September 13, 2005
CHAPEL HILL -- On many occasions over the past three seasons, as North Carolina struggled to a combined 11-25 record after coach John Bunting's 8-5 debut in 2001, the Tar Heels were thoroughly out-coached, especially on defense and sometimes on special teams.
The team's ugly win-loss mark from 2002-04 obviously reflected a drop in talent, but quite often its ugly margins of defeat -- Texas (52-21), Wake Forest (31-0), Maryland (59-7), Florida State (37-0), Maryland again (59-21), Virginia (56-24), Louisville (34-0), Utah (46-16), etc. -- suggested something more was at play. Whether the true explanation involved poor game plans, on-field confusion or disinterested players, it certainly wasn't good news for the coaching staff, especially on defense.
With that in mind, while nobody at UNC was happy with the team's recent 27-21 season-opening loss at Georgia Tech, the Heels certainly weren't out-coached or out-classed. They had a legitimate chance to win a road game against a top-25 opponent, and that hadn't happened since 2001.
Both teams were well-prepared, and there was no clear-cut advantage in execution. Even with a first-time starter at quarterback in fifth-year senior Matt Baker, Carolina looked mostly poised and confident on offense, as has typically been the case under veteran coordinator Gary Tranquill. On defense, the Heels still allowed some big numbers (100-yard rusher, 300-yard passer, 475 yards total offense), but under second-year coordinator Marvin Sanders they have infinitely more confidence, and their progress is obvious to those close to the program in dozens of little ways.
One former Division I-A head coach said after the game that the only real difference between Tech and UNC was that the Yellow Jackets had two NFL-bound players in superstar wideout Calvin Johnson and rugged tailback P.J. Daniels, and the Tar Heels didn't. That's both good news and bad news for Carolina, of course, because in a league overflowing with talent, the Heels still are somewhat lacking, especially on defense.
Under former defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable, who attempted to implement a complex scheme in 2002 and 2003, the Tar Heels repeatedly made mistakes as simple as lining up in the wrong spots before the snap. On many big plays, there wasn't even a UNC defender in the picture. Missed assignments were commonplace. Competitive efforts were rare.
Under Sanders, who also coaches the defensive backs, the Tar Heels don't always make the play, but they're in the right place a whole lot more often. The cornerbacks, a huge trouble area at times under Bunting, appear particularly well-schooled. They allow much smaller cushions to the receivers, they're 10 times more physical, and their body positioning is fundamentally sound. Numerous times against Tech, a pass arrived with a UNC corner draped all over the receiver. That hasn't happened much in recent years.
The problem, of course, is that when both sides do what they're supposed to do, the more talented man or team usually wins. UNC cornerback Cedrick Holt is a hard-working senior whose understanding of Sanders' defense is as good as any player's, and he's almost always in the right place at the right time. Against veteran Tech QB Reggie Ball and his talented receivers, however, that often wasn't good enough.
On the Yellow Jackets' final TD drive, Holt was in the right spot in coverage, but he missed a tackle that would have forced a fourth-down play. A few plays later, he was in position to tackle Ball on a scramble, but Ball bounced off and twisted into the end zone for what proved to be the game-winning points. On an earlier Tech score, UNC's top cornerback Jacoby Watkins (6-0, 177) had textbook-perfect coverage on 6-3, 220-pound receiver Damarius Bilbo on a long pass into the end zone, but Bilbo came down with a 48-yard catch.
Up front, the Tar Heels have similar problems. The tackles and ends did a much better job of filling gaps and keeping contain, but no single player wreaked havoc in the Tech backfield, and the group's inability to generate a pass rush often left the team vulnerable in third-and-long situations. Sanders had some success collapsing the pocket with blitzes by rush end Hilee Taylor and linebackers Larry Edwards and Garrett White (a true freshman), and tackle Chase Page had a sack, but again the basic talent alone wasn't getting the job done.
Bright Spots: Special Teams, Youth
Coaches often say the close games are likely to come down to special teams. If that were the case against Tech, UNC would have won by a couple of touchdowns.
It was only one game, and there weren't any earth-shattering plays, but the Tar Heels' special teams had a rock-solid effort against the Yellow Jackets, and that's another positive reflection on a staff that Bunting says is the best of his five-year tenure. Running backs coach Andre Powell is handling special teams this season for the first time, after the offseason departure of James Webster for the head coaching job at Tennessee State.
Fans typically don't notice such things, but sophomore kicker Connor Barth did an outstanding job with his directional kickoffs. Every single one landed either in the end zone (three for touchbacks) or inside the five-yard line near one of the sidelines. For coverage purposes, that's considered the next-best thing to a touchback, and the Yellow Jackets had lousy field position for most of the game.
Similarly, junior punter David Wooldridge was superb, averaging 43.2 yards while putting six of his eight kicks inside Tech's 20-yard line. True freshman Brandon Tate, who opened the coaches' eyes with his reliability and playmaking skills on punt returns in August, looked comfortable against the Jackets, compiling 47 yards on four attempts. On the other side, shifty Tech return man Pat Clark had only 18 yards on four returns, with senior Wallace Wright and junior Mike Mason doing an excellent job as the outside gunners in coverage. Mason also broke off a run of 30-plus yards himself, on a kickoff return.
Redshirt freshman linebacker Chase Rice made a vicious hit on one Tech return man, while Edwards and true freshman tailback Cooter Arnold both had good tackles on kick coverage. On the only play where the punt-cover team lost containment, deep snapper Warren Green made a strong open-field tackle to limit the gain to 13 yards. UNC's special-teams units also drew at least three important block-in-the-back penalties on the Yellow Jackets, against only one (by Watkins) for the Heels. That hasn't happened much lately, either.
Arnold also looked good at tailback against Tech, after getting a surprise
start. His numbers (9-28) weren't great, but he showed great quickness and balance,
and he even broke a few tackles. Coaches talked a lot about Arnold's "burst"
in August, and he showed it at times against the Jackets. Most importantly,
he showed a willingness to run straight ahead quickly and initiate contact,
rather than looking for the sidelines or dancing around behind blockers, as
many freshmen do at that
While one of the most important things to come out of the Tech game for UNC was the steady performance of Baker at QB, a less-obvious development (considering that the Heels yielded 353 passing yards) was the strong play of cornerback Quinton Person. A redshirt sophomore who also excels on special teams, Person entered the season as the team's third corner behind Watkins and Holt, but his repeated one-on-one standoffs (watch the tape) with the NFL-ready Johnson and others could be a sign of good things to come.