December 13, 2004 Bunting Will Miss Durant, Other Resilient Seniors, But Youthful Talent Base Offers Long-Term Hope CHAPEL HILL With cuts on his forehead and cheek, John Bunting conducted an early October press conference looking like a beaten man. The injuries, caused by tripping over furniture at his house, seemed appropriate because Bunting was coaching a physically and psychologically battered football team at North Carolina.
Some media members were calling for Bunting's job after the Tar Heels' 5-19 record the previous two seasons and a slow start in 2004. Many UNC alumni were angry and agitated about a football program that finished last in the ACC in 2003 and was picked to finish 10th this fall. The pain was real.
Two months later, North Carolina has undergone an amazing healing process. The Tar Heels have a winning (6-5) record, a spot opposite Boston College in the Continental Tire Bowl, a head coach with a contract extension and a sense that the program is headed in an encouraging direction.
"They were wrong. We were right," Bunting said in simple terms about UNC's many critics earlier this season. "We've done something that nobody besides the people in this building (Kenan Football Center) and a few others thought we could ever do."
How did the Tar Heels do it?
There are many reasons why Carolina won three of its last four games to tie for third place in the ACC and earn a bowl bid. But before looking at the present, remember how low the Tar Heels dropped.
In September, Carolina was embarrassed at Virginia, when the Cavaliers scored seven touchdowns on their first seven possessions. The Tar Heels' meager offensive output led to being humiliated at home by Louisville, then Carolina's defense allowed a school-record 669 yards in a blowout loss to Utah.
As it turned out, those and UNC's other losses (to Florida State and Virginia Tech) weren't so awful. All five teams spent time ranked among the nation's top 10 and finished the regular season with a combined 47-9 record.
Also, several personnel losses took time to overcome. Three promising sophomores big-play receiver Adarius Bowman, leading tackler Fred Sparkman and defensive tackle Isaiah Thomas played in just six games before being suspended for marijuana use. Two more starters, defensive tackle Chase Page and offensive tackle Skip Seagraves, missed all or virtually all of the season with injuries.
The outlook seemed bleak for UNC in late October, even with the bright spot
of a narrow win over rival N.C. State. Then the Tar Heels used the maturity
of senior quarterback Darian Durant, the emergence of running back Chad Scott
and the improvement of a young defense to stun No. 4 Miami 31-28 on Oct. 30.
Those ingredients continued through Carolina's
40-17 rout of Duke to end the regular season.
Durant will graduate with 48 school passing records, but only in the final month of his final regular season did he become a consistent winner as a full-time starter. Durant directed an offense that led the entire ACC in total yards (413.2 per game) in conference contests. Obviously, the Tar Heels' final four games were conference games.
"He saved the best for last," Bunting said about Durant, who finished third in ACC passing efficiency and earned honorable mention All-ACC honors.
The same can be said about UNC's seniors, who pulled themselves up after suffering some of the lowest points in the program's history.
Fullback Madison Hedgecock finally got a chance to do more than block, and his 69 yards rushing on 10 carries were crucial in the win over the Wolfpack. Center Jason Brown became UNC's only first-team All-ACC selection, while guard Willie McNeill was a second-team pick. In his only season at UNC, safety Gerald Sensabaugh led the team in tackles and emotion.
Another senior, Chad Scott, started the year as UNC's No. 3 tailback. He finished with 747 yards, the most for a Carolina runner since 1997, despite not starting until the last four games. Scott's final four contests mirrored the Tar Heels' late explosion, as offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill settled into more of a ball-control attack. Scott ran for 511 yards and six touchdowns during that span, as UNC's injury-prone running game finished second in ACC rushing yards per carry (5.0).
Scott's break-out game came in his first career start a career-high 175 yards and two touchdowns against Miami. That upset victory, the school's first-ever win over a team ranked in the top five by the Associated Press, turned UNC's season around.
The momentum continued the following week, even though Carolina lost to eventual ACC champion Virginia Tech 27-24. The Tar Heels were in position to kick a tying field goal until Durant was sacked late in the fourth quarter. Durant said he still has nightmares about that game. Had Carolina forced overtime and eventually defeated the Hokies, the Heels would have finished in a three-way tie for first place in the ACC.
"That's a crazy thought," Durant said about UNC finishing first after being picked 10th. "But honestly, I feel like that is where we should have been. We were one drive away."
Still, the Tar Heels are much farther along now than anyone could have expected in mid-October. The 12 true freshmen who played, including kicker Connor Barth and defenders Terry Hunter, Khalif Mitchell, Trimane Goddard and Hilee Taylor, began to build confidence and make plays. Taylor made just 11 tackles all season, but his 4.5 sacks led the team.
Carolina's much-maligned defense still finished poorly statistically (allowing 444 yards and 31 points per game), but opponents gained 100 yards less per game over the last month. Unlike fired defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable's units in 2002 and 2003, the Tar Heels actually showed progress under co-coordinators John Gutekunst and Marvin Sanders. UNC's eight interceptions were four times more than last season.
The future looks promising for UNC and Bunting, who signed a contract extension through 2009. Nine of the 10 leading tacklers are expected to return, and that doesn't include Mitchell, Goddard or Taylor.
Tranquill, who will turn 65 in April, will come back to coordinate an offense that will have big holes to fill without Durant, Scott, Brown, McNeill, Hedgecock and others. But UNC's sophomore and freshman classes have boosted the program's talent level.
Bunting still has scars on his forehead from his October mishap, and the team's scars from two and a half tough seasons will not easily fade. Yet UNC's healing process took huge steps over the last month of the season. No more life support required.
UNC Departing Players
OC Jason Brown, TE Scott Brumett, QB Darian Durant, FB Madison Hedgecock, RT Willie McNeill, DT Jonas Seawright, SS Gerald Sensabaugh
TE Jocques Dumas, FB James Gibson, CB Lionell Green, RB Jacque Lewis, RB Chad Scott, OT Skip Seagraves (pending NCAA appeal for sixth year)
2005 Returning Starters
Special Teams (2)
Other Tested Returnees
OG Steven Bell, WR Adarius Bowman(?), FB Rikki Cook, WR Daunte Fields, TE Jon Hamlett, WR Jesse Holley, WR Mike Mason, RB Ronnie McGill, TE Justin Phillips, WR Wallace Wright
DE Melik Brown, DT Shelton Bynum, LB Larry Edwards, DB Trimane Goddard, DT Terry Hunter, LB Doug Justice, LB Durell Mapp, DT Khalif Mitchell, DB Quinton Person, DE Brian Rackley, LB Fred Sparkman(?), DE Hilee Taylor, DT Isaiah Thomas(?), DB D.J. Walker, DB Linwood Williams
Projected 2005 Strengths
Besides saving their jobs and going to a bowl, the most important thing UNC coach John Bunting and his assistants accomplished in 2004 was gaining more credibility with their players. In particular, the defenders know that they listened to co-coordinators John Gutekunst and Marvin Sanders and believed in them, and voila despite yielding more ugly numbers, they improved during the course of the season and helped win some huge games. (That offered a start contrast to the Dave Huxtable years.) Personnel-wise, the Tar Heels have developed an exciting corps of receivers and reliable special teams, and in most places where the talent remains questionable there's at least some experience on hand.
Projected 2005 Questions
If Carolina falters next fall, against a schedule (non-ACC: Wisconsin, Louisville, Utah) that again figures to be rated among the toughest in the nation, will Bunting be back on the hot seat? Can the Tar Heels survive that slate without the leadership and productivity of Brown, Durant and the rest of a senior class the staff gradually grew to love? With veteran OC Gary Tranquill recently agreeing to postpone retirement for at least another year, could fifth-year senior QB Matt Baker be another of the coach's zero-to-hero stories (see Scott Secules at Virginia) in the making? Considering the departures of a mobile QB, two productive tailbacks and three key blockers, can a running game that has served as UNC's foundation of success possibly carry a similar load next fall? If not, will an improving but still-growing defense be ready to pick up the slack?
CHART BY: EDITOR DAVE GLENN