2009 UNC Preview….I Like Our Chances
13 Aug 2009
North Carolina’s Campus Correspondent
In his third year at the helm, there is a sense that Butch Davis has North Carolina on the cusp of greatness. Coming off an 8-5 season in which four losses were by a combined nine points, the Tar Heels seem ready to take the next step towards becoming a national power. Led by a fast defense that returns nine starters and a healthy QB in T.J. Yates, Carolina fans feel this team is poised for an ACC title in the near future.
Quarterbacks: It all starts with Yates, who was sidelined for over five games with a broken ankle last year. The Heels were leading Virginia Tech 17-3 when he went down, and a healthy Yates probably would have spelled the difference in a game that carried Coastal Division ramifications. Gone is backup Cam Sexton, who performed exceptionally in Yates’ absence in the middle of the season. While redshirt sophomore Mike Paulus struggled (3-for-8, two picks as the lead dissolved against Virginia Tech), he has a cannon for an arm. Experience should prove valuable for him. Lefty Braden Hansen enters camp third, and freshman A.J. Blue could see some snaps as a Wildcat QB with the ability to throw. Overall, quarterback appears a strength for this team, as Yates can provide leadership and the rest of the guys are immensely talented.
Running backs: Little known fact: UNC has had more 1,000-yard rushers (24) than any program in NCAA history. The last was Jonathan Linton in 1997. Look for that to change this season, as Shaun Draughn rushed for 866 yards in a little over half a season in 2008. If he can hold on to the ball more effectively than he did at times last year, look for him to sneak into the Jonathan Dwyer/C.J. Spiller/Da’Rel Scott caliber of ACC backs. At 245 pounds, Ryan Houston is the perfect thunder to Draughn’s lightning and is an unstoppable force at the goal line. Redshirt freshman Jamal Womble may be the best player at the position for the Tar Heels, as Davis compares him favorably with 49ers star Frank Gore. Fullbacks Anthony Elzy and Bobby Rome are both solid options to make plays in the flats, which should be a more used option with the departure of so many wideouts.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends/H-Backs: Brandon Tate was having the type of season Heisman voters like to see before going down against Notre Dame. Hakeem Nicks was hands down the best wide receiver ever to play at UNC, as he pulled down 68 passes for a school-record 1,222 yards and 12 touchdowns a year ago (217, 3 TDs in the Meineke Car Care Bowl loss to West Virginia alone). TE Robert Quinn and third WR Brooks Foster were NFL draft picks, and slot WR Cooter Arnold made some huge plays down the stretch. All of those players are gone this season, making the passing game the primary focus of the media. While it may not have much experience, the young receiving corps has tons of talent. Junior Greg Little has the most playing time under his belt, and he should start at the ‘X’ position in Carolina’s offense. He will be a matchup nightmare for smaller DBs, as his strength after the catch is phenomenal. ‘Z’ receiver (Nicks’ old position) will likely be manned by sophomore Dwight Jones, who was highly touted coming out of high school. Freshmen Josh Adams, Jheranie Boyd, and Todd Harrelson will also contribute. At tight end, Zack Pianalto returns after missing the second half of the season to injury. H-Back is a hybrid TE/fullback position under offensive coordinator John Shoop’s pro-style attack. Sophomore Christian Wilson needs to improve his blocking, and will be a huge weapon if he can do that. Otherwise, Ryan Taylor will be used there as a blocker and vocal leader.
Offensive Line: This is perhaps the biggest question mark for the Tar Heels. Departed seniors Garrett Reynolds and Calvin Darity made a solid right side, and Aaron Stahl’s surprise decision to graduate left the interior lacking depth. From left to right, the starters should be Kyle Jolly (the anchor), Jonathan Cooper (redshirt freshman that the coaches and players have raved about), Lowell Dyer, Alan Pelc, and Mike Ingersoll. The five have 52 starts between them. Depth is a concern. Cam Holland, Kevin Bryant, and Carl Gaskins are all versatile, but have 13 career appearances combined. Talented true freshmen Travis Bond and Brennan Williams (an Army All-American) may be forced into spot duty.
Defensive Line: Carolina has produced more than its share of NFL-caliber talent over the years on the defensive line, and this group of players certainly has a few players who will play on Sundays. On the inside, Marvin Austin’s production went down last season, but his presence caused double teams and freed up other players to make plays. Look for a breakout season from him. Massive Cam Thomas could be a 3-4 nose tackle on the next level, and will start alongside Austin. Backing them up are pass-rushing specialists Aleric Mullins and Tydreke Powell, both of whom also have NFL potential. Besides E.J. Wilson, all of the ends that contributed last year were true freshmen. Robert Quinn (who started 11 games) and backups Michael McAdoo and Quinton Coples will benefit from a year of strength and conditioning. Both McAdoo and Coples reported to camp 20 pounds heavier. True freshman Donte Paige-Moss, who was ranked as the nation’s No. 1 defensive end in the incoming class, will probably see a lot of action in passing situations. The development of this group and its ability to produce pressure will be the key to the success of UNC’s D.
Linebacker: As of right now, this is the strength of the team. Quan Sturdivant will slide over to the middle after leading the nation in solo tackles last season. Next to him is strong-side LB and fellow junior Bruce Carter, who blocked an NCAA-record four consecutive punts over two games last year. Stepping in on the weak-side is sophomore Zach Brown, who has exceptional speed. The trio makes up possibly the fastest group of linebackers in the country; expect a lot of big plays to be made by this group. Backing them up is a slew of underclassmen. Herman Davidson, Dion Guy, Hawatha Bell, and Linwan Euwell continue the speed theme on the outside.
Defensive backs: More juniors roam the field here. The self-proclaimed “Rude Boyz” return three starters, but lost Trimaine Goddard who was a second-team All-America with seven interceptions. While the numbers were gaudy, many would say his replacement, Da’Norris Searcy, is an upgrade. He is stronger and faster than Goddard and recorded 10 tackles in the bowl game. FS Deunta Williams is a hard hitter and is among the best three safeties in the ACC (along with Georgia Tech’s Morgan Burnett and Virginia Tech’s Kam Chancellor). Boundary corner Kendric Burney is the prototypical shutdown CB and is a preseason All-ACC pick. The biggest question is whether holdover Jordan Hemby or Charles Brown, who struggled with injuries last year, will play the cover corner. In passing situations, Brown will almost certainly move to the nickel-back slot, as he is more physical than Hemby. LeCount Fantroy and a bevy of freshmen will back up this group. At safety, Deunta Williams calls his backup, senior Melvin Williams, the hardest hitter on the team. Backup SS Matt Merletti is a special teams whiz, and reportedly benched 225 pounds 25 times in summer workouts. The success of this unit will correlate directly with the line’s ability to get pressure.
Sophomore Casey Barth should handle the kicking duties, marking the sixth straight year a Barth has held place-kicking duties for the Tar Heels. The 6’7″ Grant Shallock seems the heir apparent at punter, where Terrence Brown leaves after a successful two-year career. Also in the mix is freshman C.J. Feagles, the son of longtime NFL punter Jeff Feagles. The return game is still a bit in flux after the loss of Brandon Tate, but Johnny White and Little did a respectable job filling in on kickoff returns in 2008. There is no telling who will return punts. Kendric Burney is a possibility if the coaches trust him not to get hurt pulling double duty.