October 9, 2007
CHAPEL HILL Every time the North Carolina coaching staff goes to make a personnel change, the Tar Heels get younger.
Since the loss at South Florida, true freshman Quan Sturdivant has become a starter at linebacker. When senior cornerback Kendric Williams suffered a season-ending knee injury at Virginia Tech, he was replaced by sophomore Jermaine Strong and freshman Tavorris Jolly.
But rather than play worse, the Tar Heels got measurably better after South Florida thumped them 37-10. The improvement began with a public challenge from first-year coach Butch Davis, who complained after the loss to the Bulls that the players were not doing enough on their own to improve.
Limitations dictated by the NCAA allow a coaching staff just so much time with their team each week. Davis said a team cannot be fully prepared if players do not come to the film room and watch to see how to correct their mistakes and study opponents for tendencies on their own.
"I will tell you that we will never be any good at North Carolina until the players take ownership for their own preparation and their own performance," Davis said. "The places I have been, the coaches never had to do anything but coach. The locker room was set by (former Dallas Cowboys quarterback) Troy Aikman and the guys we had on offense and defense.
"It takes some time. Coaches have to be responsible for creating that culture. At some point in time, you have to hand the baton to the players, when that atmosphere of accountability transforms itself. At Miami, the program took off when that happened. It's very difficult, and it's one of the challenges of a new program."
On as many as 30 plays, players were out of position against South Florida. That was what pushed Davis to the brink, but his players responded as they have so often since he took the job last November. They did what he asked. Since then, the team has visibly improved.
The Tar Heels had a realistic shot to defeat Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, but a fumble into the end zone by true freshman tailback Ryan Houston made the difference in a 17-10 loss. Nonetheless, Carolina left that game feeling much better about the changes that had been made.
"I thought (the Tech game) in some respects was a positive step," Davis said. "You're not playing for second. You're not playing for moral victories, but there were positive things. We ran the ball a little bit better. We did some good things on defense. When the defense was really challenged late in the ball game, they got three straight three-and-outs and gave us a chance to get back into the game."
One week later, Davis' players showed that he meant what he said. In the first half of a 33-27 UNC victory against Miami in Chapel Hill, Carolina raced to a 27-0 lead and played nearly flawless football.
The running back the Tar Heels discovered at Tech, redshirt freshman Anthony Elzy, set the tone for the day on Carolina's second possession with a 39-yard burst through the middle of the Hurricanes' defense for a touchdown. Elzy finished the day with 95 yards rushing, finally giving UNC a rushing attack.
In a way, Elzy's performance typified the improvement that occurred after Davis challenged his team to do more. The total lack of a running game had begun to affect the line's ability to protect quarterback T.J. Yates and his effectiveness. South Florida swarmed him because it had no regard for the Tar Heels' running game.
Against Miami, Yates completed 15 of 23 passes for 218 yards and no interceptions and once again looked like the promising QB of the future.
Against Tech and Miami, UNC's defensive players not only lined up properly, they made one play after another. Even when Miami exploded for 20 third-quarter points and looked to be on the brink of humiliating Carolina, the Tar Heels' defense set the tone that made the difference.
Senior end Hilee Taylor had a sack that forced a punt and swung the momentum back in UNC's favor. Most of the big plays, though, came from youngsters. Carolina intercepted four Miami passes, with three of those being picks by either freshmen or redshirt freshmen.
When the defense was sagging early in the third quarter, freshman tackle Marvin Austin could be seen getting on his teammates in the defensive huddles. On many plays, thanks to his rare combination of size and athleticism, Austin lives up to his reputation as a consensus prep All-American.
Redshirt freshman safety Deunta Williams, who intercepted his third pass of the season against Miami, walked the sidelines when the offense was on the field, working his teammates to rally them and get the Tar Heels back into the game. He quickly has become the most aggressive tackler in the secondary.
PREPARATION MINIMIZING HOLES
UNC is still a young team, one that walks a fine line between victory and defeat. South Carolina and coach Steve Spurrier come to Kenan Stadium next, and the Gamecocks may be the best team UNC has played.
USC could torch the youthful Tar Heels. This UNC team easily could finish the season with only three or four wins. But the progress Carolina showed in the previous two weeks was real, and the talent of the youngsters is genuine.
Early in this process, Davis said that teaching a team how to win is a complicated, difficult task. What recent events showed was that Davis and his staff are making progress. The players responded to his direction to prepare better so they could practice more intelligently and effectively.
"We've had two amazing weeks of practice," Yates said. "We've had our best two weeks of practice, and that has led to the field on Saturdays."
The UNC program is far from competing for the league championship, and all the problems of the last nine seasons have not been repaired. But anyone who watched the inconsistencies and poor coaching during that nine-year period should be able to see an obvious difference in this team.
Outside of the game against South Florida, this has been the most well-prepared UNC team since Mack Brown was the head coach. Plenty of potholes still lay in the immediate road ahead, but there is every reason to believe Davis and his staff eventually will turn this program into one that can compete.