July 28, 2003 CHAPEL HILL A year ago, when most of the preseason football magazines forecast a sixth- or seventh-place finish for North Carolina, many light-blue fans were outraged. After all, the Tar Heels were coming off an impressive 8-5 campaign in their first season under well-liked alum John Bunting, and a complete reversal of fortunes seemed unlikely, given the much-needed energy and attitude upgrades brought in by the new staff. Then, of course, reality hit Chapel Hill.
This summer, as it became obvious that most of the preseason magazines again were predicting a sixth- or seventh-place finish for UNC, there seemed to be less of an uproar. Some fans spoke hopefully about the Heels' chances with a healthy Darian Durant at QB, a more mature defense and an exciting group of incoming freshmen, but even the most optimistic observers were having a hard time figuring out a way Carolina could finish better than 6-6 or with the glass more than half full possibly even 7-5 in an improving ACC.
Nothing is impossible in a sport that can be impacted so significantly by injuries, confidence, first-year players, momentum, emotion and so many other unpredictable variables, but it's clear to all but the most rabid UNC fans that Bunting will play 2003 with a set of cards that looks a lot more like his 2002 hand (3-9) than it does his 2001 hand (8-5).
Every summer, the Sports Journal asks a group of former college coaches and current NFL scouts their views of each ACC team. The experts are asked which positions or groups they consider most vital to a team's success, then they're asked to evaluate each team in those categories. In short, most of the feedback on the Tar Heels was not very promising.
Familiar Concerns: End, Linebacker
It doesn't take an expert to point to the defensive front as an area of great concern for North Carolina. The Heels gave up a woeful 4.8 yards per carry last fall in contrast, they yielded just 2.3 in 1997 and 2.8 as recently as 2000 and tallied only 20 quarterback sacks. Those numbers were nauseating for Bunting, a former UNC and NFL linebacker who rose up the coaching ranks as an expert on the defensive side of the ball.
In assessing the Tar Heels, numerous observers pointed out the lack of proven performers and likely impact players at defensive end and linebacker on the 2003 UNC roster, and the feedback was impossible to dispute. Might a returning player (junior end Jocques Dumas, fullback-turned-end junior Madison Hedgecock) develop in a surprisingly quick fashion? Sure, the Heels saw exactly that happen with linebacker David Thornton two years ago. Might one of the talented prep linebackers (Larry Edwards, Kory Gedin, Joe Kedra, Fred Sparkman) be ready to start from day one? It's possible, but winning teams rarely rely on such speculation.
Just look at the best teams in the ACC last year. Most of them had at least one dangerous pass rusher and at least one hard-nosed, rump-kicking linebacker, and most of the stars were proven players even before the season started. Conference champion Florida State had a dominating pass rusher in senior Alonzo Jackson and two very strong linebackers in Michael Boulware and Kendyll Pope. Maryland lacked the pass-rushing specialist but boasted one of the best players in the league in dominating senior linebacker E.J. Henderson. Virginia had sackmaster Darryl Blackstock and hard-hitting senior linebacker Angelo Crowell. N.C. State had seniors Shawn Price and Dantonio Burnette.
Entering the 2003 season, as was the case a year ago, Carolina doesn't have a single individual on its defensive front that even comes close to the reputations of those players. The Heels' most proven linebacker is redshirt sophomore Doug Justice, a full-time starter last fall who needs to get faster and stronger in order to play a more productive role. Their most proven end is probably redshirt sophomore Tommy Davis, who started five games last season and has good speed but doesn't have a single college sack to his name. Their best pass rusher may be true freshman Melik Brown, a 255-pound prep school linebacker who enrolled in January and probably will see time at end in passing situations.
Obviously, if the Tar Heels are going to post a winning season, there will have to be some surprises along the defensive front.
Perhaps the light bulb finally will come on at defensive end for Dumas, a prep All-American from UNC's transition recruiting class (2001) from Carl Torbush to Bunting. Dumas has Julius Peppers-like size (6-6, 264) and good strength, but his quickness, athleticism, technique and work ethic have not always been exemplary. Perhaps Hedgecock, a team-first hard worker who agreed to a rare midseason position switch last fall, will pay dividends now that he's had a full spring practice on the defensive side. He's certainly tough enough, but he doesn't really fit the description of a playmaker or pass rusher. Besides Davis and Brown, the other top possibilities are sophomore Kendall High and redshirt freshman Brian Rackley.
At linebacker, the picture may be a little bit brighter, but even there it's a mixed bag of promising but unproven youngsters and hopeful but unproven veterans. UNC coaches appreciate Justice a lot in the middle for his toughness, leadership, intelligence and play-calling ability, and they think an offseason of speed and strength work will make him an even more productive player. They also like Brown, a 2002 signee who spent last fall at prep school, then developed very quickly during spring practice after enrolling at Carolina in January. Brown's main competition for a starting role at strong-side linebacker is redshirt junior incumbent Clarence Gaddy, another disappointing former prep All-American who finally may emerge now that he's healthy for the first time in two years. At weak-side linebacker, redshirt senior Clay Roberson and redshirt sophomore Jeff Longhany are the key returnees, but nobody will be surprised if one or more of the incoming freshmen provides some serious competition.
Tailbacks, Linemen Must Emerge
Even if the defense somehow comes together reasonably well, the offense is going to have to do two things well if UNC is going to have a chance to develop into a bowl team: control the ball and score TDs. The Heels also needed that to happen last year, but they managed only 3.0 yards per carry and 18.6 points per game.
The first key for Carolina will be keeping Durant healthy. He's still not the best practice player in the world and he drives the coaches crazy at times, but he's become a better leader and he flat-out can make plays under pressure. Most importantly, his teammates believe they have a chance to beat anybody when he's in the game. It's difficult to measure the importance of that one quality, but Durant has it. No other QB on the UNC roster does.
The tailback-offensive line combination is another one of those where the experts unanimously agreed upon its importance. Again, look at the league's top teams from last year. FSU had bowling ball Greg Jones (938 yards when healthy) and a veteran front. A talented, experienced, balanced Maryland line cleared the way for little-known Chris Downs (1,000-plus yards) to make a name for himself. Freshman Wali Lundy emerged as a talented run-catch threat for Virginia. N.C. State had punishing freshman T.A. McLendon (1,000-plus yards) running behind a hard-nosed, patched-together group of linemen and tight ends.
The good news for UNC is that the coaches unanimously agree that their line is by far the best they've had in the three-year Bunting era. Heading into the season, the Heels have six healthy, productive, experienced returnees up front. That may not sound like a lot, but it hasn't happened for quite a while in Chapel Hill. Junior center Jason Brown is the best athlete on the o-line and more comfortable after a full season in the middle. (He began his career at tackle.) Junior tackles Skip Seagraves and Willie McNeill are solid. And the staff really likes its three-guard rotation of senior Jeb Terry, sophomore Kyle Ralph and senior Jupiter Wilson. They're hoping to find a seventh mainstay in August.
As Maryland showed last year, if the line plays well enough, it really doesn't matter who's at tailback, but UNC needs better production from that spot regardless. One-time starter and former prep All-American Andre Williams (medical hardship) is out of the picture, but two other familiar names remain in the mix: senior Willie Parker and junior Jacque Lewis. They'll battle Kentucky transfer Chad Scott, who's excellent in the passing game (protection and catching), and January enrollee Ronnie McGill (at 6-1, 205, a Bunting-style pounder) for playing time. It's a wide-open race, and Carolina hopes the increased competition will bring out the best in everyone.