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Bunting Era Needs Quick Improvement

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

  September 6, 2004 CHAPEL HILL — Over the last two years in Chapel Hill, the North Carolina football team has not improved much, if at all, during the course of the season. Anyone who watched UNC's 49-38 victory over William & Mary in the 2004 opener knows that, barring significant improvement by the Tar Heels over the next several weeks and months, there will be no 2005 season for fourth-year coach John Bunting.

During Bunting's first season at his alma mater, in 2001, the Heels started 0-3 but finished with an 8-2 run, including a Peach Bowl victory over Auburn. Even their two late losses that season were by a combined eight points. But in 2002, the defense never got better from August through November, and the offense actually regressed. In 2003, Carolina was bad at the beginning, bad in the middle and bad at the end.

Undoubtedly, some positives emerged from the William & Mary win. Faced with dire circumstances — a minus-four turnover margin, a small but sometimes hostile (booing) home crowd, a 10-point halftime deficit and some unfortunate bounces — the Heels didn't point fingers and didn't panic. Sideline observers described their second-half demeanor as poised and "business-like," and the home team avoided the embarrassment of similar games in Kenan Stadium that deteriorated into losses against Miami-Ohio (1998), Houston (1999), Furman (1999) and Miami-Ohio (2002).

The Tribe had no answer for the efficient passing of senior quarterback Darian Durant or the blocking of UNC's veteran offensive line, and the Tar Heels calmly came back and even built a comfortable 18-point lead before the game's last play.

In a slight surprise, Carolina started five seniors (center Jason Brown, tight end Scott Brumett, fullback Madison Hedgecock, left tackle Willie McNeill, right tackle Skip Seagraves) and two juniors (guard Brian Chacos and Kyle Ralph) in the key blocking positions, and they absolutely manhandled W&M's defensive front. Tailbacks Ronnie McGill (13-133), Jacque Lewis (15-123) and Chad Scott (11-75) all ran wild, as Bunting finally saw the combination of huge holes and tough running he's been seeking for four years. Nobody enjoys that style of football more than Bunting, offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill and offensive line coach Hal Hunter.

The problem for the Tar Heels offensively was that they continued to make the kinds of mistakes that will cost them in close games and against better competition. Durant, Lewis and walk-on tight end Justin Phillips — two seniors and a junior — all lost fumbles, in each case when the ball-carrier had time to secure the ball and anticipate contact. Lewis' fumble came at the Tribe's one-yard line. Durant's fumble resulted in a four-yard TD drive for the opposition. He also threw an interception that the Tribe returned to UNC's two-yard line, although the defense limited W&M to a field goal that time.

Defensively, the Heels did appear quicker, but they still gave up 38 points to a Division I-AA team. That's never a good sign. It was difficult to gauge the results of the team's "simplified" scheme, but the home fans grew restless on the several occasions when the W&M offense snapped the ball before the Heels' defenders were set. Again, Carolina failed to produce even a single turnover.

After the game, Bunting mentioned that he was proud of his guys, in part because teams with a minus-four turnover margin win only 10 percent of the time. That same number may have been a good estimate for how often the Tar Heels would beat an ACC opponent with the kind of performance they had against William & Mary.

Some Things Appeared Different

One of the legitimate arguments offered by Bunting supporters is that the coach, after completely revamping his staff's approach to recruiting in the spring of 2002, somehow managed to sign (by some accounts) back-to-back top-25 classes in 2003 and 2004. He did that despite posting 3-9 and 2-10 marks on the field in the months leading up to those signing days, a remarkable accomplishment under very difficult circumstances.

The skeptics, of course, have seen too many prep All-Americans wash out in Chapel Hill over the years. (Does anyone remember Ravon Anderson, Andre Barkley or Domonique Williams?) Understandably, they want to see a higher level of athleticism on game days, with potential translating into actual production by the newcomers on the field.

Bunting said after the William & Mary game that he saw more UNC defenders "flying around the ball" than in the past two seasons, a phrase he used often during spring practice and preseason camp. Indeed, the Tar Heels did appear to be faster on defense, although they still continued two alarming trends from the horrendous Dave Huxtable era — missing a lot of tackles and giving up huge chunks of yardage on the perimeter.

Nevertheless, a handful of players from Carolina's last two recruiting classes do appear to be legitimate examples of an improving talent base in Chapel Hill.

Placekicker Connor Barth, one of nine true freshmen to play in the opener, impressed his coaches and teammates in August with his confidence and performances (55-yard field goal range) on the practice field. A prep All-American from Wilmington, he showed no signs of butterflies against William & Mary, smoothly converting all seven extra-point attempts and executing well on kickoffs. He booted six of his eight kickoffs inside the Tribe's three-yard line, causing two touchbacks, and put plenty of air under the ball in the process. That gave the Tar Heels' coverage team plenty of time to get downfield, and the Tribe's average starting point after Barth's kicks was its own 20-yard line. That can make a huge difference in a close game.

Receiver Adarius Bowman, a true sophomore, led the Heels with six receptions for 61 yards and a touchdown in the opener. One of 12 true freshmen to play in 2003, he has outstanding size (6-4, 217), reliable hands and good speed. A consensus prep All-American from Tennessee, he caught only 10 passes for 181 yards and two TDs last fall, and he was part of a young and talented bunch that often complained about the division of playing time at wideout. Bowman considered a transfer during the offseason but now is pressing up-and-down junior Derrele Mitchell for a starting position.

Defensive tackle Shelton Bynum, a true sophomore, beat out sophomore Isaiah Thomas and true freshman Khalif Mitchell for a starting spot in August. Bynum, a 6-5, 300-pounder from the Atlanta area, had three tackles against William & Mary and disrupted several other plays with his penetration into the backfield. While he's still a bit raw on the field, the UNC coaches have been so impressed with his character and work ethic that they invited him during the offseason to join numerous upperclassmen in the athletic department's leadership program.

Tailback Ronnie McGill, a true sophomore, rushed 13 times for 133 yards and three touchdowns — all in the fourth quarter — despite leaving the William & Mary game twice with injuries. Nicknamed "The Franchise" by his teammates, the humble 5-11, 210-pounder from South Carolina had serious problems with cramping last season but was at his best late in the opener and announced himself fit for Virginia. Perhaps the best example on the roster of Bunting's eye for lesser-known talent, McGill had scholarship offers only from Duke and Vanderbilt before committing to the Tar Heels.

Safety Gerald Sensabaugh, a senior transfer from East Tennessee State who arrived at UNC in January, already is a leader on and off the field for the Heels. One of the team's best athletes and a tenacious hitter, he was second on the team with nine tackles against the Tribe. Along with co-coordinators John Gutekunst and Marvin Sanders, Sensabaugh spoke to the defense at halftime, when Carolina trailed 24-14. The Heels gave up only seven second-half points before a meaningless TD on the game's last play. A Division I-AA All-American last season, Sensabaugh continues a tradition of effective transfers under Bunting that also includes former tight end Bobby Blizzard, former kicker Dan Orner and tailback Chad Scott.

Middle linebacker Fred Sparkman, a true sophomore, showed exactly the kind of speed and athleticism against W&M that the Heels desperately have been lacking on defense. He finished the game with a team-high 14 tackles, plus three quarterback hurries, while calling the defensive signals in his first college start. A consensus prep All-American from Tennessee, Sparkman played mainly on special teams last fall but easily beat out slow-footed veteran Doug Justice for a starting job this spring. Like most second-year players, Sparkman still has a lot to learn, but his talent and production offer some hope.