May 1, 2007
CHAPEL HILL As North Carolina looks ahead to a new football season with a different head coach and only two returning assistants, the Tar Heels cannot simply put last year's 3-9 finish behind them.
The reason is that what went wrong in 2006 and in the previous years could have an impact on how 2007 turns out under first-year coach Butch Davis.
A year ago, Carolina entered the season amid great hope and some hype. The Tar Heels missed going to a bowl game by a couple of broken pass coverages in 2005, so while there were some unanswered questions, the 2006 team seemed to have every reason to believe that a new day lay ahead for sixth-year coach John Bunting and his revamped staff.
Instead, a year filled with critical interceptions and major inconsistencies led to athletic director Dick Baddour being forced to fire Bunting at midseason, while a select group of people behind the scenes searched for a replacement.
One explanation for what went wrong in 2006, and if true the major reason for what could hinder Davis' first team, is a simple lack of talent. Some NFL observers believe that in the 12-team ACC only Duke has less returning talent than UNC.
There were other reasons for the previous failures, though, regardless of the ultimate validity of such a gauge of talent.
One was the ineffective management by a head coach who worked hard and passionately but lacked the understanding of what it took to run a Division I-A program when he got the job in December 2000. Poor choices in hiring his initial staff hurt, and so did giving the rest of the conference a two-year head start in recruiting.
Ineffective coaching factored in as well. The Tar Heels were not ready to play on opening day once in Bunting's six years as the head coach.
The lack of retention of recruits hurt, too. Bunting's third recruiting class ranked anywhere from the top 10 to the top 15 in the country, according to most analysts, and indeed it sent an impressive amount of talent to Chapel Hill. Yet by the time UNC fired the coach, the heart and soul of that group had been carved from the program via various forms of attrition.
An unforgiving schedule, which saw the rise of some teams to unexpected heights when they were originally added, also played a role. For example, few would have imagined Louisville, Utah or Rutgers having the kinds of teams or seasons they had when they were scheduled by Carolina years before. Adding the likes of Notre Dame and Oklahoma, and a tougher conference schedule with ACC expansion, only served to make Bunting's task harder.
The singular leading question that emerges from this mishmash is whether Davis can win in his first year.
If the theory that UNC simply lacks enough talent across the board turns out to be true, then Davis and his staff have little hope this season. After all, talent eventually carries the day.
There is little experienced talent on this team. That much is sure. Everywhere one turns on the two-deep, there are redshirt freshmen and sophomores in key positions.
Starting center Scott Lenahan, defensive tackle Kentwan Balmer, defensive end Hilee Taylor, linebacker Durell Mapp and kicker Connor Barth are the only returning seniors who were healthy and competing in the spring. Defensive lineman Kyndraus Guy and offensive lineman Ben Lemming missed the spring with injuries.
Bunting kept pointing to the future and a stockpile of talented, young players he said were in the program but had not yet taken the field. Most of last year's freshman class sat out as redshirts, and certainly if that group is as talented as advertised then that eventually will pay dividends for Davis.
Davis also has said that a large slice of the incoming class will contribute in 2007. For example, he fully expects Marvin Austin, the top-rated defensive tackle in the country a year ago as a high school senior, to play right away.
From his time as the head coach at Miami, Davis said he learned that if a program is signing players of the caliber he will target, many will leave for the NFL after three years. So he figures there is no reason to hold the best ones back.
Right now, the top player in the program is sophomore wide receiver Hakeem Nicks, a potential All-American. At 6-1 and 210 pounds, he has the right combination of size, hands, instincts and football speed. He also has the work ethic and desire that top players usually share.
Junior Brandon Tate might be the best return man in the ACC, as he is a threat to take a punt or kickoff for a touchdown every time he touches the ball. If he can translate those skills into becoming a productive wide receiver, too, that would give the Tar Heels another big playmaker.
Junior Trimane Goddard missed last season with a broken foot. Before his injury, he had proven himself to be a playmaker in the secondary, and he will be the leader of that group this fall. Mapp has the most experience among the linebackers.
LINES SOLID, YOUNGSTERS NEEDED
If this team is going to prove it has more talent than it showed last season, young players such as defensive tackle Aleric Mullins, linebackers Wesley Flagg, Bruce Carter and Quan Sturdivant, cornerbacks Jermaine Strong and Kendric Burney, safety Shaun Draughn, wide receiver Kenton Thornton, quarterback T.J. Yates, and tailbacks Johnny White, Richie Rich, Anthony Elzy and possibly Anthony Parker-Boyd will have to play beyond their years.
Mullins was the best defensive tackle on campus a year ago, according to the coaching staff, but he had to sit out his freshman season because of academic issues in high school. Carter and Sturdivant, both quarterbacks in high school, enrolled in January and participated in the spring. They each have been timed at faster than 4.6 in the 40-yard dash, but neither has played much linebacker before, so their inexperience will be a stumbling block.
Yates came on strong in the final week and a half of the spring, but Davis is concerned with the quarterback position. He will be looking for the starter, whether it turns out to be Yates, Cameron Sexton, B.J. Phillips or incoming freshman Mike Paulus, to manage the game and minimize mistakes more than attempting heroics.
The running backs fumbled the ball too much in the spring and must make strides in ball security, according to running backs coach Ken Browning.
The two areas of the team Davis has told people both publicly and privately that he likes are the offensive and defensive lines.
The o-line first appeared to lack talent and depth, but what the new staff found was a group that had been beaten down. A positive approach from new line coach Sam Pittman in the spring yielded surprising results. With the expected return of Lemming, Davis said the line could gel as the season progresses and become quite productive.
On the defensive line, Balmer and Taylor have experience and speed. Taylor ran a 4.6 40-yard dash and Balmer a 4.98 40, and Balmer weighs better than 300 pounds.
What the fall holds remains uncertain. This much is what the coaches know: This is a young team that is going to have to work awfully hard during the summer to get prepared for training camp if it hopes to find success for the first time in years in Chapel Hill.