Saturday, August 15, 2009

North Carolina Preview: Tar Heels Looking To Climb ACC Ladder

Nothing is finer than Carolina

Butch Davis begins his third season in Chapel Hill with a stable of talent that could contend for an ACC Championship. The Tar Heels are some people's dark horse in the Coastal Division, but have five road games versus bowl teams a year ago. To get more insight into North Carolina, I asked Michael Felder of In The Bleachers and Bleacher Report.

Carolina looked like a different team last year with TJ Yates at QB. If he gets hurt again, will Davis call on Paulus again or look elsewhere?

The short answer is yes; Paulus is currently the number two in training camp. However, after Paulus’ two quarter implosion running from the Virginia Tech loss to the opening of the Miami game there are plenty of questions surrounding the sophomore’s ability to lead an offense. Gone is the experienced back up plan, Cam Sexton, who led the Heels to a 5-2 record in Yates’ absence.

Highly touted freshmen Bryn Renner and AJ Blue have gotten their first collegiate reps, but the true test for Paulus’ title as #2 will be Braden Hanson. The 6’6” lanky redshirt freshman looked solid in the spring game (5-6, 55 yds, 1TD) and bears an eerie resemblance to one, Ken Dorsey. Hanson is unproven but he’ll be the one to push Paulus in the fall for the back up quarterback position.

UNC is second all time in 1,000 yard rushers with 24. Does Shaun Draughn become number 25 this year or does he have to split carries too much?

Hopefully Draughn can help get the Heels back to the form of the old “Running Back U” by ascending to that 1,000 yard mark last topped by Jonathan Linton in 1997. After gaining a paltry 97 yards in the first four contests during the “Greg Little RB Experiment” the converted safety went on to gain 801 yards in the final nine games.

This season Draughn’s the fulltime starter and he’ll be spelled by Jamal Womble, a promising redshirt freshman from Arizona and the bruiser Ryan Houston. If Shaun Draughn can stay healthy and the offensive line gels Draughn should be able to put his name up with the likes of Kelvin Bryant, Ethan Horton, Natrone Means and Don McCauley.

The top three pass catchers are gone from last year. Who is going to step up as the go to guy?

Losing three NFL caliber players in one season is never easy to overcome; losing three players from the same position group to the league is even more difficult to surmount. Early in the season Greg Little; the converted running back reconverted to receiver, will have to take the lead in being Yates’ go to guy. Look for Zack Pianalto, a talented and experienced option at the tight end position to get an increased role as well as Anthony Elzy and Shaun Draughn out of the backfield.

As the season progresses I expect some combination of Dwight Jones, Jheranie Boyd, Joshua Adams and Todd Harrelson to step up and emerge as a true receiving threat. All are highly touted, big physical receivers similar to the best Butch Davis coached around.

The offensive line took a hit with the loss of potential starter Aaron Stahl. Can this unit still improve on the 123 ypg rushing and 28 sacks allowed last year?

In my opinion losing Aaron Stahl was the biggest loss for the roster in the last twelve months. The Heels lost his senior leadership, his ability to anchor the left side of the offensive line as well as the experience that he brought to the table. Although Greg Elleby and freshman Jonathan Cooper are physically more impressive than Stahl could ever hope to be, they are also unproven and inexperienced commodities.

The good news is seniors Kyle Jolly, Lowell Dyer do return to be calming influences on the young line and the added experience of last season’s top reserve Alan Pelc should help with stability. Mike Ingersoll steps into a full time starter’s role at left tackle and at just over 300 lbs the junior has finally began to truly grow into his 6’5” frame. Davis will have to play some of the youth behind these five to reach the eight man core that he’d prefer but the line has a tremendous upside in terms of the size, strength and athleticism the unit possesses.

TJ Yates hopes the line can protect him this well again

The defense improved in year one under DC Everett Withers. With 9 starters back and all four defensive lineman, can this defense be the best in the ACC?

Yes, potentially this unit could be the ACC’s best. However, in reality they are still a few pieces away from being the aggressive, intimidating units that were Davis’ hallmark during his years at Miami and Dallas. The defensive line should be much improved over the meager 22 sacks of a season ago as Robert Quinn, Michael McAdoo and Quinton Coples are a year older, a year stronger and better conditioned for the grind of a college season.

At linebacker speed is the name of the game as Quan Sturdivant, Bruce Carter anchor a core of young backers that can fly to the football. While Carter and Sturdivant are fast new comer brings Zach Brown a nasty, hard hitting attitude along with his 4.3 speed. I expect the Tar Heels defense to improve against the pass and run due largely in part to marked improvement along the defensive front.

NCAA interception leader Trimane Goddard is gone. Who is the leading candidate to step up in his place in the secondary?

Da’Norris Searcy is set to take over Goddard’s spot at Strong Safety in the Tar Heels’ secondary however, replacing Trimane is more than just being on the field. Goddard was a coach on the field who, along with MLB Mark Paschal, kept the defense focused and made the big play when the Heels needed him most. Searcy has tremendous shoes to fill from a tackling, interception and statistical stand point but the leading candidate to fill Trimane’s role as the leader in the back end is Deunta Williams.

Entering his third year as a starter it is time for the former ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year to show why he’s been rated as one of the nation’s top NFL safety prospects. While Trimane was an undersized player who more than made up for his lack of size with instincts and toughness, Williams has the size and speed to truly live up to the lofty expectations heaped upon him after his stellar freshman campaign.

Butch Davis has recruited very well since arriving in Chapel Hill. Who are the freshman (redshirt and true) that will make a significant impact this year?

This is a list that is just exciting to start to look at; names like Jheranie Boyd, Joshua Adams and Jamal Womble have already been mentioned earlier for the offense.

However, the name that will draw the most excitement is Donte Moss. The highly touted defensive end out of Jacksonville, NC was a beast not only in his high school but he also put on a tremendous showing in the Army All-American Game. Coach John Blake has plenty of talent on the defensive line but Donte Moss is a special player that will find his way on to the field and should end up in the middle of some big plays.

We know Duke is the top rival in basketball, but does that carry over to football where the Blue Devils are not nearly as successful?

Not really, the Duke game is special to players if for nothing more than keeping the Victory Bell in Chapel Hill. In terms of rivalries the NC State game is probably the biggest, especially after last years 41-10 debacle on the Heels’ home field. Butch Davis has dropped two straight to the Wolfpack and the Tar Heel faithful are growing restless as their program works to move forward but the nagging voice from twenty minutes away keeps whispering, “yeah, but we beat you this year.”

UNC is picked anywhere from first to fourth in the Coastal Division. Where do you see the Heels ending up record wise (overall and ACC)?

I think we’re going to be dealing with a much improved Heels team, especially on defense and in the running back department. With that said I see the tough back to back October Thursday nights, at Ga Tech, at NC State and Miami at home as the five situation critical games. I think a better overall team but a very similar 8-4 record, the caveat being the Heels lose to quality ball clubs this season not the Maryland and Virginia losses of a season ago.

My Thoughts on North Carolina...
I really like the talent level Butch Davis has at North Carolina now. I think they might be a favorite in the Atlantic Division, but they are stuck in the Coastal with Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech. On offense, if they can keep Yates upright I think the offense can be improved over a year ago. Shaun Draughn really came on at the end of the year establishing himself as a top back in the conference. Replacing three starters on the line is a concern though as is losing the top three receivers; but like I said, Davis has built depth now.

On the other side, the Heels may have the best defensive line in the conference with the entire two deep back and former Oklahoma head coach John Blake as their position coach. The pass defense, which really struggled down the stretch last year, needs to improve to take UNC to the next level defensively.

The schedule is tough with Carolina facing five bowl teams on the road. It will be very tough to win back to back Thursday games against FSU and VT, but if they do this team could position itself very well in the conference race. The talent level is here for a title run, but I am not convinced Davis is the kind of coach on game day to beat the more talented teams.

Butch Davis does not particularly care for my prediction

My Prediction...
7-5, 4-4, Bowl Game

Vegas Odds:
BCS Championship 50/1
ACC Championship 8/1 (tied for sixth)
Win Total - 8

Thanks again to Michael for his insight. You can check out his work at In The Bleachers and Bleacher Report.

What are your thoughts on North Carolina?

Check out the other ACC Football Previews


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