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Bunting Hopes New Season Can Bury Old, Difficult Questions

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

By Tom Berry, High Point (N.C.) Enterprise

August 23, 2004

CHAPEL HILL — Elvis sang it. Larry Edwards spoke it. John Bunting may experience it this football season.

    Edwards,  North Carolina's sophomore linebacker, borrowed a line from one of Elvis Presley's hit songs when asked about the Tar Heels' prospects this fall.

“It's now or never,” Edwards said. “We've got lots of doubters out there, so we've got a lot to prove.”

Bunting enters his fourth season at UNC with the most to prove. His teams have gone 5-19 overall and 1-11 at home over the last two seasons, with finishes of eighth and ninth in the ACC. In 2003, Carolina slumped to sole possession of last place in the league for just the fourth time ever and the second time in the last 34 years.

The momentum generated by Bunting's 2001 debut, when the Tar Heels recovered from an 0-3 start to win the Peach Bowl, has deteriorated to the point where Carolina is on the verge of three straight losing records for the first time since 1987-89.

Carolina likely needs to show dramatic improvement from last season's 2-10 mark, which included a loss to Duke for the first time in 14 years and one of the worst statistical defenses in ACC football history, for Bunting to keep his job.

Will a 6-5 record be dramatic enough? Certainly. How about 5-6? Possibly.

The general feeling among those close to the program is that UNC needs to finish at least close to .500 for Bunting to keep his job, regardless of the strong public support shown by athletic director Dick Baddour. It certainly appears to be now-or-never time for Bunting.

“There's an urgency around here,” center Jason Brown said. “We got smacked in one cheek (in 2002). We tried to be the nice guys, and we turned around and got smacked in the cheek again last year. We've got to do something about it.”

“I can feel the pressure,” defensive tackle Jonas Seawright said. “It's time to step up to the plate.”

When players are asked questions about Bunting's job status, they usually dismiss the

“We don't worry about that,” defensive tackle Isaiah Thomas said. “All we're talking about is getting the season under way, and (Bunting) is going to lead us there.”

Bunting has turned every negative question about his performance and his program into a positive. He has the first losing record (13-24) of any UNC coach since Jim Hickey went 36-45 from 1959-66, but the 1972 Carolina graduate refuses to lose hope.

Does Bunting see this as a crossroads year?

“I'm really excited about the direction and focus of our football program,” the coach said, dodging the question. “We've had two top-20 recruiting classes in a row. We've got a lot of momentum. I came back to college football from the NFL because I wanted to do something special. I want to do it at the university where I went to school. I have the right staff with me. I have the right players with me. I've learned from some of the best, and we will get it turned.”

Bunting turned around a .500 program at Glassboro State in New Jersey, eventually producing a 12-1 record in 1992, during his fifth and final season as head coach. As co-defensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams, Bunting helped turn the franchise from a 4-12 record in 1998 to Super Bowl champions the next season.

He's working to produce a similar turnaround at UNC, a team generally picked to finish 10th in the 11-team ACC this fall. Despite the lowly predictions, Bunting has his players believing that almost anything is possible. The Tar Heels worked through a productive spring and summer with 48 returning lettermen and 15 returning starters.

“I think we should win at least six or seven games and go to a bowl,” Thomas said.

Added Edwards: “I think with our improved defense and our already-good offense, we're going to finish real high. We've worked too hard to finish bad this year. We've got the enthusiasm and confidence and will and drive to do great things.”

Do the Tar Heels have the coaching and the players needed for greatness? Carolina's defense was the opposite of great in 2003, allowing an average of 38.8 points and 505.2 yards per game. No defense in school history had been so awful, with all but one opponent rolling to more than 30 points. The Heels had just two interceptions and 16 sacks all season.

Bunting started re-working the defense by hiring a respected veteran (John Gutekunst) and an enthusiastic youngster (Marvin Sanders). Gutekunst, a former head coach at Minnesota, and Sanders, an assistant at Nebraska last year when the Cornhuskers led the nation in pass-efficiency defense and interceptions, will serve as co-defensive coordinators.

The two simplified the defense in order to take advantage of the Tar Heels' improving speed and athletic ability. Seven of the top nine tacklers are back, but some may see their playing time drop if more talented youngsters can take over.

“We're reconstructing the defense,” Bunting said. “We're not going to be switching guys on and off like we did last year, which will be good for the young guys. We're going to be much improved.”

Bunting hopes to settle on his defensive starters and rotation, unlike the last two seasons, when at least one new starter came aboard in 23 of 24 games. Any improvement should be sparked by six returning starters and the emergence of intriguing newcomers such as Khalif Mitchell and Kyndraus Guy on the defensive line, Gerald Sensabaugh at safety and Trimane Goddard at cornerback.

Thomas, Seawright and Tommy Davis return with extensive starting experience along the defensive front, although returning starter and team leader Chase Page was lost for the season in mid-August with a severe hand injury. Thomas and Seawright are tackles who used strict diets to lose at least 40 pounds each during the offseason, two prime examples of players being committed to turning the program around.

Mitchell entered school in January and caused quite a stir during spring practice with his amazing speed and agility for such a huge player.

“His ability to change direction with a 295-pound frame … I've not seen that,” Bunting said. “I've not seen (former UNC star) Julius Peppers do that, some of the things that (Mitchell) did.”

Carolina's linebackers hope to change the trend of the last two seasons, when a safety led the team in tackles. Edwards and Fred Sparkman, both sophomores, should have the biggest impacts. Edwards started the last eight games of 2003 and finished third on the team with 88 tackles.

Sensabaugh has made an immediate impact after transferring from Division I-AA East Tennessee State, which dropped football. He's big, tough and athletic, and he enters Carolina with three years of starting experience. Senior cornerback Lionell Green should be the other leader in the secondary.

Despite the Tar Heels' bad record last season, the offense was effective by averaging 394 yards and 26.4 points per game.

The Tar Heels return eight starters from that unit, including three seniors (Brown, Skip Seagraves, Willie McNeill) along the line and the team's No. 1 passer (Darian Durant), No. 1 rusher (Ronnie McGill) and No. 1 receiver (Jarwarski Pollock). Experienced running backs Jacque Lewis and Chad Scott and receivers Mike Mason, Derrele Mitchell, Adarius Bowman and Jesse Holley also return. Senior Madison Hedgecock moves from defensive end back to fullback, where he started as a freshman.

McGill rushed for 654 yards as a true freshman last season, ranking seventh in the ACC in yards per game and running over Wake Forest for 244 yards and three touchdowns. About the only question mark for the 215-pounder is a tendency to cramp up during games and miss significant time. He has changed his diet and improved his conditioning in an attempt to cut out the cramping this season.

“(McGill) has everything you want in a running back,” Bunting said. “There's a lot of great things about Ronnie McGill. There's one thing we can't control.”

One thing Bunting desperately wants and needs to control this season is his team's turnover ratio, as UNC cannot seem to hang onto the football or take the ball away. The Tar Heels had a minus-15 turnover margin in 2003, worst in the ACC and 111th in the country.

“That's the No. 1 mechanical thing in our football program that has to change,” Bunting said.

Even Durant's gaudy statistics from last season, which included a team-record 2,947 yards of total offense, were marred by 10 interceptions and numerous other miscues. Bunting said the senior will reduce mistakes while continuing to build on career statistics that already place him first in UNC history in completion percentage (60.8), touchdown passes (51), completions (523) and passing yards (6,517).

“Darian will do a better job this year because he's better,” Bunting said. “He'll do a better job managing the game, making good decisions and not throwing the ball in traffic than he's ever done before. Mark my words, he will. That's the kind of person he is.”

Durant has enjoyed significant playing time for his entire career but cringes at his 5-17 record as a starter. He realizes that another losing season would put a damper on his 47 school records.

“I'm looking at this year as the start of something new for me,” Durant said. “I would love to go out on a winning note.”

Durant and his teammates would love to save Bunting's job, even if they're hesitant to discuss the situation.

“We realize that if you win games and you're successful,” Durant said, “whatever issues going on off the field will be resolved.”

Can the Tar Heels get hot and save their coach's job? The players were full of positives during preseason practice, with Durant talking about the team's improved attitude and Lewis insisting that UNC is “very capable” of playing in a bowl game.

The season awaits. Excuses about the last two seasons no longer matter.

“It's time for less talking and a lot more walking,” Brown said. “Give me some action. Don't tell me what you're going to do. Let's go do it.”

Now or never.

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