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North Carolina Mental, Physical Toughness Necessary To Reverse Ugly Trends

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

  By Eddy Landreth
Chapel Hill (N.C.) News

April 12, 2004 SPRING 2004 OVERVIEW CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina coach John Bunting is a tough guy. He got paid to tackle people for 11 years in the National Football League and for two in the United States Football League. So it came as no surprise that when he returned to Chapel Hill to coach his alma mater, his avowed goal was for the Tar Heels to become a tougher team, to be big hitters and to have the mental tenacity to withstand the adversity that eventually faces any group that gathers to play this game. What he has overseen instead is the utter and total collapse of a program that finished in the national top 10 in 1996 and 1997. Those glory days — when the Carolina defense ranked among the best in the nation, and the Tar Heels could play with anyone — may as well be replays on old black-and-white newsreels for how long ago they seem. Rather than establishing toughness, the Tar Heels have turned ineptness into an art form during the past two seasons: poor tackling, lining up out of position on defense, breakdowns along the offensive line, all mixed with enough personal fouls to compound it like interest to a loan shark. So while some programs used the spring to refine their games, or maybe even take a peek at a particular rival and plug in a few special plays, Carolina enjoyed no such luxury. The Tar Heels spent their time drilling on fundamentals. The best way to get to where he wanted to go, Bunting figured, was to run the ball — a lot. "I was really excited about the way we ran the football," Bunting said after UNC's annual spring game. "I think we're getting tougher. When you run the football, it makes you tough. When you have runners like Ronnie McGill and runners like Jacque Lewis, who know how to run the football and get behind the line and make plays, it's exciting." The coaching staff promoted rising senior Chad Scott as having the best spring through the majority of the practices, but he missed the spring game. McGill had a good spring and ran strong in the scrimmage. He gained 79 yards while carrying the ball only eight times, for an average of 9.8 per carry. "Ronnie brings it all the time," said John Gutekunst, UNC's new defensive coordinator. "He has great feet in the hole. He has good vision, good balance." McGill is faster, stronger and runs with a better understanding of what he's supposed to do than when he entered spring practice as a wide-eyed newcomer last year. He graduated from high school a semester early in December 2002 and enrolled at UNC in January 2003. "Last spring it was horrible," McGill said. "I didn't know any of (the offensive linemen). I wasn't aware of who they were going to block or how they were going to block. But since I've been in the system for a year now, I know how most of them are going to react in certain situations. I know when to make my cut and how to make a cut." Lewis took the losses of 2003 as hard as anyone, but he gathered himself during the offseason and ran as tough as ever in the spring game, gaining 83 yards on 13 carries and scoring a touchdown on an especially impressive run. "Jacque Lewis is not very big in stature," Gutekunst said, "but he is one tough guy." Gutekunst and Marvin Sanders, who has the title of co-coordinator and focuses on the secondary, could use a little of that toughness on their side of the ball. In 1996, Carolina finished first in the nation in scoring defense. In 2003, the Tar Heels finished 116 out of 117 spots in total defense. Even though there were more bodies and fewer injuries than the year before, UNC somehow got worse on that side of the ball. Most people who watched those 12 games in 2003 would tell you the UNC offense played well enough to win more often than not. So did the special teams. The special teams, in fact, made a quantum leap after Bunting moved assistant head coach James Webster to special teams coordinator just before 2003 spring drills. But the defense played so poorly that quarterback Darian Durant and the offense simply couldn't afford to make a mistake or miss a scoring opportunity and still have a chance to win. There were no superstars or magicians at spring practice. There is more talent than a year ago, and far more than what took the field in 2002. The problem is that this unit has been beaten, battered and abused by opponents, the press and even its own fans. "We're like a group that goes up two steps and the next day we go back one," Gutekunst said. "Then we go two more up, then we go back one. We're still in a process. The main thing is they learn to understand that if they give their effort for each other, it really doesn't matter who plays 60 plays. … They've accepted that and not let egos get in the way. They just all want to become better football players. "The guys that I want to see that pride in are Chase Page, the Tommy Richardsons, Jonas Seawrights, the older kids. They've had their butts kicked. They've had to play. I want to see if we can get them somewhere. The young kids haven't been kicked around enough. They know it wasn't good last year, but they're still at that point where they're really feeling good if they get to play. Those older kids, the only way they are going to feel good is if they win. So my main obligation is to get a team in place that helps those older kids win. They're beyond just playing." A lack of speed has been one of the biggest problems on defense. Those defenses in the late 1990s could run with anyone. The last two could hardly run, and that is a crippling deficiency in today's game. Richardson moved from safety to linebacker in the spring to give the Heels a quicker lineup. Gerald Sensabaugh, a 6-2, 210-pound safety, and Kareen Taylor, a 6-foot, 195-pound cornerback, improved Carolina's ability to tackle. Sensabaugh, a Division I-AA All-American who transferred from East Tennessee State after that school dropped its football program, immediately became one of the top playmakers on the UNC team. "He's (made big plays) all spring," Gutekunst said. "He has gotten his hands on a lot of footballs. He has great vision. Everybody knows their 40-yard dash speed, their vertical jump, how much they bench press. A lot of time, eyes and intelligence, which means relating what you see and applying it, are measureables, too. He has great eyes. He's such a tough kid, when he sees the ball he gets faster." So, yes, it appears the Tar Heels may well be tougher in spots. The offensive line looks to be physical and productive. Perhaps McGill, Lewis and Scott can carry the ball effectively. A couple of new faces in the secondary add promise there. But is there enough toughness to go around? Will this team find a way to win close games rather than squander them again this year? Those are tough questions, and UNC's toughness level this fall probably will go a long way toward providing the answers.