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As Culture Change Continues, Bunting Must Win With Less Talent

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

By Eddy Landreth, Chapel Hill (N.C.) News
April 21, 2003

CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina football fans have plenty of reasons to be pessimistic about the immediate future of their program. The Tar Heels went 3-9 a year ago and stayed out of the conference cellar only after a last-second victory over hapless Duke. Many of the same players will be on the field again this fall, and the cream-puff schedule of the Mack Brown days is long gone. Carolina will open against Florida State and then play Syracuse, Wisconsin, N.C. State and Virginia before traveling to Greenville, N.C., to face East Carolina.

The Tar Heels will return a team that finished last in rushing and last in rushing defense in the ACC in 2002. Better than 70 percent of the players on the team were freshmen and sophomores, and they will be relying on as many first-year guys this season.

Yet for all the possible disaster scenarios, Carolina's coaches and players believe they will win again soon.

“Everyone is upbeat,” senior guard Jeb Terry said. “Everyone is playing as hard as possible, trying to treat every day like a game. If anyone is pessimistic, they shouldn't be out here. If everyone doesn't think they can win every game, they shouldn't be here. We're trying to get the whole team to think that way, and most people are.”

Tommy Davis, a sophomore defensive end who experienced the pain of 2002, said there is little doubt this group is doing everything within its power to win again.

“(Last year) was one of the hardest things in my life,” Davis said. “I don't want to go through that again. That hurt. Those memories really motivate the whole team every day in the weight room. It makes you angry thinking about it.”

But wanting to — and even working hard — guarantees nothing in college football. Talented players make a difference, and Carolina didn't have nearly enough of those a year ago.

When coach John Bunting and his staff signed their latest class in February, it seemed to indicate that more talent is on the way. The big question: How long will the young guys need to develop and make an impact? If what occurred in the recent spring game was any indication, perhaps not as long as some might think.

Three youngsters in particular — linebacker Melik Brown, tailback Ronnie McGill and sophomore cornerback Cedrick Holt — gave impressive performances.

McGill graduated from high school in December, enrolled at UNC in January and made a quick and positive impression on his new teammates and coaches. A 5-11, 212-pounder, he ran for a 10-yard touchdown and 104 yards on 24 carries in the spring game. He'll battle tough but undersized incumbent Jacque Lewis for a starting spot in August.

“Ronnie is strong and powerful,” said sophomore linebacker Jeff Longhany, who had to tackle McGill this spring. “He has a real good low center of gravity. He runs with his heart. He runs as hard as he can every single play. He's going to make big plays just with his effort.”

Holt did his Dre' Bly imitation in the spring game, picking off one official interception but also grabbing two others that were called back because of penalties. At 5-11, 176 pounds, Holt has good quickness, excellent hands and the knowledge of how to read a quarterback. He could combine with senior Michael Waddell, a top talent with something to prove after last year's disappointment, and August arrival Lionell Green to give the Heels three good cover men.

“Cedrick Holt is understanding the game better than any freshman I've been around,” Longhany said. “He's so quick and fast. If it goes his way, he's going to break it up or pick it.”

Overall, Bunting set out to create a more competitive team this spring, one that is tougher than a year ago.

“I feel like we're more competitive,” Bunting said. “On a one-to-10 (scale), we're a six or seven now on competitiveness. You need to be a nine, so we have a long ways to go.”

With limited depth along the offensive and defensive lines, Bunting did not have as physical a spring practice as possible. He still made sure there were plenty of physical moments, though. The starting defense had to play the starting offense throughout the spring. There were goal-line drills, with one against one every day. The deeper the Tar Heels got into the spring, the fewer tackles they missed.

“In order for us to be a good football team, we have to play substantially better on defense,” Bunting said. “We weren't very good last year. We didn't stop the run. We did not do a good job on third down. We've got a lot of guys who have got to come through this year. It will be open season when the freshmen get here in August. I see 10 to 12 across the board potentially helping us.”

There is every reason to believe the offense will be more consistent this year. The line, while not deep, is experienced, bigger, stronger and smarter.

“We don't have to make calls anymore,” Terry said. “We all know what's going on. Last year some guys would be doing one thing and some guys another. We would leave someone free. Now someone may make a call, and it may be the wrong call, but it will turn out right because we'll all do that call. Everyone is on the same page on every play.”

McGill and Kentucky transfer Chad Scott add depth and talent at tailback. Carolina has been searching for a productive runner since Jon Linton gained more than 1,000 yards in 1997, and Terry said having a productive and knowledgeable runner will help the offensive line produce.

“It's night and day when you have someone who can read your blocks and help set up blocks for you,” Terry said. “If we're stretching someone outside, and the running back stretches with you and then cuts back inside, the block is set up. Running backs are hitting the holes they were designed to hit. Even if it's a small gap, they're letting the plays develop and going right up in there. It's been much better this spring.”

The overwhelming key to the Tar Heels' success rests with rising junior quarterback Darian Durant and his ability to remain healthy. When Durant broke his thumb at the start of the second half against Virginia in 2002, Carolina's offense collapsed and didn't resurface until Durant returned for the season finale against Duke. The controversy of a year ago, when Durant decided to transfer but later changed his mind, is in the past now. He's the Tar Heels' unquestioned leader on offense.

“Now that everything is behind us, everybody looks to me as the leader of this team,” Durant said. “I appreciate that from the guys. That itself puts me in a real comfort zone. I have the respect of the guys. Everybody has my back out there. I can't win this game by myself.”

No, but it's hard to imagine Carolina winning many games without him.