Saturday, August 9, 2008

season preview: North Carolina

Coming at an odd time of the day, but it's coming. Here it is. Last three of these will run next week; then, don't forget, an extra-special bonus FREE look at UVA's four non-conference opponents - USC, ECU, Richmond, and UConn, in case you forgot.

Schedule:

8/30: McNeese State
9/11: @Rutgers (Th.)
9/20: Virginia Tech
9/27: @Miami
10/4: Connecticut
10/11: Notre Dame
10/18: @Virginia
10/25: Boston College
11/8: Georgia Tech
11/15: @Maryland
11/22: North Carolina State
11/29: @Duke

Skip: Wake Forest, Clemson, Florida State

Projected starters:

QB: T.J. Yates (rSo.)
RB: Greg Little (So.)
WR: Hakeem Nicks (Jr.)
WR: Brandon Tate (Sr.)
WR: Brooks Foster (5Sr.)
TE: Zack Pianalto (So.)
LT: Ryan Jolly (rJr.)
LG: Bryon Bishop (5Sr.)
C: Aaron Stahl (rJr.)
RG: Calvin Darity (5Sr.)
RT: Garrett Reynolds (Sr.)

DE: E.J. Wilson (Jr.)
DT: Marvin Austin (So.)
DT: Aleric Mullins (Jr.)
DE: Darius Massenburg (So.)
OLB: Chase Rice (Sr.)
MLB: Mark Paschal (Sr.)
OLB: Quan Sturdivant (So.)
CB: Kendric Burney (So.)
S: Trimane Goddard (5Sr.)
S: Deunta Williams (So.)
CB: Charles Brown (So.)

K: ???
P: Terrence Brown (Sr.)

Coach: Butch Davis (2nd season)

(Italics indicate new starter.)

Media prediction: 2nd, Coastal Division

All-ACC selections:

2007 1st team: None
2007 2nd team: WR Hakeem Nicks, DE Hilee Taylor (graduated), DT Kentwan Balmer (graduated), LB Durell Mapp (graduated)
2007 HM: K Connor Barth (graduated), KR-PR Brandon Tate
2008 preseason: WR Hakeem Nicks, KR-PR Brandon Tate

North Carolina was everyone’s sleeper team in the ACC until everyone realized everyone else felt the same way, at which point they were slapped with an actual contender label. UNC hasn’t been confused with a contender since the Mack Brown days of the mid-‘90s, so seeing them perched at 2nd in the media predictions is heady stuff. Butch Davis, having been pretty successful at the task of keeping the Miami Hurricanes program afloat after they were hit with sanctions (not his fault), is fast-tracking the Tar Heels back to respectability and putting Chapel Hill on the recruiting map besides.

OFFENSE
Clemson is widely considered the favorite in the ACC, in large part due to the large number of returning players on offense. Clemson has nothing on these guys. Only one of the Heels’ 11 projected starters wasn’t one last year, and a lot of these guys have some bright days ahead. That goes for sophomore starting quarterback T.J. Yates, who was 3rd in the conference in passing yards and yards per attempt as a freshman last year. He will have to cut down on his interceptions, having thrown 18 of them in 2007 – only Matt Ryan threw more. Yates’ favorite target is all-ACC wide receiver Hakeem Nicks, who you’ll find near the top of all major receiving stat lists. Nicks caught 74 passes in 2007, while no other player on the UNC roster caught as many as 30. Nicks is the Carolina offense’s best weapon, but that’s not to call the rest of the receiving corps chopped liver. Brandon Tate is a dangerous player and nasty fast. Tate is the conference’s premier kick returner this year, and UNC will use him on running plays – end-arounds and such – anything to get the ball in his hands. Add in Brooks Foster, the leading receiver after Nicks, and tight end Zack Pianalto, and you have probably the most dangerous passing game in the conference after Clemson. UNC expects big things out of Greg Little from the tailback spot as well. Little averaged over 5 yards a carry in 2007 and has leapfrogged Anthony Elzy as the first out on the field. Expect Little to at least double the 59 carries he was given last year.

So who’s blocking for all this talent? Most of the same people as last year, actually, and they’re all very experienced. Calvin Darity hasn’t missed a start for two years, and the UNC staff thinks the world of Garrett Reynolds. The only shift on the line from last year is Aaron Stahl’s move from guard to center, and taking his place is fifth-year senior Bryon Bishop. None of these guys have less than three years experience in the college game. If UNC plays and beats Clemson in the ACC championship game, it should be easy to point at the continuity and experience in the trenches as a big reason.

DEFENSE

Speaking of the trenches. UNC’s kinda scary on the defensive side of the ball too. Marvin Austin had his pick of schools like USC, Miami, FSU, Tennessee, and chose North Carolina instead, and is well on his way to living up to all the hype he picked up during his recruitment. UNC loses DE Hilee Taylor, who racked up 16 TFL and 10.5 sacks last year, but E.J. Wilson returns as the returning leader in both categories with 9.5 and 5, respectively.

The real loss on defense, though, was linebacker Durell Mapp. Mapp’s 132 tackles were more than twice the number of any other player, and he leaves behind a thin linebacking corps. This will be UNC’s biggest area of concern. They’re athletic, but not deep. They get back Chase Rice, who missed all but the first game of the year in 2007 with injury. Bruce Carter got most of the starts in his place and figures to be the only other player, besides the current projected starters, who gets significant playing time.

The secondary is in excellent shape, though. The only knock is that they’re young, but they’re all returning starters, even the three sophomores. Deunta Williams is the guy to watch out for; he made various and sundry all-freshman teams both in the conference and in the nation last year, and led the team in interceptions besides, with three. They say defensive backs are wide receivers without good hands; Williams came to UNC as a receiver and has good hands anyway; clearly, however, he is not needed on offense and is perfectly happy catching balls thrown by other teams’ quarterbacks rather than his own. Williams’ counterpart Trimane Goddard is the graybeard of the defense and the team’s leading returning tackler.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Connor Barth provided rock-solid kicking for UNC, and Carolina still hasn’t figured out exactly who will replace him. The return game is as strong as ever, though. Brandon Tate comes back for one more season and will likely lead the Heels in all-purpose yards again this year on the strength of his return skills.

OUTLOOK

This could be scary. ACC fans have gotten used to Tobacco Road being the football doormat. Duke is not ready to leave the ACC basement, but UNC is going to make waves. The Orange Bowl is not at all out of the question, and most of Carolina’s best players aren’t even seniors. Some aren’t even juniors. Butch Davis has put the ACC on notice in just one short season – look for 2008 to be the Heels’ coming-out party. UNC hasn’t gone bowling since 2004 and hasn’t left the state for a bowl game since 2001. That streak ends this year.

1 comment:

Digital Headbutt said...

Very comprehensive stuff here. Good Work.