April 19, 2006
CHAPEL HILL -- North Carolina came up just two fourth-quarter touchdown bombs by Maryland short of qualifying for a second straight bowl game last fall, against one of the nation's toughest schedules. Now, some credible area sportswriters are predicting the possibility of an eight-win season for UNC in 2006.
That (8-4) would be quite a bounce from 5-6, but the Tar Heels will open at home versus Rutgers, and they'll host three of their four non-conference opponents, including Furman and South Florida. The Scarlet Knights and the Bulls aren't exactly pushovers, but they hardly possess the talent and experience of recent foes Louisville, Wisconsin, Texas, Utah and Oklahoma.
In addition, Carolina has a favorable home matchup with Wake Forest and travels to Duke to play in front of what is usually a light-blue partisan crowd. Georgia Tech and N.C. State also will visit Kenan Stadium this fall.
The Tar Heels still have to face reigning Coastal Division champion Virginia Tech, and they possess an extremely tough travel itinerary, with trips to Clemson, Miami, Virginia and Notre Dame. The latter matchup foreshadows exciting future home-and-home series with the likes of Colorado, South Carolina and Tennessee.
Meanwhile, thanks to post-expansion scheduling, there is not a Florida State, Boston College or Maryland game this year.
Eight wins in 2006? It sounds difficult, but perhaps it's feasible, too. Such a performance certainly would be enough to end any remaining talk about the ouster of John Bunting, who's heading into his sixth season as the head coach at his alma mater.
LINES PROVIDE MOSTLY GOOD NEWS
A defense that appears ready to crack the top 25 nationally in some statistical categories may be enough to account for the necessary victories to finish in the upper half of the conference. Carolina hasn't been this deep and talented up front in a long time.
Last year, the Tar Heels held Wisconsin, Virginia and Boston College to an average of 11 points, but they gave up 69 at Louisville. The addition of new ends coach Danny Pearman from Virginia Tech, along with veteran assistant Kenny Browning manning the tackles, should clear a path for more consistency this season.
Senior Shelton Bynum should have another solid year at nose guard, with the future right behind him in giant redshirt freshman Cam Thomas (6-4, 330), who made a name for himself this spring. The virtually interchangeable trio of Kyndraus Guy, Kentwan Balmer and Khalif Mitchell brings athleticism, experience and excitement to the tackle position.
At end, the coaches aren't sure if seniors Brian Rackley and Melik Brown have the answers, but they're excited about another year in the development of junior Hilee Taylor. Meanwhile, incoming freshman Darrius Massenburg, who prepped last season at Hargrave Military Academy, has "instant-impact" written all over him.
Taylor is more than a little undersized at 6-3 and 230 pounds, but he is UNC's best "DPR," or designated pass rusher, and he has big-play potential. In his first game with the Tar Heels, he stripped Georgia Tech quarterback Reggie Ball and rumbled for a mop-up touchdown as time expired. In the spring game, Taylor returned a fumble 33 yards for a score, after scooping up an errant quarterback-center exchange.
On the other side of the ball, it was somewhat difficult to judge the line play based on spring drills, in part because two projected starters were sidelined with injuries. The group did manage to open up holes consistently for the backs, although (as expected) not as regularly against the first-team defense. The unit didn't appear as solid in pass protection as in recent years, but the receivers didn't seem to need as much time to get open, either.
Sixth-year tackle Brian Chacos (who missed the spring while recovering from shoulder surgery) and junior guard Charlston Gray (another All-ACC candidate) return to form a very promising left side. They were largely responsible for the Tar Heels' victory last season at N.C. State, thanks to their consistent domination of the Wolfpack's defensive right side on a handful of well-executed running plays.
Sophomore center Ben Lemming (shoulder surgery) has tons of potential at center, although he's yet to remain healthy enough to show it. The good news behind Lemming is that, after two separate knee surgeries, junior Scott Lenahan -- once thought to be on his way to a medical hardship -- returned this spring looking stronger and tougher than ever.
The biggest area of concern in the trenches on either side of the ball is the right side of the offensive line. If the season started tomorrow, redshirt freshman Kyle Jolly and sophomore Garrett Reynolds likely would get the starting nods at right guard and right tackle, respectively, although there's plenty of room for improvement in both cases. Redshirt freshman Andre Barbour, who took most of the snaps at left tackle this spring in Chacos' absence, could push Reynolds at right tackle in August.
DAILEY HOLDS EDGE OVER SEXTON
Officially, there was not enough separation between junior Joe Dailey and redshirt freshman Cameron Sexton for Bunting to declare a starter at the end of spring practice. Officially, then, the battle will resume in August, and perhaps anything can happen there.
But anyone who watched Dailey and Sexton duel at quarterback in the spring could see that Dailey -- a Nebraska transfer who was the Cornhuskers' starter for a full season -- has the inside track to receive the first offensive snaps of the 2006 season.
Both Dailey and Sexton have decent speed and impressive savvy, considering their relative inexperience. Dailey appeared slightly more accurate, especially early in the spring, yet neither player showed an ability to throw the ball downfield with much success.
All of this may not matter much after this season. The inside buzz at Carolina has incoming freshman T.J. Yates, a signee from Georgia, as the favorite to win the job by 2008, if not sooner.
AFTER MCGILL, BACKFIELD IN MOTION
In a spring surprise, sophomore quarterback Joey Bozich, who earned a reputation as a "concussion-giver" on punt-cover teams, was moved to fullback. There, he quickly sparked running backs coach Andre' Powell to label him "deranged."
Senior tailback Ronnie McGill is affectionately nicknamed "Novocain" (another Powell creation) for his ability to leave would-be tacklers in a state of numbness. Still, whether or not McGill can sustain an injury-free season may determine if a 1,000-yard back (UNC's first since Jonathan Linton in 1997) is in the cards for Carolina this season.
With McGill sitting out the spring game, junior Barrington Edwards was the most productive tailback. Coaches said they expect Edwards to be smarter, more efficient and a more physical rusher this fall. He has flashed the ability to break into the open field, too, but the coaching staff continues to seek more consistent help behind McGill.
Junior walk-on Justin Warren continues to get a lot of post-practice praise, while redshirt freshman Richie Rich was probably the next-most productive at the position this spring. Bunting said he also plans to take a good look at newcomers Johnny White (Asheville) and Anthony Elzy (Ohio) in August.