September 22, 2003
CHAPEL HILL Since North Carolina finished 8-5 in coach John Bunting's 2001 debut, the Tar Heels' record is 3-12. Oddly, in a sport with so many variables and so many armchair-quarterback opinions, almost everyone coaches, players, fans, media agrees on the main source of the reversal: the defensive front. The UNC coaches saw that problem coming long ago and openly admitted their concerns. They talked about it last summer, prior to last fall's defensive embarrassment (35.1 points per game) and 3-9 finish, and again this summer. The Carl Torbush era left behind a unit decimated by every conceivable form of attrition transfer, academics, discipline, injury, apathy along with a few gems (safety Dexter Reid) and a handful of woefully underdeveloped prep All-Americans. Through three games in 2003, losses to Florida State (37-0), Syracuse (49-47) and Wisconsin (38-27), the defensive results were predictably ugly. The Heels were giving up 41.3 points per game, a number that ranked near the bottom of Division I-A. For one week, they were dead-last nationally in total defense, allowing more than 535 yards per game. The Orangemen's point total was skewed by triple overtime, but anyone who saw the FSU and Wisconsin games knew both of those teams could have scored even more than they did if necessary. On several scoring drives, UNC's opponent didn't even attempt a passing play. Unlike Last Fall, No Free Pass In 2002, Bunting and his defensive assistants got a free pass from most reasonable fans and media, who understood the horrendous nature of the Torbush era and the enormous roster holes and character issues he left behind. The last group of superstars (Julius Peppers, Ryan Sims, etc.) attracted to Chapel Hill by the Mack Brown regime had departed, and there simply wasn't enough talent on hand to fill the gaps. In 2003, however, the pressure is mounting on Bunting and his aides, as it should. The coach still has near-absolute job security athletic director Dick Baddour is in line for a contract extension, and the chances of Baddour pulling the plug on an alum after just three seasons are almost zero but fans want and expect to see more progress on the field. Understandably, zero wins this fall, a record for consecutive losses at Kenan Stadium and one of the worst defenses in the nation (again) definitely don't qualify in their eyes. While Bunting continues to draw fierce support from a large portion of the UNC faithful, and the coach's passion and level-headedness through some tough times have been admirable, his critics assert one argument that is impossible to deny. A quick look around the ACC shows several programs that had recent success under third-year head coaches, and some of them won despite also inheriting rosters loaded with far more questions than answers. The contrast to what's going on in Chapel Hill is undeniably striking. At archrival N.C. State, Chuck Amato started his head coaching career with 8-4, 7-5 and 11-3 marks after taking over a team with a few stars but lots of problems in the talent and depth departments. At Maryland, Ralph Friedgen's opening 10-2 and 11-3 marks were two of the best seasons in school history, and the Terps appear headed to another winning season this fall. At Virginia, Al Groh jumped from 5-7 in year one to 9-5 in year two, and the Cavaliers also appear to be a first-division ACC team in 2003. Even Tommy Bowden, who inherited a mess from Tommy West in 1999, went a combined 16-8 in his second and third seasons at Clemson. The Wolfpack is winning because Amato attracted a handful of superstar-quality recruits, dramatically upgraded the overall speed in the program, successfully instituted a Florida recruiting pipeline and quickly implemented a creative, diverse offensive system and a relatively simple, hard-hitting, well-coached defensive scheme. Friedgen is winning because he's an extraordinary offensive mind, he has at his side two of the best coordinators (Gary Blackney and Charlie Taaffe) in college football, and he's motivated his kids to play tough, smart and unselfishly. Those are oversimplifications, perhaps, but they clearly represent key factors in the impressive rise of two of Carolina's conference competitors. Three years into the Bunting era, UNC fans still want to know: What is the Tar Heels' grand plan for success? Offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill knows football as well as anyone, but he's not someone whose system itself is particularly difficult to prepare for (see Wake Forest) or automatically creates confusion (see no-huddle, unique formations, etc.) in opposing defenses. Defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable was a surprising, uninspiring hire with a modest track record when he was elevated from linebackers coach two years ago; while talent woes are a large contributing factor, the Heels are light years away from the unit that excelled by playing fast for Jon Tenuta (now the ACC's highest-paid assistant at Georgia Tech, and doing wonders with unspectacular talent in Atlanta) in 2001. UNC surprised a lot of people with an outstanding recruiting class in February, but the transition class in 2001 was understandably weak, Bunting's first full group (in 2002) was extremely shaky, and the early results for 2004 aren't particularly impressive thus far. Mediocre Talent, Brutal Errors Although some UNC fans already are imagining an 0-12 finish, the picture isn't necessarily that bleak. While it's clear that the Tar Heels aren't going to beat anyone on talent alone, the parity-laden state of college football suggests that they have a chance against most foes as long as they keep playing hard (so far so good), score lots of points (jury's out), avoid turnovers and create some turnovers. The Heels won't win many games if their offense plays as it did against Wisconsin, when the team's 27 points included a Michael Waddell kickoff return for a TD and a garbage-time scoring pass from backup QB C.J. Stephens. Carolina needs a big performance from star quarterback Darian Durant almost every week, and a shutout against the Seminoles and a 13-point effort (after the two subtractions above) against the Badgers won't suffice. In many situations, UNC simply is losing the man-to-man battles that define the sport. Against Wisconsin, starting tackles Willie McNeill and Skip Seagraves while part of an improved offensive line had all kinds of problems with the Badgers' ends and linebackers, leading to three Durant sacks and numerous unplanned scrambles. At wideout, Jarwarski Pollock is an accomplished playmaker and true freshman Mike Mason could be a future star in a similar mighty-mite role, but none of the bigger bodies (Danny Rumley, Derrele Mitchell, Adarius Bowman, Jesse Holley) has emerged as a consistent threat. When star tight end Bobby Blizzard missed two games with a viral problem, there was a huge dropoff at that position. On defense, in addition to the usual problems up front, Wisconsin purposely and repeatedly attacked senior cornerback Derrick Johnson for an absurd number of big passing plays. Johnson is a symbol of UNC's overall dilemma. He's starting over some more talented players because he has some speed, works hard, knows the system well and doesn't make many mental mistakes. Unfortunately for the Heels, however, even in his fifth year Johnson is not an ACC-caliber player. He has Division I-A speed, without question, but he also has a Division I-AA combination of size and skills. Overall, the Heels simply aren't good enough to overcome key mistakes. They can't afford a fumble by senior tailback Willie Parker at the Syracuse seven-yard line, with a chance to take a 41-24 lead into the fourth quarter. They can't afford a linebacker lining up in the wrong spot against the Orangemen, leading to a ridiculously easy first-play, 25-yard scoring run in the crucial third overtime. They can't afford nine penalties for 73 yards against Wisconsin. They can't afford a fumble by true freshman tailback Ronnie McGill at UNC's three-yard line, leading to an easy TD for the Badgers. Without those crucial mistakes, and with better play from a capable offense and a can't-get-any-worse defense, this Carolina team still has a chance to win a handful of games this fall. Without those things, however, 0-12 really is possible.