November 8, 2005
CHAPEL HILL -- Here's what North Carolina football coach John Bunting had to work with on offense through the first eight games of 2005: a mostly ineffective first-year starter at quarterback, only five functional linemen, just one reliable wideout, three so-so tight ends and a single standout tailback who missed half the season.
All things considered, then, a 4-4 record in mid-November wasn't so bad. When you're in the bottom three in the ACC in both points per game (17.6) and points allowed (25.5), and you're still in the running for postseason play, you're a living lesson in survival.
One year after exceeding expectations with a 6-5 regular-season mark and a bowl trip, UNC now has a decent chance of doing it again. Assuming a win over Duke and then a loss at Virginia Tech in the season finale, the Tar Heels need "only" a victory over Maryland at Kenan Stadium, where the home team has been playing pretty well lately.
The Tar Heels' recent 16-14 win in Kenan over Boston College wasn't pretty, and it followed a familiar script. As in the 7-5 home triumph over Virginia, the defense again played extremely well. The offense offered just enough balance, and a few big plays, to keep the chains moving. Everyone avoided major mistakes. Finally, as in the 31-24 victory at N.C. State and the 31-17 win over Utah, the special teams came through in a big way.
Against the Wolfpack, a blocked punt for a touchdown provided some momentum and the final margin. Against the Utes, true freshman Brandon Tate set the tone by returning the opening kickoff 96 yards for a score. Against the Eagles, senior Wallace Wright bobbled the opening kickoff before taking it 90 yards for a TD. It ended up as UNC's only trip to the end zone. Also against BC, kicker Connor Barth and punter David Wooldridge both booted the ball well and made huge open-field (and possibly TD-saving) tackles.
Clearly, nothing comes easy for this team. Meanwhile, though, there are reasons to believe the Heels will continue to be competitive -- or better -- in the future. In the lower classes, especially, Carolina is showing some of the typical signs of a maturing program.
Every strong team needs stars, and while UNC still ranks low within the ACC in terms of NFL-caliber talent, its junior class has at least three players who fit the bill.
Jesse Holley, a team leader who had career highs in catches (eight) and receiving yards (125) against BC, has the size (6-3, 200), speed, hands and running ability to put him into a group behind Georgia Tech's Calvin Johnson among the league's best wideouts. Larry Edwards, an effective tackler, pass rusher and cover man who has emerged as the defense's top playmaker, offers the combination of size (6-3, 241), strength and speed that hasn't been seen at linebacker in Chapel Hill since the Mack Brown era. Ronnie McGill (5-11, 210), who missed the first four games this fall while recovering from a torn pectoral muscle, probably won't end up with great numbers this season, but his reckless running style gave a struggling offense a huge lift against Virginia (23-118), Miami (13-66) and BC (20-75).
Similarly, in the sophomore class, there are some good signs. Offensive guard Charlston Gray, an outstanding athlete (at 6-3, 305) who makes great blocks in every game, will be an All-ACC player if he can cut down on penalties and mental mistakes. Tailback Barrington Edwards, the LSU transfer, lacks breakaway speed but has provided plenty of toughness and confidence to a unit in need of both. Barth slumped earlier this season, but he hit the game-winning field goal against Miami last year, his three-for-three effort against BC provided the winning margin, and the coaches have absolutely no doubts about his ability.
The sophomores on defense may be even more promising. Trimane Goddard, who wrestled the starting strong safety job away from senior Mahlon Carey in October, offers plenty of smarts, solid tackling ability and sticky cover skills. Middle linebacker Durell Mapp, a walk-on, needs more strength but has surprised the coaches with his speed and effectiveness (at times) in place of injured starter Doug Justice. Cornerback Quinton Person has great athleticism and instincts, and fellow corner Bryan Bethea looked very solid against BC in his first career start. On the line, tackles Khalif Mitchell and Kyndraus Guy and ends Kentwan Balmer and Hilee Taylor have contributed to an effective eight-man rotation that will lose only two seniors at the end of the season.
WILLIAMS HOLDS CHALLENGING HAND
UNC basketball coach Roy Williams has become an avid supporter of the school's football program since his arrival in Chapel Hill two and a half years ago. After the Tar Heels' recent victory over Boston College, he appeared to be one of the most excited people in Kenan Stadium.
Prior to this season, two of the biggest things Williams and Bunting had in common were a devout love of their alma mater and a sincere affection for Holley, a hard-working, personable, charismatic kid who was a reserve on the Tar Heels' national championship basketball team. A junior, Holley is playing only football this year.
Bunting occasionally has asked Williams for advice, but those roles soon may be reversed. Entering November, for the first time, the two coaches repeatedly faced variations of the same question: How in the world are you going to qualify for postseason play? Bunting has heard that one many times. Williams has not.
Don't laugh. Williams' team is believed to be the first in NCAA history to lose its top seven scorers from the previous season. Raymond Felton, Sean May, Rashad McCants and Marvin Williams are in the NBA now, first-round draft picks and millionaires after leaving school early. Seniors Jackie Manuel, Melvin Scott and Jawad Williams also are gone.
Ten of the 12 teams in the ACC return at least 51 percent of their scoring from last season. Nine of the 12 return at least three starters. The Tar Heels (along with Georgia Tech) return zero starters, and Carolina has just 9.1 percent of its scoring back from 2004-05.
"We've been dealt a hand that's probably more difficult -- or hopefully more difficult -- than I'll ever be dealt again," Williams said, "but it's a good group of kids that I think are working extremely hard."
The roster isn't pretty. There are only 10 scholarship players, five of them are true freshmen, and one (forward Michael Copeland) missed the preseason with a knee injury. The only proven ACC player is 6-6 senior power forward David Noel, who has solid all-around skills but limited offensive potential. The next-best bet among the returnees is 6-8 junior wing Reyshawn Terry, who scintillates in pickup games but hasn't yet clicked mentally with the coaching staff. Shaky sophomore Quentin Thomas is back at point guard. Tyler Hansbrough, a fearless, aggressive, 6-9, 235-pounder who could lead the team in scoring and rebounding, is the only sure thing among a talented five-man freshman class that will have to play early and often. His top backup in the post is, gulp, little-used senior Byron Sanders.
In 17 years as a head coach, Williams has missed the NCAA Tournament only once. That was in 1988-89, when the Kansas program he had just taken over was coming off a national championship under Larry Brown but on probation because of violations committed during Brown's tenure. The Jayhawks finished 19-12 in Williams' debut but were ineligible for the postseason. The team also ended 6-8 in the Big Eight, the only time a Williams-coached team ever has fallen short of the .500 mark in conference play.
Before now, Williams' other toughest challenge came during his first year back at UNC, in 2003-04, when he had to pick up the pieces of the disastrous Matt Doherty era. The Tar Heels finished 19-11 that year, 8-8 (fifth) in the ACC, and were eliminated in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The team featured Manuel, Scott and Jawad Williams as juniors, plus Felton, May, McCants and Noel as sophomores, and it marked only the second time a Williams-coached team failed to win 20 games.
It's a strange thing to say about the defending national champions, but similar results with this year's group would be an enormous accomplishment.