Mitchell and Guy could play defensive end as well.

Sophomore Kenny Price (6-4, 280) and junior Shelton Bynum (6-6, 300) add depth at tackle. Bynum has 37 tackles the past two seasons.

Senior Tommy Davis (6-2, 257) and junior Brian Rackley (6-5, 245) are returning starters at end. Davis will be in his fourth season as at least a part-time starter. He was tied for seventh on the team last year with 48 tackles and has 113 in his career. He also led the Tar Heels with 7.5 tackles for loss. UNC needs him to provide a steady pass rush.

Rackley chipped in 23 tackles, five for loss, and matched Davis' three sacks.

Hilee Taylor (6-3, 210) led the team with 4.5 sacks last year as a true freshman. Also a linebacker, Taylor will work in the defensive line rotation as a rush end. Taylor sprained the medial collateral ligament in his knee late in spring practices.

Another player to watch at end is sophomore Kentwan Balmer (6-5, 250), who could command regular playing time this fall. Junior Melik Brown (6-1, 256) adds depth. A starting linebacker for eight games as a freshman in 2003, Brown had 21 tackles that year and 13 last season.

Linebackers analysis

Three senior starters return for the Tar Heels on what was not a productive unit last year: Doug Justice (6-2, 245) in the middle, Jeff Longhany (6-3, 250) on the strongside, and Tommy Richardson (6-1, 225) on the weak side.

Richardson was tied for second on the team and first among linebackers with 67 tackles. Justice added 48, six for loss, while Longhany posted 36 stops, six for loss.

This corps is competent, if entirely unexciting. Junior Larry Edwards is considered the team's most talented linebacker, but he ended up in the dog house last year for failing to pick up his assignments with regularity. He will push Justice and Longhany for a starting job. Edwards had 38 tackles and two interceptions last year and was third on the team with 89 tackles in 2003.

Other linebackers in the mix include Taylor, sophomore Durell Mapp (6-2, 230) and junior Joe Kedra (6-4, 240).

Secondary analysis

If Mahlon Carey played every game like he did against Wisconsin in 2003, he would be an All-American. In UNC's loss to the Badgers that year, Carey had 14 tackles and two interceptions.

Now a senior, Carey is in a dog fight for UNC's starting strong safety position, which was occupied last year by All-ACC honorable mention choice Gerald Sensabaugh. Carey, serving as a reserve linebacker in 2004, was sixth on the team with 53 tackles.

Carey, who played tailback in 2002, is a big (6-1, 220), strong, athletic safety. But he is being challenged by converted cornerback Trimane Goddard (5-11, 185) and Martel Thatch (6-2, 180), both sophomores. Goddard will likely serve as the nickel corner, regardless of the results of the strong safety competition. He had 16 stops last year, while Thatch made three tackles.

The other three defensive back spots are occupied by returning starters. Junior free safety Kareen Taylor (6-0, 195) was second on the team a year ago with 67 tackles. Senior cornerback Cedrick Holt (5-11, 190) had 42 tackles, including 30 solo. Junior corner Jacoby Watkins (6-0, 170) made 61 stops, tied for fourth on the team. He also tied for the team lead with just two interceptions.

Top reserves include sophomore cornerbacks Quinton Person (5-11, 180) and Bryan Bethea (5-10, 175) and senior free safety Linwood Williams (6-0, 185), who returned an interception 80 yards for a touchdown in the spring game.

A real problem for the UNC secondary the past two seasons has been an inability to create turnovers. The Tar Heels had just eight interceptions last year, and only five came from UNC's secondary. Two seasons ago, Carey's two picks against UW were UNC's only two aerial thefts all season.

There are some decent athletes here, but consistency and the absence of big plays helped lead to some unseemly performances last year.

Special teams notes

Punter David Wooldridge is a difference maker, particularly on a team that will probably still struggle defensively, if not as much as last year. Wooldridge, a junior, punted 48 times last year, for a 41.7 yard average. Very impressively, he knocked 25 of his attempts inside the 20, against a mere three touchbacks. Two of his punts were blocked, however.

And with Wooldridge's kicks leading the way, UNC was magnificent in punt coverage, allowing just 4.8 yards per return.

Kick coverage was a different story. The Tar Heels allowed a dreadful 24.5 yards per return. Place kicker Connor Barth did manage 16 touchbacks on his 62 kickoffs, but he also landed six kickoffs out of bounds. Following a kickoff, opponents' average starting field position was its 27, a too-generous grant from UNC's kickoff team.

Matching up with Wisconsin

The Tar Heels defense should be markedly better than it was a year ago and may achieve respectability in 2005. The Badgers' offense is looking for much of the same after a dismal 2004.

Where UW may have a significant advantage, though, is in the running game. The Tar Heels were particularly weak against the run last year and, unless some players make huge leaps at linebacker and in the line, are likely to struggle in that regard again this season. Though the Badgers' passing game must improve this year, the running game is what drives UW's level of success on offense.

But the Tar Heels may have enough athletes this year to counter UW just enough, especially in a game in Chapel Hill.

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