By Neil Amato,
Durham (N.C.) Herald-Sun
August 20, 2002
CHAPEL HILL - With all that happened in North Carolina's soap opera of an offseason, perhaps the most telling sign of the way John Bunting will run his alma mater's football program was his dismissal of star receiver Bosley Allen.
Bunting said he and his staff learned from the recruiting setbacks suffered on and around signing day. The program welcomed prodigal son quarterback Darian Durant back after his I'm-transferring-wait-can-I-please-come-back act.
Amid that tumult and the reality that this season's defense will look nothing like the successful 2001 version, Bunting could have let Allen - a big-play threat in the passing game and on returns - slide. He could have, but he didn't. The example had to be set, even if the example was a guy capable of turning a loss into a win.
"That decision was really hard," said Bunting, who declined to say what transgression was the last straw with Allen, who previously had been suspended for legal and team issues. "That hurt me, probably hurt me more than any other decision I've made.
"I think, in the long run, it will help our program substantially. Because the players will know that talent alone is not what it's all about. That doesn't win football games. It's the best teams that win, and Bosley couldn't be part of the team. He wasn't willing to pay the price."
Durant, it seems, was willing, as evidenced by his slimmer build and apparently improved mobility in August.
"He's competing like hell," Bunting said. "I think (the other players) see where he's at. ... That story about him transferring is over."
To Bunting, the recruiting events in January and February are not to be forgotten. The Tar Heels, who won eight of their final 10 games, either had commitments from, or were in the running for, a gaggle of top prospects, but most signed elsewhere. Bunting, especially stung by the signing-day reversal of Durham defensive back A.J. Davis to N.C. State, didn't take long to question his own staff's methods.
"The day after the national signing day, we looked at one another, and I certainly looked at myself and said, 'We weren't good enough,'" Bunting said. "We did a good job, but we weren't good enough. So we re-evaluated everything we did."
Now, with 10 early commitments for next season, including two well-regarded quarterbacks and three of the top 10 seniors in North Carolina, the Heels appear to be in good shape. Bunting said the process had been streamlined and recruiting areas reassigned. Part of that shuffling was necessary after the departures of offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell (to Vanderbilt) and defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta (to Georgia Tech). The latter wasn't the greatest recruiting charmer anyway.
"We're much, much more ahead of the game at this point," Bunting said, "because of the way things ended last year."
The way things ended in the final hour of 2001, with the Tar Heels walking amidst shiny confetti on the Georgia Dome turf after a Peach Bowl win over Auburn, Durant figured to be the hands-down starter. Now, with Durant having missed most of spring practice, there's a question - or questions. One quarterback? Two? Rotating? Going with the hot hand?
No matter who plays - Florida transfer C.J. Stephens is getting a strong look, although he has never thrown a college pass - Durant's return gives the Tar Heels stability at the position, one of many on an offense that seems blessed, though not loaded, with options. Both QBs will see time early; if Stephens plays as well on game days as he does in practice, UNC will have a good problem on its hands.
The defense is another story - even Bunting will admit that - but the coach is trying to show confidence in a unit that must replace five NFL draftees (including top-six picks Julius Peppers and Ryan Sims) and two other starters. None of the candidates at linebacker has more than a few inconsequential snaps at the position. But, Bunting said, "I think the athleticism and the speed are equal to what we had (at linebacker) last year."
Senior Malcolm Stewart is looked upon as this year's David Thornton - both were unheralded out of Goldsboro (N.C.) High - but Stewart is just one player and an unproven one. The leading candidates to start at middle linebacker are a redshirt freshman (Doug Justice) and a former walk-on (Sean Williams). The fact that the defensive staff was tinkering with moving safety DeFonte Coleman to linebacker or working out a way to play three safeties and two linebackers underscored the concern.
The Heels also went looking for volunteers at tackle. They moved Chase Page over from the offensive line, brought in South Carolina transfer Carl Smalls and kept converted end Eric Davis on the inside. The interior also welcomed back juniors Donti Coats and Will Chapman, a quality starter who tore knee ligaments last season and missed spring practice, so there is some depth.
Defensive end is another, perhaps more serious, concern. Projected starters Issac Mooring and Jocques Dumas aren't new to live games, but they played last season in the considerable shadow of Peppers. Coaches hope one or both are ready to develop into playmakers. There are no proven reserves behind them.
Safety Dexter Reid and cornerback Michael Waddell anchor what could be an outstanding defensive backfield. Reid is tough and smart, a player who hits bigger than his size (187 pounds) would indicate. Waddell is regarded as NFL material, even though he had no regular-season interceptions last year, and may be the fastest player in the ACC. He has acquired the nickname PBU, a tribute to his 26 pass breakups in two seasons.
"We don't have a chance to be competitive if our secondary doesn't play extremely well," Bunting said. "That is the strength of our defense."
Waddell may see time at punt returner, a spot that would have been reserved for Allen, who averaged 10.3 yards a return last year. Instead, 5-8 sophomore Jarwarski Pollock will get the first look. His moves are proven, but on the practice field alone so far.
Pollock also will add to the depth at receiver, a position that could be a strength for the Heels. Sam Aiken (46 catches, eight TDs) and Chesley Borders (27, four) will start. Aiken made two plays that Bunting believes turned around UNC's 2001 season, first stretching for a first down against Florida State and then leaping over a defender and reaching the ball toward the pylon. One or more true freshmen - Ian Firestone, Michael Gilmore, Derrele Mitchell - also will play.
At tight end, Zach Hilton appears to have taken full advantage of Jeff Connors' strength program, growing to a chiseled 276 pounds. He and Kentucky transfer Bobby Blizzard figure to see time together when coordinator Gary Tranquill wants to go to a power game.
Tranquill may do that more this season with a bigger and more experienced line, which lost talented tackle Greg Woofter, who decided to quit the sport and attend graduate school. New position coach Hal Hunter has a reputation for producing a cohesive and run-effective group of blockers. His first move was switching Jason Brown to center after Brown played tackle as a true freshman last season. Bunting and his staff knew early on that Brown would be an immediate contributor, based on strength alone.
"The thing that was unique about that is you don't see a whole lot of kids coming out of high school with tremendous hip and leg strength," Connors said of Brown, who smashed several team lifting records as a freshman. "Most of the time, they spend a lot of time on the cosmetic weights. ... He's been a good example not only for our freshmen but also our older offensive linemen, because they didn't like getting out-lifted by a freshman."
Hunter also is tinkering with the idea of flopping tackles Skip Seagraves (left, for now) and Willie McNeill. Bunting thinks the interior of the line, with Brown, Jeb Terry and Jupiter Wilson, is solid. They will try to open holes for three tailbacks, none of whom was brilliant last season, but all of whom Bunting likes.
"Andre' Williams got some tough, tough yards for us last season," Bunting said. "Some of those yards were just getting back to the line of scrimmage."
Williams will split time with Willie Parker (131 yards in the Peach Bowl) and sophomore Jacque Lewis. Bunting also plans to give fullback Madison Hedgecock some time in a one-back set and more carries than Hedgecock had last season (one).
Though Bunting has confidence in his receivers, establishing the run was one of his biggest goals when he took over. He insists that a good running team makes the whole program better, because a defense doesn't get tough in practice working against a pass-happy offense. Also, a clock-eating attack would keep a suspect defense off the field.
Other than linebacker and end, the Heels' biggest concern is on special teams, where Michigan State transfer Dan Orner didn't inspire confidence in the spring. (Bunting liked Orner's efforts in the initial August workouts.) The staff gave a scholarship to freshman David Wooldridge, who will challenge for the jobs at punter and kicker. In addition to losing reliable kicker Jeff Reed, UNC also must replace several seniors on coverage units.
Bunting is aware of his team's holes, but he's not planning on slipping after a surprising third-place finish in the ACC last year.
"We know where our weaknesses are," he said. "We think we can have a good training camp and come out of the chute fast. We think we can be a very good football team this year, and if we're not, I'm going to be extremely disappointed. ... My expectations are high."
Others are not so sure, not with so many new faces on defense. Of course, no one thought the Heels had a prayer last year, after an 0-3 start with Florida State next, and few picked them to finish third in the conference.
This year's schedule starts easier - for one, there's two home games in the first three - but UNC is one of a group of teams in the middle of the ACC, behind Florida State and ahead of Duke. The Tar Heels could finish 5-7 or worse if several swing games don't go their way.
A .500 season would sustain the momentum Bunting forged in his first year. Anything better, with so many questions on defense, may signal that UNC is on the way back to its mid-1990s glory days.