Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal
April 19, 2006
CHAPEL HILL -- Change swept through North Carolina after the 2005 football season, but this year's spring practice proved one of the smoothest and most productive in John Bunting's five years as coach.
The spring sessions ended April 8 with no major problems, injuries or setbacks. Three assistants began their first year on the coaching staff, chief among them offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti, and a handful of players switched positions to fortify perceived weaknesses.
Bunting saw the trouble-free time as vital to his program's progress. He believes that UNC could have an outstanding season in 2006, after coming close (6-6, 5-6) over the past two seasons.
Junior tailback Barrington Edwards said the players are confident that the crucial ingredients for winning are now in place for the program to move up in the ACC.
"Coach Bunting has been stressing to us that we're tired of just being 5-6 and settling for just maybe trying to squeeze into a bowl game," Edwards said. "We're trying to be (very) good. We're emphasizing, 'Let's be great.' He put up a challenge to us: Do we want to be great?
"Everybody can't be great, or everybody would do it. It takes a lot of dedication and a lot of hard work. And that's something we're stressing on ourselves. We're coming together to have great team chemistry."
Cignetti guided Fresno State to top-10 finishes nationally in scoring in 2004 and 2005. Gary Tranquill, UNC's previous coordinator, retired the day after last season ended. Tranquill was 65 when he quit and had coached for 44 years, and Bunting regarded him as a near-genius in devising an offense.
Cignetti, 40, added energy -- and, perhaps more importantly, new ideas -- to the Carolina offense and staff. He doesn't throw his hat and rant in disgust at mistakes as Tranquill did, but he is very intense on the practice field.
The most pressing matter confronting UNC entering spring drills was its quarterback situation, which opened after Matt Baker finished his career last season.
Joe Dailey and Cameron Sexton dueled all spring for the job. They finished in a dead heat, and Bunting did not necessarily want a decision in the spring anyway. He wants Dailey and Sexton to continue pushing each other, in the hope that heated competition will reveal the best qualities of each player. Bunting and Cignetti do want a starter by the halfway point of August practice, however.
On some days Dailey, a junior transfer from Nebraska, ran the offense with confidence and scrambling ability. On other days Sexton, who will be a redshirt freshman in 2006, looked ready to take control. By the final week of spring practice, Sexton's passes were tight spirals that usually found their targets. But Dailey probably has an edge because he played two years at Nebraska, including a sophomore season in which he passed for 2,025 yards and 17 touchdowns.
"They're both good runners, and they're both big-time competers," Bunting said. "Cameron is perhaps a little bit more of a natural thrower. Joe can throw on the run. They're both guys who can operate in the pocket and out of the pocket. The major difference right now is that Joe's been under center in 11 games, and that's an advantage. That's a distinct advantage."
Bunting said that UNC's offense won't change greatly this fall, because Cignetti studied under Tranquill early in his career and the emphasis will remain to attack and wear down opponents. Bunting desires a running game that punishes defenses and controls possession but wants to throw the ball long down the field, also.
"Gary played to the quarterbacks' strengths," Bunting said. "As go those quarterbacks, our offense will go. I think the one thing you'll see us try a lot more with Frank's scheme is running vertically instead of running the stretch play. We're going to play some smash-mouth football, because I think this offensive line will be capable of doing that as we continue to develop them. We're going to be multiple personnel groups, as we were with Coach Tranquill."
UNC's top running backs did minimal work in the spring. Bunting did not want Ronnie McGill, the starter, injured again and rested him for many practices. Justin Warren, a walk-on, made a serious run at the backup spot. His performance sparked better effort from Edwards, a rising junior whom the coaches consider exceptionally talented but who was erratic last season when McGill was out.
Bunting is confident that the position is solid. He moved Cooter Arnold, a rising sophomore, to free safety.
"Ronnie's been around here a long time, and this is his senior year," Edwards said. "I'm competing because I want to be the starter here. We're not really concerned about that, though. It's, 'What can we both do for the team?'"
"Our relationship is wonderful. We hang out, we watch film together. We do everything together. Right now we're focusing on, 'Let's just make it happen.' We want to be a one-two punch. He's good, he knows I'm good, and we're both comfortable with that."
Bunting used the spring to take hard looks at young runners R.J. Waters, Antwain Carey, Richie Rich and Bobby Rome, a former quarterback. Rome, a big back who can be dangerous on screen passes, practiced at fullback, too. Waters and Rich also had moments when they appeared capable of helping.
Mark Weber, another hire from Fresno State, took over coaching the offensive line. The line is young, but that might work to Weber's advantage. The players are not set in the ways of their former position coach, Hal Hunter, who's now working for the NFL's San Diego Chargers.
Two of Weber's three best linemen, left tackle Brian Chacos and center Ben Lemming, missed all of spring work while recovering from injuries, but they are expected to be ready in August. They could form a productive threesome with promising left guard Charlston Gray, although the right side of the line remains a work-in-progress.
The only (minor) problem Bunting had to deal with this spring was linebacker Larry Edwards, a rising senior who's probably the most talented player on the team. Edwards is expected to be the defensive leader in 2006, after tying for the team lead (with 91) in tackles last season, but he was not performing in the classroom to Bunting's satisfaction.
Edwards did not practice for the last two weeks of spring, so he could concentrate on academics. Bunting said his decision was not based on a fear that Edwards might be unable to play next season, but rather because Edwards had little to prove in the spring and his absence allowed some young linebackers, specifically Mark Paschal, to practice more.
Danny Pearman, the other new assistant, was hired from Virginia Tech to work with the defensive ends. Bunting would like to have more capable linemen, but he believes the line may be his strongest since his first season (Julius Peppers, Ryan Sims) at UNC in 2001.
Jesse Holley, a rising senior receiver, had days when he mixed Cignetti's new offensive terminology with Tranquill's old system and was momentarily confused. But Holley considered this spring practice the best for UNC in his time in the program. He, too, thinks an outstanding 2006 season is now possible.
"I'm happy to be here to jump-start this new re-birth of Carolina," Holley said. "The sad part is I'm gone after next year, and I'll miss when this thing is completely, completely in full swing and everybody's pumping on all cylinders. And that's what it's going to be like here in two or three years."
Spring 2006 Overview
Over the last two seasons, only three men have more ACC wins than sixth-year North Carolina coach John Bunting: Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer (14-2), Florida State's Bobby Bowden (11-5) and Miami's Larry Coker (11-5). Judged by that standard, Bunting (9-7) is in very good company, and he has done an impressive job of stabilizing a UNC program that suffered through consecutive seasons of 3-9 and 2-10 earlier in his tenure. At the same time, Bunting hasn't had a winning season overall since his 2001 debut, and a big leap this fall will be difficult unless first-year coordinator Frank Cignetti can work wonders with newcomers at quarterback and on the offensive line. P.S. Bunting's teams typically have faced brutal schedules, but a more reasonable (Rutgers, Furman, South Florida, at Notre Dame) non-conference slate awaits in 2006.
Probable 2006 Starters
- -- redshirted ^ -- six/more 2005 starts
- -- injured/missed spring drills
Coming On Strong
Bunting and coordinator Marvin Sanders finally have the team's much-maligned defensive front to the point where eight or more guys -- no superstars, but mostly juniors and seniors -- are capable of contributing. Rock-solid returning starters: WR Jesse Holley, TE Jon Hamlett, LT Brian Chacos, LG Charlston Gray, DT Shelton Bynum, LB Larry Edwards, SS Trimane Goddard, FS Kareen Taylor, P David Wooldridge. Also looking good: RB Ronnie McGill, WR Brandon Tate, CB Quinton Person.
Cause For Concern?
Quarterbacks Joe Dailey and Cameron Sexton, who will resume their battle for a starting role in August, face the gargantuan task of learning a new system behind a line that's breaking in several fresh faces. Also: small number of All-ACC caliber talents, shaky depth at multiple positions, lack of natural pass-rushers.
On The Sidelines
The following players missed all or most of spring drills: LT Brian Chacos (shoulder), LB Larry Edwards (half-spring/academics), SS Trimane Goddard (broken foot), CB Jordan Hemby (compartment syndrome-leg), OC Ben Lemming (shoulder), LB Durell Mapp (shoulder), CB Jacoby Watkins (broken leg).
The following scholarship athletes left the program in the last 12 months with eligibility remaining: TE Lewis Burnham, DB Andre Coleman (transfer), QB Roger Heinz (medical/back), LB Joe Kedra (medical/knee), DT Donnell Livingston (transfer/Bethune-Cookman), WR Mike Mason (dismissed/Tennessee State), OL Thomas Nyaoga, DE Xavier Rainey (medical/leg), WR Del Roberts (transfer/Southern), WR Rashaad Tindall, RB Vince Wilson (transfer/Bethune-Cookman), OL Chris Woods (chose to graduate).
Chart By: David Glenn