July 20, 2005
CHAPEL HILL - North Carolina football coach John Bunting, a former NFL linebacker, made a long pro career for himself mainly by combining his brains and brawn and consistently being in the right place at the right time. He didn't overwhelm anyone with his speed or athleticism, but he worked hard and prepared even harder.
Much of the same could be said about first-year UNC linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen, another former All-ACC linebacker (1990-92) known for getting the most out of his ability. He was leaner and faster than Bunting, but his greatest attributes were his character, work ethic and competitiveness. Thigpen, who signed with the Tar Heels after they went 1-10 under coach Mack Brown in 1988, helped energize a program that improved from 1-10 in 1989 to 9-3 and a Peach Bowl victory in 1992.
Entering the 2005 season, Bunting, Thigpen and defensive coordinator Marvin Sanders are hoping that UNC's returning linebacker corps can be a key to another revival. After going 3-9 in 2003 and 2-10 in 2004, the Tar Heels improved to 6-6 last fall. The team's defense again was poor statistically, but nevertheless there were noticeable improvements (speed, toughness, discipline) from the disasters of the previous two seasons.
Now, with productive quarterback Darian Durant off to the NFL, a heavier burden is likely to fall on the Carolina defense. Will it be ready?
Fortunately for UNC fans, the Carolina coaches feel good about their depth at linebacker entering August camp, perhaps moreso than at any other position on either side of the ball. That certainly wasn't the case during Bunting's first four seasons in Chapel Hill, when the unit's lack of speed often was exposed on the perimeter, sometimes in embarrassing fashion.
The projected starters for 2005 are senior Jeff Longhany on the strong side, senior Doug Justice in the middle, and senior Tommy Richardson on the weak side. That's a lot of experience, although speed remains a question. Justice is one of the smartest players on the team, and Richardson gradually has developed into the team leader the staff once envisioned on the recruiting trail.
"Experience means everything," Bunting said. "We all want guys who can run, and you can never underestimate the importance of that. But when you're smart and you have some experience under your belt, you can see things on film, see things before the snap, anticipate better, hit the gaps quicker, make the right reads more often, make fewer mistakes. It doesn't matter how fast you are if you don't know where you're going."
One thing that's definitely different this year for the Tar Heels is their depth. The team's three second-team linebackers, junior Larry Edwards (strong side), junior Victor Worsley (middle) and redshirt freshman Chase Rice (weak side), all are viewed a potential stars. Edwards, who flashed NFL-like ability as a freshman before falling back in 2004, was one of the most impressive performers during spring practice. Worsley finally has recovered from a series of injury problems. Rice needs more strength but often displays the kind of speed and acceleration that once made Thigpen famous.
"We could play the starters for 40 plays and the (backups) for 30 this year," Bunting said. "We haven't been able to do that (in recent years). I feel very good about that group."
OFFENSIVE LINE MUST STAY HEALTHY
Nowhere will the Tar Heels' fine line between winning and losing be more evident this fall than with the team's starting blockers across the front: senior left tackle Brian Chacos, sophomore left guard Charlston Gray, sophomore center Ben Lemming, senior right guard Kyle Ralph and senior right tackle Skip Seagraves.
It has a chance to be an outstanding group. Ralph earned All-ACC recognition last season. Chacos and Seagraves, a sixth-year player who missed most of 2004 with a broken foot, are reliable blockers with lots of starting experience who recently earned Super Ram status (the highest achievement level) for their performances in the team's offseason conditioning program. Gray started in 2004 as a redshirt freshman. Lemming, the team's third tackle last fall, moved to center in the spring and has drawn raves for his toughness and intelligence, although his technique remains a work in progress.
UNC's coaches firmly believe that if the starting five can stay healthy, it will be plenty good enough to take some pressure off new starting QB Matt Baker, open holes for the tailbacks, and ultimately prove to be one of the strengths of the team. At the same time, everyone realizes that the Heels may be one injury away from disaster in the trenches.
"I've told them that, much like last year, they have a chance to be a big part of the foundation for this football team," Bunting said. "We also realize that we need to develop more depth there. We had three or four (backup linemen) who were coming along, but they're not going to be able to help us this year."
After losing All-ACC center Jason Brown to the NFL draft and starting tackle Willie McNeill to graduation, Carolina watched helplessly as three young blockers went down with serious injuries. Bunting used the term "shattered" to describe the broken foot of freshman Calvin Darity, a prep All-American from Florida whose career may be in jeopardy. Bryon Bishop (back) and Scott Lenahan (knee, wrist), another player the staff really liked, also missed all or most of spring practice. None of the three returning players is expected to be ready this fall. Most recently, Donnell Livingston, a converted defensive tackle who was listed as a second-team guard coming out of spring practice, announced (in mid-July) his decision to transfer to a Division I-AA program in search of more playing time.
Respected line coach Hal Hunter, who clearly has proven to be one of the best hires of the Bunting era, has said that very few college football teams have more than eight blockers who have the combination of strength, smarts, experience and athleticism needed to succeed at the Division I-A level. But that's the dream scenario.
Hunter would be thrilled to have eight reliable linemen, and he has had seasons when his unit was able to be productive with only seven. Given the dangerous nature of football, six is a troublesome number, and five is almost never enough. Unfortunately for Hunter, right now quality depth in Chapel Hill is impossible to find.
The only second-team lineman with any significant ACC experience is center/guard Steven Bell, who was viewed as a possible starter before missing half of spring practice while recovering from foot surgery. Tackle Kendall High, a converted defensive lineman who started in the spring with Seagraves on the sidelines, qualifies as the seventh man by default.
Bunting has said that you can never count on true freshmen to help on the offensive line, but Lemming turned the trick (with limited success) in 2004. Among this year's rookies, tackle Garrett Reynolds appears to have the best shot at making an early contribution.