July 26, 2004 CHAPEL HILL Nobody in the North Carolina football camp is even a little bit surprised that the preseason magazines generally are predicting the Tar Heels to finish ninth or worse this fall in the new 11-team ACC. That happens when you post back-to-back seasons of 3-9 and 2-10. But nobody in Chapel Hill cares about preseason predictions, either. Fourth-year UNC coach John Bunting and his assistants have their own ideas about this fall, and they believe the Heels are in far better position this season than they were prior to the disasters of 2002 and 2003.
"I believe this (2004) group of players is the best combination of talent and leadership and character since I've been here," Bunting said recently. "We had a couple (Julius Peppers, Ryan Sims) of tremendous defensive linemen my first year, but the sum of all these parts is a really great combination of talent and leadership and character."
While it's probably true that the Tar Heels will have more talent this year than last, many close to the program believe that one of the biggest reasons Bunting has a special feeling about this year's team is that he has become closer to it. He personally has been through many of the same ups and downs as his players over the last two seasons, and after some very painful growing pains on both sides they are beginning to grow together.
Senior quarterback Darian Durant and other UNC veterans said during the offseason that the biggest change in Bunting over the last three-plus years has been in the way he approaches his relationships with his players. They said he has become less of a drill sergeant and more of a father figure, keeping some of the business-like approach he brought with him from the NFL but also gradually letting his guard down a bit. As a result, the players said, the atmosphere in Chapel Hill now is one in which the head coach and his players have a much better understanding of each other, on and off the field.
"We saw how much last year hurt him, and I think he has a better understanding of how much it hurt us, too," Durant said. "Nobody has ever questioned how much Coach Bunting cares about Carolina or how much he wants to win, but I think we understand him better now, and I think he understands us better. We want to be able to deal with him like a father figure instead of just a boss, and I think guys feel like they can do that now."
Team chemistry has improved in other ways as well. Gone is defensive back Chris Hawkins, a persistent malcontent who was dismissed from the team this spring and since has transferred to Marshall, as well as tailback Willie Parker, a 2003 senior who often complained about playing time and other issues. Gone, too, are quarterback Nick Cangelosi and linebacker Kory Gedin, underclassmen who often spoke with teammates last season about their unhappiness in Chapel Hill. Several little-used rising seniors, including defensive lineman Jermicus Banks, linebacker Devllen Bullard and linebacker Clarence Gaddy, also chose to leave the program with eligibility remaining.
Seniors, New Faces Must Deliver
Carolina's 2004 senior class consists largely of some of the most talented players on the team, plus a bunch of transfers and walk-ons who don't have any axes to grind.
Along with Durant, the Tar Heels' home-grown seniors this fall will include starting center Jason Brown, starting fullback Madison Hedgecock, backup tailback Jacque Lewis, starting offensive tackle Willie McNeill, starting defensive tackle Chase Page and starting offensive tackle Skip Seagraves. Playing time certainly won't be a problem for that bunch.
Page, always upbeat and a huge Bunting supporter, long has been regarded as one of the best leaders on the team. Brown, McNeill, Seagraves and Hedgecock a 2003 defensive end who has the no-nonsense mentality of an offensive lineman are very hard workers who have never caused any problems off the field. On the field, they're being counted on to protect Durant and provide holes for promising tailback Ronnie McGill.
Durant and Lewis haven't always seen eye-to-eye with Bunting, but Durant in particular feels a bond with the coach, and Lewis (whose father is a college coach) decided in the spring to rededicate himself to his final season in Chapel Hill. Just as Bunting has struggled while learning hard lessons about recruiting, staff-building and dealing with 18- to 21-year-olds over the past three seasons, Durant gradually has grown into the leadership and game-management skills that are required of a top-notch quarterback.
Personnel-wise, the good news for Bunting entering 2004 is that his offense includes a bunch of starters and a handful of reserves who have proven to be productive, ACC-caliber players. The bad news, of course, is that UNC's horrific defense again will be counting on a bunch of unproven performers this fall.
It's possible for the Tar Heels to make a quantum leap on defense, but an awful lot of players would need to do things they've never done at the ACC level. In addition, the starters and key reserves would have to stay healthy, because UNC has very little quality depth on that side of the ball.
In the world of blue-colored glasses, for example, senior East Tennessee State transfer Gerald Sensabaugh will make a smooth transition from Division I-AA All-American to ACC impact player at strong safety, senior Lionell Green will evolve into a lock-down cornerback, sophomore Jacoby Watkins or junior Cedrick Holt will become reliable on the other side, sophomores D.J. Walker and Kareen Taylor both will prove to be good enough to start at free safety, and the swagger and confidence of impressive new secondary coach Marvin Sanders will rub off on everyone.
Most UNC fans are willing to take Bunting's word for it when he talks about the improved leadership and character of the players on his 2004 team. As for the talent, well, they're waiting to see that for themselves.