August 27, 2005
The Big Picture
North Carolina Insider: Updates / Analysis
CHAPEL HILL --The only thing more surprising than North Carolina's victory against Miami and the Tar Heels' subsequent run to a 6-5 regular-season record a year ago will be if UNC somehow can find a way to do it again.
One could have made an argument before last season that UNC would be better than most people predicted. The Tar Heels had an All-American center, a record-setting quarterback and a talented trio of running backs to go with a slew of playmakers at wide receiver. The running game had come around halfway through 2003, and the defense certainly could not get much worse.
This is a new day, though.
"This group is excited about what they did last year, but at the same time they realize that is over with," fifth-year UNC coach John Bunting said. "I showed them about a 50-second clip with our first team meeting and simply said, "That was 2004, it's over with, it's done. This is your time.'"
While it may be time for this year's players, are these the players for the moment?
Nobody is sure what the Tar Heels have as far as true talent. Fifth-year senior Matt Baker is the quarterback, but no one -- from Baker to the coaching staff to the receivers who catch the ball can be sure what he will do now that his time finally has arrived.
"It is a little different (with a new QB)," Bunting said. "That's not a big deal. I have a tremendous amount of confidence in Matt Baker. The fact he has less experience than the previous guy, there is no way to explain what that means other than the fact that he hasn't done it. He can do it. The players have confidence in him. The routes aren't going to change. Matt has plenty of zip on that ball. It's a matter of getting that feel. It's a matter of getting into the game and doing it."
Yes, there has been plenty of positive talk. There always is, no matter what team is talking. There are no defeats in the summer. What are Bunting and Baker supposed to say, that they can't do it?
"Each game, I'll gain more confidence as I see more defenses," Baker said, "and I can definitely take a hit. I like getting hit; sometimes I wish they would hit me a little more in practice and feel like I'm in a football game."
Given the poundings Ronald Curry and Darian Durant often took for the Tar Heels in recent years, Baker had better be careful for what he wishes. The only thing more in doubt than Baker are his completely unproven, untested backups.
"I can't get hurt," Baker said.
Maybe not, but few teams make it through a season with one quarterback anymore. The players are so big and fast, the collisions can be devastating, especially when a QB is standing in the pocket taking clear shots.
The recent past also shows how difficult life can be for a quarterback who has a poor running game or a weak offensive line. Over the last year and a half, the o-line developed into the strength of Carolina's team, leading to an improved running and passing attack. Durant was especially effective when he could operate from a successful play-action game.
Nevertheless, graduation, injuries and attrition have made UNC's running game suspect heading into this season, despite another potentially strong line.
Sophomore Barrington Edwards, an LSU transfer and one-time prep All-American, claimed the tailback job in August by default. He may well have won the job on performance, but there is no doubt that the coaches would have preferred that he compete with respected junior Ronnie McGill. That will not happen, however, because McGill (torn biceps) has been injured once again. A strong and gifted runner who once produced more than 200 yards in a conference game, McGill has been dogged by a variety of injuries since he arrived at UNC.
"I'm concerned about the depth," Bunting said. "It's a doggone shame that happened to McGill. He is a great kid. He is a tough kid. He always does all the right things."
In seven games as a sophomore, McGill ran for 419 yards on 79 carries. He scored five touchdowns and averaged 5.3 yards per carry. He played in 12 games as a true freshman, leading the team with 654 yards on 128 carries and scoring seven TDs. He appeared to be on his way to stardom.
With McGill hurt and Jacque Lewis and Chad Scott lost to graduation, Vince Wilson appeared to be the top backup to Edwards. Then Wilson decided in August to transfer. He apparently differed with Bunting on the requirements to succeed on and off the field at UNC.
"Vince Wilson has got some things he's got to do to improve and show that he belongs on that field," Bunting said before Wilson's announcement. "Number one, he's got to know what to do. He's got to learn how to be involved in all the pass protections. He's got to learn to catch the ball well. He's got to learn to do the things on and off the field that I expect from our football players."
Losing players to attrition isn't new to Bunting's program. One night after Carolina defeated N.C. State in an emotional game at Kenan Stadium last fall, three of the key young players on the team were charged with marijuana possession. Eventually, all three wide receiver Adarius Bowman, linebacker Fred Sparkman and defensive tackle Isaiah Thomas were dismissed. Later, defensive lineman Terry Hunter was suspended indefinitely after he was charged for driving without a license and marijuana possession.
Those four players were among the top young talents on the roster, and they once helped to make up the core of the best recruiting class Bunting has signed. The team overcame the losses of Bowman, Sparkman and Thomas to beat Miami last season, but their absences could hurt this year's team even more.
Bunting said the troubles of the last year, on and off the field, should only make his team tougher and better able to withstand the unexpected.
"I expect us to be able to overcome adversity because it happens in every single game," Bunting said. "It pops up sometimes in the worst possible time. It can pop up at the beginning of a week's practice. It can pop up, we found out last year, on a Sunday night after a huge win. I don't want to have those things, but sometimes adversity pops up at the worst time. What this coaching staff has been able to do and these players have been able to do is overcome some. Therefore, I think we are ready to go and have a very good year."
Who knows, they just may do that. But can anyone predict success, with so many holes to fill and so little success in the last several years?
This is particularly true on defense. Even if Baker somehow has a tremendous year and Edwards turns into a star, will that be enough if the defense continues to rank among the worst in America?
Since Julius Peppers, Ryan Sims and several other future pros roamed the field on defense in 2001, Carolina has been horrific on that side of the ball. UNC has finished among the worst in the country on defense since leading the ACC during Bunting's first season.
Bunting has been a defensive-oriented player and coach throughout his career, but he has yet to prove he can do what's necessary to recruit and build an adequate defense on the collegiate level. The defense did get better last season at times, but it finished the season still ranked worse than 108 other Division I-A teams.
"Last year I said we wanted to be as simple as we could possibly be, so we would make fewer mistakes," Bunting said. "We made too many mistakes the year before. Now we want to add some additional wrinkles to our defense. Still, you need to be fundamentally sound and make all of your assignments. We have to do it right. I don't want to overload our players, but I think we're experienced enough to add to our defense."
The Tar Heels may be talented enough, too. Despite attrition, several years of solid recruiting has put a deeper, faster group of players on the field for the coaches to teach.
"We've improved the team speed over the years, and this group of freshmen is no different," Bunting said. "The linebackers, DBs, wide receivers have got the speed and size we need to compete in this league."
Perhaps, but is there enough talent from top to bottom? Who honestly knows, with a schedule that many rank as the toughest in the country?
The ACC now can claim to be as difficult as any in college football. In addition to away games against Miami, Virginia Tech and archrival N.C. State, Carolina will play Louisville, Wisconsin and Utah in non-conference competition.
"Just like showing our players a minute or so of last year's highlights, I also showed them our schedule one last time," Bunting said. "I said: Here it is. This motivated you, it motivated me. We're done looking at it and talking about it.' We've got one game in mind, and it's Georgia Tech. We're going to training camp with one thing in mind opening at Georgia Tech in the best possible condition, in the best possible football mentality, with a great game plan and ready to win."
Whether this team is capable of fulfilling all of its ambitions will remain a mystery until that kickoff on Sept. 10, and maybe even for several weeks beyond, given the history and results of UNC football since the 2001 team finished off Auburn in the Peach Bowl.
Such is the state of this program in 2005.
The Big Picture
UNC, now seven seasons removed from back-to-back top-10 finishes under Mack Brown, picked a bad time to hit a lull. Fifth-year coach John Bunting, a Carolina alum, is well-liked by just about everyone, but his difficult adjustment to the college game (staff-building, recruiting, player relations, etc.) from the NFL clearly damaged the program, just in time for the unique challenges posed by ACC expansion. Bunting appears to have a better grasp of the details now, and an unexpected bowl trip last season did wonders for morale, but the Tar Heels enter 2005 with an unspectacular talent base, huge questions at key positions, very little depth along both lines, and yet another brutal schedule. If UNC can't surprise again this fall, the resulting snowball could be ugly.
At some schools (e.g., FSU), even players charged with serious felonies don't miss any playing time, as long as they manage to plead down to misdemeanors by game day. Bunting's approach to discipline tends to fall at the other end of the spectrum, as shown by his handling of three talented but troubled players over the last year. The charge faced by wideout Adarius Bowman, linebacker Fred Sparkman and defensive tackle Isaiah Thomas all projected starters was marijuana possession, which ranks barely above jaywalking in the eyes of many coaches. Yet all three received the most serious form of punishment possible from Bunting: permanent dismissal. Sources said the players' attitudes after their problems had as much to do with their exits as the charges against them.
Done For Me Lately
Year ACC Overall Postseason
1995 4-4 (5) 7-5 Carquest Bowl (W)
1996 6-2 (2) 10-2 Gator Bowl (W)
1997 7-1 (2) 11-1 Gator Bowl (W)
1998 5-3 (4) 7-5 Las Vegas (W)
1999 2-6 (8) 3-8 None
2000 3-5 (6) 6-5 None
2001 5-3 (3) 8-5 Peach Bowl (W)
2002 1-7 (8) 3-9 None
2003 1-7 (9) 2-10 None
2004 5-3 (3) 6-6 Continental Tire (L)
ACC: 39-41 (.488)
Overall: 63-56 (.529)
Bunting and veteran offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill are firm believers in old-fashioned football, where the ability to run the ball and physically dominate foes up front serves as the foundation for all good things. That's exactly what UNC did last fall in its shocking upset of Miami, among other games. Four starters on the line this year have extensive starting experience, including standouts Kyle Ralph at guard and Brian Chacos at tackle. If the first-teamers can stay healthy, they'll give the newcomers at quarterback and tailback a fighting chance to show their stuff.
Coming On Strong
Starting tailback Barrington Edwards, an LSU transfer and former prep All-American, is a natural runner who did some amazing things on the scout team last year and again in August. He still gets lost in the details (pass protection, etc.) at times, but his pure running skills are impressive. Also: experienced receiving corps; still-slow but evolving six-man linebacker rotation; kicker Connor Barth; cornerback Jacoby Watkins.
Cause For Concern?
The most damning pieces of evidence against Bunting, after his four-plus years in Chapel Hill, are these: (1) quarterback and tailback remain potential disaster areas, and (2) the defense (the coach's specialty) can't seem to rise above 100th in the nation. If senior Matt Baker isn't ready at QB and the defense doesn't improve dramatically, 1-10 will be very possible for this team. With Ronnie McGill hurt at tailback, another vital position falls to a bunch of new/young guys who regularly show their inexperience.
The Whole Truth
"What this coaching staff and these players have been able to do is overcome some adversity. That is why I think we are ready for a very good year."
-- North Carolina coach John Bunting
CHART BY: THE UNC INSIDER
NORTH CAROLINA INSIDER: UPDATES / ANALYSIS
Entering his fifth year at UNC, coach John Bunting has never had the same group of assistants for two seasons in a row. The most recent departures, Gunter Brewer (receivers) and James Webster (special teams), sounded some alarms because both had been with Bunting since his arrival in Chapel Hill and both left under odd circumstances.
Brewer, son of former Mississippi coach Billy Brewer, was extremely well-liked at UNC and was regarded as one of the team's best recruiters. A holdover from coach Carl Torbush's staff, Brewer turned down several job offers during his four years under Bunting. When Brewer left this year for Oklahoma State, the early word was that his jump was understandable because he would be receiving a promotion in title along with a pay raise. Perhaps he got more money, which would be alarming in itself, but Brewer's title at OSU is the same as at UNC receivers coach. That makes three quality aides who have left the Tar Heels voluntarily over the last four years without getting a significant promotion: Brewer, offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell (Vanderbilt) and defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta (Georgia Tech).
Webster, a teammate of Bunting's at UNC from 1969-71 who joined his original staff in 2001, did leave for a significant promotion. He's the first-year head coach at Division I-AA Tennessee State. The strange aspect of Webster's departure was that Bunting apparently was unaware of his assistant's candidacy at TSU, given his surprised reaction to a reporter's question on the topic. Contrary to popular belief, Bunting and Webster were not life-long friends, despite their college connection. In fact, they went almost 30 years without seeing each other in person after graduating. Nevertheless, it can't be a good sign when an assistant is interviewing for another job without informing the head coach about it. Another concern is that someone else now must master the Heels' special teams, an area Webster was able to solidify after taking over in 2003.
Despite the continuing turn-over, the Tar Heels actually may come out ahead. In fact, some believe that Bunting finally has his best staff in place, with both the right people and the most appropriate assignments. The coach hired Dave Brock (receivers) from Temple and former UNC star linebacker Tommy Thigpen (linebackers) from Illinois to fill his vacancies, and he shuffled the rest of his aides in a way that may work well for the future.
Bunting still feels very good about 65-year-old Gary Tranquill at offensive coordinator and 37-year-old Marvin Sanders at defensive coordinator, although Tranquill has contemplated retirement almost annually since 2000. Fourth-year offensive line coach Hal Hunter also has proven to be an outstanding hire. Last year's co-defensive coordinator, former Minnesota head coach John Gutekunst, moved to tight ends this year. That enabled respected 12th-year UNC assistant Ken Browning to move back to defensive tackles, a position he directed with great success from 1994-2000.
Fifth-year running backs coach Andre' Powell, whose performance to this point could be called a mixed bag, will take on the additional responsibilities of special teams this season. That will be one area worth watching, as will Thigpen's potentially vital role as a liaison between Bunting and the players. The communication lines often broke down when the man in charge was Webster, a veteran coach with an often-surly demeanor whom many players grew to dislike. Thigpen, 34 and personable, seems far more likely to be able to strike a healthy balance between good cop and bad cop, an element that often has been missing since Donnie Thompson served under Mack Brown and Torbush in the 1990s.