By Dan Wiederer
Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer
August 30, 2006
CHAPEL HILL - With his dreadlocks pulled back and a trampoline-like spring in his step, Jesse Holley walked into the lounge of the Kenan Football Center for North Carolina's media day earlier this month and immediately radiated the zeal that makes him a favorite amongst teammates, fans and reporters who follow the Tar Heels.
"What's up everybody?" Holley said, nodding hello to more than a dozen scribes. "I love you guys. I love you guys. I love you guys."
This is Holley's swagger mixed with the giddiness of August, where optimism and expectations always fly around unrestrained. With his final season of college football underway, Holley admitted that he's never been more excited to be a Tar Heel.
"I love being here," he said. "This is a great place to be -- in every way."
Holley's enthusiasm has not always been this contagious, his outlook sometimes gloomier than a rainy afternoon in Detroit. Rock bottom, he'll tell you, came in 2003. During a frustrating 2-10 Carolina faceplant, he became so disconcerted with his role and playing time that he went so far as to utter the Q-word - "I quit" -- to UNC coach John Bunting.
Looking back, the 6-3, 210-pound wide receiver marvels at how much he's since matured.
"Whoo, I've been through a lot," Holley said. "I've been through 2-10. I've been through not wanting to be here. I've been through friends gone, all sorts of crazy stuff in this program. And it's all made me a stronger person today. Now I think the time has finally come for this program and myself to take it to the next level."
Dedicated to that quest, Holley and the Tar Heels begin this season with a new offensive coordinator (Frank Cignetti), a new quarterback (redshirt freshman Cam Sexton and Nebraska transfer Joe Dailey have been battling for the job) and a new attitude. As one of the team's leaders, Holley helped the Tar Heels adopt an inspirational handle for 2006: "New Blue."
"I think they mean something with that," Bunting said. "These kids feel as if they have more confidence and more energy than ever before to give to this football team."
UNC players hope to channel that energy into an effort to resuscitate an offense that averaged just 18.5 points and barely 300 yards per game last year. Holley, who led the Tar Heels with 47 catches for 670 yards in 2005, is expected to play a huge part in the revival. And he's not the only offensive cog with something to prove.
Cignetti, a big-money ($200,000 per year for three years) hire this spring to replace the retired Gary Tranquill, must prove quickly that his risk-taking West Coast system, which allowed Fresno State to finish in the NCAA top 10 in scoring in 2004 and 2005, can work in the ACC, too.
Tailback Ronnie McGill must avoid injury - he's missed eight games over the last two seasons with chest and ankle woes - to become the ground-game workhorse UNC has lacked for much of the last decade. Whichever quarterback earns the start for the Sept. 2 season opener with Rutgers will have to hold things together with a durable moxie.
Yet with all parts working together, everyone in the UNC program is predicting an offensive explosion this season, thanks to Cignetti's go-for-the-jugular approach. The linemen talk about a change in philosophy, from a more technical mindset to something closer to a destroy-the-man-in-front-of-you concept. The skill players describe the new mentality in other terms.
"Coach Cignetti is the type of guy that if we have a team down 20 or 25 points, he wants to win by 40," Holley said. "He's not satisfied just winning. We're not going to be up 20 points in the third quarter and shut it down. You like to be around those kinds of coaches who have that attack-mode mentality."
With left tackle Brian Chacos (a rare sixth-year senior), left guard Charlston Gray and tight end Jon Hamlett paving the way, McGill will headline the Tar Heels' ground game. He hopes to become UNC's first 1,000-yard rusher since Jonathan Linton in 1997. Much will depend on the rebuilt middle and right side of the line, where oft-injured center Scott Lenahan and guard Ben Lemming hope to overcome their inexperience with a junkyard-dog mentality.
With an increased role and his coaches repeatedly promising to "run downhill," McGill (654 yards, seven TDs in 2005) thinks he's poised for a break-out season. The 5-11, 210-pound senior admits he's been rejuvenated by the philosophy brought to Chapel Hill by Cignetti and new line coach Mark Weber, also from Fresno State.
"When he first got here, Coach Cignetti gave us a little notebook," McGill said. "He said, 'Learn those plays, because we're going to run those plays all year. I don't care what defense it is. We're going to run what we know how to run, and we're going to make them stop us.'"
That's assuming, of course, that either Dailey or Sexton makes enough progress to not stop the Tar Heels first. One of the biggest debates in Chapel Hill during preseason camp revolved around this vital question: Is UNC planning for a two-man quarterback rotation because two pretty good options are available, or because neither player is good enough to win the job outright?
Dailey, who arrived at UNC in 2005, after two trying seasons at Nebraska, has become more of a student of the game during his time with the Tar Heels, studying defenses more than he ever had before. A prep All-American from New Jersey, he signed with the Cornhuskers out of high school at a time when they were running a scheme that depended on an athletic QB. After a coaching change (from Frank Solich to Bill Callahan) in Lincoln, it became obvious that Dailey was a poor fit for Callahan's version of the West Coast offense.
The junior quarterback said he's much more comfortable in Cignetti's scheme, in part because he understands defenses much better than he did when he started at Nebraska (2,025 passing yards, 17 touchdowns, 19 interceptions) two years ago. He also admits that it's been refreshing to keep a relatively low profile on UNC's campus, after two distressing seasons in which he was lambasted by fans and mostly skewered by the media in Big 12 country.
"At Nebraska, no matter where you went, everyone knew who you were," Dailey said. "Here, you can go anywhere on this campus, and no one knows who you are. That's pretty cool."
For Dailey to become popular with Carolina fans, he'll have to first out-perform Sexton, who redshirted last season after a stellar prep career. At in-state Scotland High, Sexton threw for 5,165 yards and 38 touchdowns. A good athlete, Sexton showed in August that, while he's not as elusive as Dailey, he has much better touch on his throws down the field.
Guidance for the quarterbacks will have to come first from Holley and an otherwise untested receiving corps, which includes youngsters Brooks Foster, Hakeem Nicks and Brandon Tate. A prep All-American from Charlotte, Nicks was one of the stars of August camp, quickly earning a declaration from Bunting that he was the only true freshman guaranteed of avoiding a redshirt this fall.
Of course, the Tar Heels' offensive improvement will mean nothing without some added mental toughness on defense, where sturdy tackle Shelton Bynum, NFL-caliber linebacker Larry Edwards and hard-hitting safety Kareen Taylor anchor a unit that finished in the bottom half of the ACC last season in yards (338.5 per game) and points (23.5 per game) allowed.
While there doesn't appear to be a superstar along the front four, Bunting and defensive coordinator Marvin Sanders believe that they finally have developed some quality depth along the line. At least eight players will be a part of the regular rotation, with the idea of keeping everyone fresh.
Two major question marks for the defense are at safety and middle linebacker. Starting strong safety Trimane Goddard suffered a broken foot in August that probably will keep him out for the entire season. The UNC coaches like the potential of sophomore Cooter Arnold, but he was a tailback in 2005. Calling the signals for the defense will be sophomore middle linebacker Mark Paschal. The son of former UNC and NFL fullback Doug Paschal, Mark is smart and tough but has almost no game experience beyond special teams.
Perhaps no one can attest to the benefits of mental toughness more than Holley, who Bunting says has completely transformed from a once-immature prima donna into a steadfast leader who's expunged that Q-word from his vocabulary.
"When Jesse said he quit (in 2003), he had no idea what he was saying," Bunting said. "He was used to doing things his own way, at his own rate and speed. Now he's learned how to handle all this. And he has a chance to be a tremendous leader, not just for us, but for the rest of his life and for his own family. This young man is about ready to have a great year."
Holley believes his personal growth will be mirrored by the entire UNC program, with this season - and his own college career - ending in a bowl game. That would further liven up the Chapel Hill campus he already adores.
"This is a great place," Holley said. "And when I go back and look at some of the down times and assess certain situations now, I can see that some of it was me being young, immature, cocky, hard-headed. Looking back now, I'm glad that everything worked out. Because I'm at a place in my life now where this is really where I need to be and a place I'm glad I'm still at."
NORTH CAROLINA INSIDER: UPDATES/ANALYSIS
- Tailback Barrington Edwards, a junior transfer from LSU, came to UNC with a large reputation and a big mouth. He lived up to only one of those attributes during his first season in uniform for the Tar Heels, but he appears to be turning the corner.
"Last year, (midway through August camp), he just flipped and went psycho," senior tailback Ronnie McGill said. "Now he's a lot easier to get along with. Everybody used to see him as arrogant. People didn't want to be around him. Now he is a totally different player."
- The coaches and school officials solicited seniors for ideas on improving different facets of Carolina football and, in particular, the game-day atmosphere. McGill said he suggested that the main players be assigned some kind of graphics image, and when they make a positive play the image would flash on the Kenan Stadium video board with sounds.
"I want the choo-choo train," McGill said. "I want that train when I run the ball. Everybody knows it's going to be straight ahead, and there is going to be a collision. Trains normally don't lose the battle. Hopefully, if I get my choo-choo train, I can win a lot more battles."
- There is going to be a new face along the UNC defensive line this year, and senior cornerback Jacoby Watkins said the name is one fans will learn quickly. He's Cam Thomas, and he's 6-2, 315 pounds.
"He's great," Watkins said. "He's humongous. He's so strong inside. I don't know if he knows his own strength. He's the perfect run-stopper you would like in the middle. He'll take up two blockers, sometimes even three. He does that better than anybody. That is what the coaches teach him to do, and he loves to get in the backfield and create havoc."
- First-year UNC assistant Danny Pearman (from Virginia Tech) and long-time Carolina aide Ken Browning worked so well together in summer camp that they have become a topic of conversation among the players. Pearman handles the defensive ends, Browning the defensive tackles. The two sometimes trade off and work with the other's guys. Their ability to perform in concert has been impressive.
"If I didn't know any better, I would think those guys are brothers," defensive tackle/end Kentwan Balmer said. "I think that is why they work so well together."
- QB Cam Sexton has a pick for the player to emerge. He said Brooks Foster, sophomore wide receiver, is going to be a star.
"He's a great athlete," Sexton said. "He has great hands and great body control. This year he's done a great job of knowing his role, knowing where he needs to line up and running his routes precisely. I see a huge improvement from last year. I think he's going to have a great year."
Foster already owns a national championship ring, from the UNC basketball team's 2005 title. Many people know that star wideout Jesse Holley played on that team, but so did Foster. He walked on after his redshirt freshman year in football. Neither he nor Holley played basketball last season.
- When first-year offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti got to Carolina, he grabbed McGill's attention because Cignetti's philosophy fits McGill's personality on the field.
"Coach Cignetti says, 'We're going to do what we do, and they're going to have to stop us,'" McGill said. "We're not going to let other people, knowing we want me to run the ball, get to us. We're going to still do what we do. We're just going to see if another team can stop us. We're going downhill. You put your 11 out there, and let's see what happens. That is probably the best thing he could tell me."
THE BIG PICTURE
North Carolina is not yet where John Bunting wants to be, but heading into his sixth season the Tar Heels have traveled halfway around the world since the disasters of 2002-03. The next year, UNC played in a bowl. Last season, it finished two busted coverages against Maryland from going to another. This group has the best collection of depth, talent and experience since Bunting's first team, which beat Auburn in the Peach Bowl and sent a string of guys to the NFL. This will be the fastest, most grizzled defense since that 2001 bunch. If the offensive line develops quickly and tailback Ronnie McGill stays healthy, UNC might go bowling again, although yet another tough schedule doesn't help.
The PooP The defense dominated the offense when it counted in the preseason. Was it because the offense started from behind, because of a new system and general inexperience, or will this unit lack key components all year? Frank Cignetti, the new offense coordinator, has excellent credentials (40 ppg) from Fresno State. Still, molding this group into a similar attack will take time. The closer the Tar Heels get to opening day, the more it appears that they will go with two quarterbacks: Nebraska transfer Joe Dailey and redshirt freshman Cam Sexton. Bunting had a video person break out the tape from 2001, when Ronald Curry and Darian Durant split the duties, so the offensive staff could study it.
Done For Me Lately
Year ACC Overall Postseason
1996 6-2 (2) 10-2 Gator Bowl (W)
1997 7-1 (2) 11-1 Gator Bowl (W)
1998 5-3 (4) 7-5 Las Vegas (W)
1999 2-6 (8) 3-8 None
2000 3-5 (6) 6-5 None
2001 5-3 (3) 8-5 Peach Bowl (W)
2002 1-7 (8) 3-9 None
2003 1-7 (9) 2-10 None
2004 5-3 (3) 6-6 Continental Tire (L)
2005 4-4 (4C) 5-6 None
ACC: 39-41 (.488)
Overall: 61-57 (.517)
Building Blocks The latest offensive linemen climbing the depth chart are superior in size and athleticism to their predecessors. UNC hasn't changed all of their "official" weights yet (see depth chart), but some of these new guys are huge. Andre Barbour is 6-6 and 300 pounds. Garrett Reynolds is 6-7, 300. Both are tackles. Guard Calvin Darity is 6-3, 295, and has long arms. Kyle Jolly, listed at guard but possibly a tackle as well, is 6-6, 305. Center Scott Lenahan is 6-1, 290, and offers a nasty attitude, after knee and wrist injuries nearly ended his career. This group could be the best to play for Bunting - eventually.
Coming On Strong True freshman wide receiver Hakeem Nicks was so impressive in August camp that he may start. Nicks has huge hands and rarely drops a pass. Even in preseason workouts, held by players only, UNC's defensive backs had a hard time guarding Nicks. He finds a way to get open and then catches the ball, which is something the Heels didn't do well last year. He's big, strong and football-fast.
Cause For Concern? Neither quarterback has played in a real game at UNC. In the one year Dailey started at Nebraska, he threw 19 interceptions to 17 touchdown passes. There will be new starters at center, right guard and right tackle. The inexperience almost certainly will play a role in the offense's production in the first few games, and it's unlikely to be a positive impact.
The Whole Truth "We all don't need to go back and visit '02 and '03, because we know how devastating that was. We had no defense. We had no speed. We had no energy. We had no toughness. Things have changed somewhat since that time. How I feel is, I want to see the progress. I want to see the continuation of the growth and the optimism that is within this program."
- North Carolina coach John Bunting
Chart By: The UNC Insider