April 3, 2007
CHAPEL HILL When he was hired on Nov. 13, North Carolina football coach Butch Davis faced the possibility of heading into the 2007 season with only 12 returning starters, one of the lowest numbers in the ACC in an often-telling category.
Then things took a turn for the worse.
By the March 19 opening of spring drills, Davis was down to nine returning starters, and several other players with some level of experience also had fallen by the wayside.
After reviewing the team's personnel with his staff during the offseason, Davis moved two 2006 starters to other positions. Nick Starcevic, a pretty strong fullback last fall, is at defensive end this spring. Former quarterback Joe Dailey is working mainly at wide receiver, although he said he also expects to get some snaps from behind center in specialty situations this season.
"It's so important right now," Davis said, "to find out who can really be playmakers for this football team, in all phases."
Dailey, who shared the starting QB duties with Cameron Sexton (the projected 2007 starter) last fall, had the same experience at UNC that he had at Nebraska. He made plenty of positive plays, including many with his legs, but he couldn't stop his game-breaking habit of throwing the ball to the other team (10 interceptions on 195 attempts). He showed a good understanding of the offense in practice, but he was fooled easily by defensive tricks on game days.
"(Dailey) can run, and he's smart," Davis said. "I mean, this kid is brilliant. As a quarterback, he already understands coverages. He understands where holes are, because he had to throw the ball into them. You just want to give a guy like that an opportunity to find out (if he can help elsewhere)."
UNC's returning-starters count took another hit when Davis dismissed from the team starting left guard Charlston Gray for, according to a Feb. 9 release from the university, "repeated violations of team rules." A rising senior, 2004 Freshman All-American and three-year starter, Gray was by far the team's most productive offensive lineman in 2006, especially on running plays.
Of the team's nine remaining players who started at least six games last season, only rising sophomore wide receiver Hakeem Nicks (39 receptions, 660 yards, four touchdowns) and rising senior kicker Connor Barth (10-10 field goals, 17 touchbacks) could be described as difference-makers. If you include return men, rising junior Brandon Tate (23.7 yards on kickoffs, 9.7 on punts) also is a proven weapon.
Here are the other seven returning starters, listed with their 2007 class: senior center Scott Lenahan, junior right guard Calvin Darity, junior right tackle Garrett Reynolds, senior defensive tackle Kentwan Balmer, senior defensive end Hilee Taylor, senior linebacker Durrell Mapp and senior cornerback Quinton Person. Taylor and Mapp showed flashes of strong play last fall, but none of the seven had even an above-average season.
Keep in mind: UNC finished 3-9 in 2006, a disappointing performance that led to the dismissal of sixth-year coach John Bunting. Most of the best players on that team, including true standouts such as tailback Ronnie McGill, linebacker Larry Edwards and safety Kareen Taylor, were seniors last fall.
DAVIS FACING MANY CHALLENGES
It all adds up to an extraordinary first-year challenge for Davis, who in March learned that he faces the additional complication of chemotherapy treatments. The coach's dentist found a cancerous growth (since removed) in his mouth during a routine examination, and while there is no evidence of other cancer, doctors recommended a series of chemo sessions as a precaution.
After one early practice this spring, Davis reminded the reporters on hand of his request to avoid questions about his medical status. (He previously had invited a select group of media to his office to discuss the situation, openly and politely, in an effort to put it behind him.) Then the first seven questions to the coach were directly or indirectly about his medical status.
"I appreciate everyone being here, and everyone's thoughts and prayers," Davis said, "but I would really like for everything, moving forward, to be all about the Tar Heel football team."
Unfortunately for Davis, UNC's practices that week included repeated complications with the center exchange, massive turnover problems and inconsistent play from the offensive line. Overall, the defense dominated, but that may have been mostly a byproduct of the offense's ineptitude.
When asked about team speed, Davis spoke mostly about recruiting. He actually called this year's group "selectively fast." And he obviously was concerned about the offense.
"If there was a negative, the thing that's probably one of the things that we've got to improve upon in these next two weeks of spring practice, is taking care of the football," Davis said. "We're making four or five good plays, and then we're having either mental breakdown, or a mis-read in coverage, throwing the ball into coverage, maybe a turnover, running backs not protecting the ball."
Another question to Davis in late March involved the "indefinite suspension" of rising senior Barrington Edwards, at one point the team's projected starter at tailback. A problem child dating back through the Bunting era, his time at Louisiana State and even at the high school level in Maryland, Edwards could be UNC's unofficial all-time leader in "violating team rules," despite his late arrival in Chapel Hill.
Edwards isn't expected back, leaving the all-important tailback position in the hands of rising senior Justin Warren (a former walk-on), sophomore Richie Rich, redshirt freshman Johnny White, redshirt freshman Anthony Elzy and redshirt freshman Anthony Parker-Boyd (a converted quarterback). With 77 rushing yards in 2006, Warren is the unit's most seasoned performer.
In other news, defensive tackle Kyndraus Guy (knee), cornerback Jordan Hemby (knee) and offensive lineman Ben Lemming (shoulder) three players good enough to help this season were declared out for spring drills as they recovered from injuries. Meanwhile, talented but troubled linebacker Garrett White faced an April 10 court date on a misdemeanor assault charge. And linebacker Logan Buchanan and offensive lineman Kenny Price won't play again because of career-ending injuries.
Always optimistic, Davis singled out young players such as White, cornerback Kendric Burney and safety Shaun Draughn for strong performances in late March, and he said he liked his team's effort and attitude.
"Clearly, they were disappointed and upset with the record from last year," Davis said. "They're working so hard to try to atone for that, because they truly believe that they are not a 3-9 football team."