By Andy Britt
April 11, 2005 CHAPEL HILL Two first-quarter goal line stops at home against Georgia Tech. A referee's reversal of an apparent game-winning touchdown run by N.C. State's T.A. McLendon. The biggest upset in school history, over No. 4 Miami.
If any one of those improbable scenarios doesn't occur, neither does North Carolina's remarkable 2004 turnaround, which ended arguably just one quarterback sack (against Virginia Tech) short of a tie for the ACC championship.
The Tar Heels did manage to parlay their good fortune into their first bowl invitation since 2001. More importantly, they salvaged respect for what at one time appeared to be a season and perhaps a coach's future swirling down the drain.
Despite Carolina's season-ending 37-24 loss to Boston College in the Continental Tire Bowl, the Tar Heels appeared to have righted the ship in the nick of time and parted the dark clouds that reigned over the program for much of the previous five years.
But for how long? With another brutal slate ahead for 2005 including non-conference clashes with Wisconsin, Utah and Louisville (away), plus equally challenging ACC matchups against N.C. State (away), Miami (away), Boston College and Virginia Tech (away) just how many more miracles does coach John Bunting's team have left?
Some early returns for 2005 indicated that Carolina's luck may be running out.
It's difficult to visualize how UNC will recover after seeing some results of its highly regarded 2004 recruiting class go up in smoke literally. Alleged marijuana use and/or possession led to the dismissals of linebacker Fred Sparkman, wide receiver Adarius Bowman and defensive tackle Isaiah Thomas, and likely the permanent admonishment of defensive tackles Terry Hunter and Shelton Bynum.
In an attempt to answer those questions and more, such as how they will make up for the graduation of departed record-setting quarterback Darian Durant, absorb the losses to other key personnel, and continue the defensive rebuilding project, the Tar Heels embarked on spring drills throughout March.
Defense dominated UNC's spring game on April 2. The Blue team defeated the
17-13, in front of 2,000 fans at Kenan Stadium. Led by sophomore tackle Khalif Mitchell, Carolina registered 11 sacks and 15 tackles for loss in the two-hour scrimmage.
"I like the improvement I've seen this spring from our defense," Bunting said. "We were aggressive up front, and the defensive line controlled things quite a bit today."
Mitchell, who will play tackle this season after switching to end last year, finished the day with four tackles and a team-high three sacks. Junior linebacker Larry Edwards, who Bunting said was the biggest surprise of the spring, had five tackles, including two sacks. Walk-on tackle Dean Mason also posted two sacks.
Starting quarterback Matt Baker completed six of nine passes for 45 yards in limited duty, and sophomore Roger Heinz was six-of-18 for 84 yards.
"I'm excited by what Matt has done this spring," Bunting said. "He has been throwing the ball really well and has taken on a leadership role with this team."
One of the biggest challenges in making the defense respectable again is at linebacker. Still etched in many fans' memories is the way Florida State revealed just how far the UNC linebacker corps had fallen in a 37-0 season-opening rout of the Tar Heels in 2003.
But added athleticism and depth has Bunting, the former NFL linebacker, breathing easier. Enter new coach and former UNC all-conference linebacker Tommy Thigpen to the mix, and the future again looks bright in the middle. Also look for a more focused Edwards, who shed the extra pounds that lost him favor with Bunting last year and turned negatives to positives with an outstanding spring.
"I feel better than I have ever felt at Carolina," Edwards said. "I feel good, like I did my freshman year, and I can get better. I can only get more in shape. I can take a couple of more steps to play the whole 60 minutes of the football game."
The promising future of Mitchell and the senior leadership at end, along with the returns of Chase Page and budding star Kyndraus Guy, should allow the Tar Heels to be as effective up front as they have been since NFL first-round picks Ryan Sims and Julius Peppers patrolled the line in 2001.
"The last four games of the (2004) season, we played really well and got some key wins because the defense played well," Page said. "We got some confidence from that, and we need to carry it over."
Despite the loss of one-year wonder Gerald Sensabaugh, the play of the defensive backfield, led by cornerbacks Cedrick Holt and Jacoby Watkins, along with safeties Mahlon Carey, Kareen Taylor and ample depth, makes the secondary the least concern of defensive coordinator Marvin Sanders.
At quarterback, Baker will get the first opportunity to start. That's a right he earned through patience, as well as with solid though brief appearances in relief of Durant.
"The backup quarterback is one of the toughest positions in football, never knowing when you are going in," Baker said. "Starting every practice, knowing when I'm going in, is a lot easier mentally."
Again the Tar Heels should enjoy a wealth of talent and depth at wide receiver, despite losing well-liked and respected position coach Gunter Brewer to Oklahoma State. Mike Mason and Derrele Mitchell fill out the two-deep at one position, with Jesse Holley and Jarwarski Pollock on the other side.
"We've got a ton of talent," Bunting said. "Anytime you have competition at a position, it makes the players better."
One challenge for Brewer's replacement, Dave Brock from Temple, will be getting the ball in Mason's hands more to exploit his blazing speed and athleticism. He caught just 19 passes last season, with most of them coming late in the year. He had just one scoring reception, although Mason's TD against Miami was probably the biggest of his career.
"The season really didn't go like I expected," Mason said. "I should have had a lot more catches."
Perhaps most disappointing in March was the performance of the offensive line. However, injuries probably were more to blame than anything else. Guards Kyle Ralph and Charlston Gray, centers Steven Bell and Scott Lenahan, and tackle Skip Seagraves all are expected to be at full strength this fall, after missing all or some of spring drills.
Hal Hunter's troops, along with returning tight ends Jon Hamlett and Justin Phillips, should be able to provide more than adequate pass protection and open holes for running backs McGill and newly eligible transfer Barrington Edwards.
"(Edwards) is a great athlete, and a great addition to this team," Bunting said. "I feel we are very fortunate to have another athlete of his caliber on our team right now."
Only time will tell if Carolina football truly has turned the corner, or if it's about to face another season of mediocrity or worse. The challenging schedule won't make things easy, but one thing is for sure: Bunting's proven resilience makes it impossible to rule out the possibility of another surprisingly successful season.
"I'm really excited about where we are as a team," Bunting said. "I think we have a great chance to do some good things next year."
Spring 2005 Overview
Fifth-year coach John Bunting probably saved his job last year. UNC posted a surprising 6-5 record during the regular season, including the program's first-ever victory over a top-five (No. 4 Miami) opponent, putting to rest the 3-9 and 2-10 disasters of 2002 and 2003. Now comes the difficult challenge of keeping the momentum going against another brutal schedule, and without Darian Durant, the most productive quarterback in school history. Bunting, a former linebacker and NFL defensive coordinator, likely will need his much-maligned defense to bail him out this time. It won't be easy.
Probable 2005 Starters
redshirted ^ six/more 2004 starts
injured/missed spring drills
Coming On Strong
The defensive front, an absolute disaster area in 2002 and 2003, took a small step forward last fall and should be able to make another jump in 2005. The Tar Heels finally have at least decent depth at tackle and linebacker, with some backups capable of starting, plus plenty of experience. Rock-solid returning starters: PK Connor Barth, LT Brian Chacos, DT Chase Page (2003 starter), WR Jarwarski Pollock, RG Kyle Ralph. Also looking good: RB Barrington Edwards, LB Larry Edwards, DT Kyndraus Guy, TE Jon Hamlett, WR Jesse Holley, LB Doug Justice, WR Mike Mason, DT Khalif Mitchell, FS Kareen Taylor.
Cause For Concern?
UNC's on-going problems at end complicate the defense's efforts on the ground (poor containment) and in the air (no pass rush). Thanks to injuries and position moves, there wasn't a single consistent end in the entire spring. Also: unproven quarterbacks, inconsistent tailbacks, injury-laden offensive line, shaky depth, tough schedule.
On The Sidelines
The following players missed all or most of spring drills: OL Steven Bell (foot), OL Byron Bishop (back), OL Calvin Darity (broken foot), DE Tommy Davis (foot), CB Cedrick Holt (wrist), DE Joe Kedra (knee), OL Scott Lenahan (knee), WR Jarwarski Pollock (broken ribs), DT Xavier Rainey (broken leg), OL Skip Seagraves (broken foot), QB Cameron Sexton (broken ankle).
The following scholarship athletes left the program in the last 12 months with eligibility remaining: DE Alden Blizzard (transfer), WR Adarius Bowman (dismissed), SS Ronnie Bryant (chose to graduate), DT Shelton Bynum, WR Daunte Fields (transfer), DB Stephen Green (transfer), OL Drew Hunter (medical), DE Terry Hunter (suspended), OL Mickey Rice (medical), LB Fred Sparkman (dismissed), DT Isaiah Thomas (dismissed).