October 11, 2005
CHAPEL HILL - North Carolina's 2-3 start, which included both impressive wins over N.C. State (31-24) and Utah (31-17) and an embarrassing loss at Louisville (69-14), proved at least one thing about the 2005 Tar Heels.
This is a team with ordinary talent and ordinary schemes, and when it fails to do extraordinary things on game day, it's probably going to lose.
In college football, the top 25 - and especially the top 10 - tends to be populated by programs with exceptional talent (see Florida State, Miami, Ohio State, Southern Cal, Texas), unusual offensive schemes (California, Louisville, Oregon, Texas Tech, 2004 Utah) or both.
Louisville's recent dismantling of the Tar Heels - the Cardinals scored six touchdowns and two field goals on their first eight possessions, and an all-time UNC-worst nine TDs for the game - uncovered both of these ugly truths. Aided by a community college-like admissions policy that welcomes scores of prospects with borderline academic credentials and/or criminal backgrounds, coach Bobby Petrino has both a unique, well-oiled, difficult-to-defend offensive system and the elite-level athletes he needs to win one-on-one battles all over the field.
Fifth-year UNC coach John Bunting doesn't have either of those things. Carolina's admissions policy neither does Bunting many favors nor ties his hands - it ranks right in the middle of the ACC in terms of overall flexibility - so the explanation must rest elsewhere.
Bunting openly has admitted his staff's poor recruiting results in 2001 (the hand-off class from Carl Torbush) and 2002 (coming off his 8-5 Peach Bowl debut), and he's now paying the price on the field for those missteps. The remaining signees from those classes are juniors and seniors now, and while Bunting likes the character and work ethic of many of the 2001 and 2002 signees who remain in the program, he also understands that very few of them (if any) have NFL-caliber talent.
The Tar Heels beat the Wolfpack mainly because they had a well-conceived offensive game plan (see last issue), a well-conceived defensive game plan (focused on stopping the run), and the players executed both well. They beat the Utes mainly because their defense - still ranked among the ACC's worst in scoring defense (30.2 points per game) and total defense (375.6 yards per game) - generated five turnovers, a number rarely approached by Carolina opponents in recent years.
Clearly, the Heels aren't winning with pure talent, and that's not likely to change this season. Asked recently which UNC upperclassmen offered an exceptional level of speed, strength, skills or some combination thereof, three NFL scouts (combined) offered only three examples: linebacker Larry Edwards, receiver Jesse Holley and receiver Mike Mason. All three players are third-year juniors, signed in 2003.
LINE LIMITING OFFENSIVE OPTIONS
The UNC offense, run by fifth-year coordinator Gary Tranquill, is based on sound gridiron principles. Bunting is a devout believer in run-pass balance, and in the importance of an efficient ground game, and his proud hiring of Tranquill (a "football genius," Bunting says) in 2001 reflected those beliefs. Tranquill's 44 years of coaching include overwhelmingly successful stints at Navy, Ohio State, West Virginia, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Michigan State, as well as three years with the NFL's Cleveland Browns.
The Tar Heels utilize multiple formations offensively, including plenty of four- and five-receiver sets, but their base approach isn't dramatically different from what could be seen in the football world for most of the last three decades - a tailback, a fullback, a tight end, two wideouts, off-tackle plays, draw plays, screen passes, play-action passes, bombs, etc. Again, this approach reflects the beliefs of Bunting and Tranquill that the core elements (blocking, tackling) of the game are far more important than what Bunting derisively has called at times the "gimmicky" approaches to moving the ball.
The problem: Through five games this fall, UNC ranked among the bottom three teams in the ACC in scoring offense (20.4 points per game), rushing offense (91 yards per game), total offense (336.8), first downs and red-zone offense. The Tar Heels scored only 11 offensive touchdowns in those five games, with another two on special teams, despite avoiding the four top-ranked defenses (BC, FSU, Miami, Virginia Tech) in the conference. Against Wisconsin, which is giving up yards and points by the bushel to other teams this fall, the Heels managed only a field goal offensively in a 14-5 home loss.
Why? Again, it's not necessarily the system. Boston College and Virginia Tech have vanilla offenses, and they move the ball just fine, thanks in large part to very effective blocking and excellent run-pass balance. With an exceptional quarterback (Darian Durant) over the last four seasons, and with a strong line (led by NFL-bound center Jason Brown) in 2004, Carolina often did the same.
This year, though, there's nothing for Tranquill to hang his hat on - so far, at least. There are no dominating blockers at fullback or tight end, no exceptional tailbacks to evade or plow through defenders. The downfield passing game, with gutsy fifth-year senior Matt Baker throwing to a talented receiving corps, looks very impressive at times, but that too requires good blocking. The line, especially, has been a disappointment.
Left tackle Brian Chacos and right guard Kyle Ralph (both seniors) are very reliable players - Ralph was a second-team All-ACC selection in 2004, and Chacos deserves consideration this year - but it goes downhill quickly from there. Sophomore left guard Charlston Gray, with Chacos one of the hidden stars of the N.C. State victory, is the best athlete of the group and a very effective run blocker, but he's also prone to penalties, missed assignments and poor pass protection. Center Steven Bell and right tackle Skip Seagraves, both seniors, know the game well but lack the strength and/or athleticism to be difference-makers against strong opponents.
The depth situation on the line is simply horrible, which is why the members of the starting five rarely get a break. Junior Kendall High and sophomore Calvin Darity are listed as the backups at left tackle and right guard, respectively, but they rarely play. Senior Arthur Smith is listed No. 2 at both center and left guard, but he hasn't seen the field much during his five years in the program. Given the four seniors among the team's current starting five, it's almost frightening to look ahead to next year's two-deep up front.
The most interesting story among UNC's second-team linemen is true freshman tackle Garrett Reynolds. A 6-7, 275-pounder, he was a recruiting coup from Tennessee who coaches believe eventually will develop into an All-ACC player at well over 300 pounds. Reynolds' father Art played for the Volunteers and in the World Football League, and his famous uncle (Jack "Hacksaw" Reynolds) played for the Vols and for 15 years in the NFL. Garrett picked the Tar Heels over Nebraska, Virginia Tech and several other prominent programs.
While obviously a good athlete with excellent potential, Reynolds has been mostly manhandled this fall as the backup to Seagraves. In limited action against Wisconsin, Reynolds whiffed on run blocks that directly resulted in large losses, and he committed a costly 15-yard clipping penalty. At NCSU, he was beaten for a sack by All-ACC end Manny Lawson. At Louisville, he was called for a false start, and he repeatedly was used as a revolving door by All-American end Elvis Dumervil on passing plays, including back-to-back sacks in the first half. In summary, Reynolds gave up more sacks in minimal action through five games than starting linemen are expected to permit in an entire season.
Other UNC blockers either have been slowed by injuries or are no longer in the program. Darity, a prep All-American from Florida, suffered a scary foot injury during spring practice and only recently regained his playing shape. Redshirt freshman tackle Bryon Bishop had back surgery in January. Sophomore Ben Lemming, a promising 6-5, 301-pounder who battled Bell for the starting job at center in August, is recovering from a shoulder injury suffered against NCSU. Sophomore center/guard Scott Lenahan, a player whose desire, toughness and work ethic the coaches love, may have to give up football because of recurring knee and wrist injuries.