Friday, August 13, 2010

season preview: North Carolina

North Carolina Tar Heels


9/4: LSU (Atlanta, Ga.)
9/11: BYE
9/18: Georgia Tech
9/25: @ Rutgers
10/2: East Carolina
10/9: Clemson
10/16: @ Virginia
10/23: @ Miami
10/30: William & Mary
11/6: @ Florida State
11/13: Virginia Tech
11/20: NC State
11/27: @ Duke

Skip: Boston College, Maryland, Wake Forest

Projected starters:

QB: T.J. Yates (Sr.)
RB: Shaun Draughn (Sr.)
FB: Anthony Elzy (Sr.)
WR: Greg Little (Sr.)
WR: Erik Highsmith (So.)
TE: Zack Pianalto (Sr.)
LT: Carl Gaskins (Jr.)
LG: Travis Bond (So.)
C: Jonathan Cooper (rSo.)
RG: Alan Pelc (Sr.)
RT: Mike Ingersoll (Sr.)

DE: Michael McAdoo (Jr.)
DT: Marvin Austin (Sr.)
DT: Tydreke Powell (Jr.)
DE: Robert Quinn (Jr.)
SLB: Bruce Carter (Sr.)
MLB: Quan Sturdivant (Sr.)
WLB: Kevin Reddick (So.)
CB: Kendric Burney (Jr.)
CB: Charles Brown (Sr.)
FS: Deunta Williams (Sr.)
SS: Da'Norris Searcy (Sr.)

K: Casey Barth (Jr.)
P: Grant Schallock (rJr.)

Coach: Butch Davis (4th season)

(Italics indicate new starter.)

Media prediction: 4th, Coastal Division


2009 1st team: DE Robert Quinn, LB Quan Sturdivant, CB Kendric Burney, S Deunta Williams
2009 2nd team: K Casey Barth, DT Marvin Austin, LB Bruce Carter
2009 HM: TE Zack Pianalto, OT Kyle Jolly
2010 preseason: DE Robert Quinn, DT Marvin Austin, LB Quan Sturdivant, CB Kendric Burney, S Deunta Williams

(Italics indicate returning player.)

Uh-oh. USC surprised exactly nobody by getting in trouble, but Carolina's not one of the names you'd expect to see under the NCAA microscope. Even before some of the nastier allegations about agents showed up in the headlines, the ACC media delivered a stinging indictment of Butch Davis's coaching abilities by loading the preseason all-ACC defense with Tar Heels and then voting his team fourth in the division. It's a make-or-break season for UNC.


As if agents and Black Santa (that'd be sketchy D-line coach John Blake) weren't enough of a distraction, Davis insisted on saddling his team with a quarterback controversy. T.J. Yates is the incumbent senior starter, but he's a bit interception-prone despite a three-year career with remarkably steady completion percentages, hovering right at 60%. That, plus the prodigious potential in backup Bryn Renner, is enough for Davis to hint that his quarterbacks might be splitting snaps this year. It's a major gamble - having your senior step aside while a freshman takes the reins - but the competition in the division is fierce, and maybe the safe option isn't the way to go.

Still, this is a very, very veteran squad, and a veteran quarterback should be just the thing to go along with it. Senior workhouse back Shaun Draughn is back to tote the load, and there isn't as much competition for carries as in the past, especially now that Greg Little has settled in nicely at receiver. Little is a dangerous target, and the lanes are opened up for him by the presence of sophomore standouts Erik Highsmith and Jheranie Boyd, the latter of which is a tremendously fast home-run threat. Boyd had only 12 catches last year, but four were touchdowns. Senior tight end Zack Pianalto is another weapon in the receiving game - not a big-play tight end, but extremely reliable in the possession game.

The line is a study in opposites. The right side is loaded with veteran experience, especially in right guard Alan Pelc, entering his third season as a starter. Jonathan Cooper slides over to center after a season of starting at left guard. The left side is manned by talented but somewhat unproven players. Travis Bond stepped into the starting position just in time for the bowl game against Pittsburgh and should keep it this season; the Heels like what Carl Gaskins brings to the tackle position but lost all of 2009 to an ACL injury.

On paper, this looks like one of the most veteran and talented groups in the whole conference, but it was hampered last season by unimaginative play-calling. The Heels looked like a Big Ten stereotype that got lost on the way to Iowa City. In hindsight, it looks like a lack of faith in Yates, an idea that gains traction with the likely designation of Renner as quarterback #1B instead of #2. It should also be noted that Little is one of two players whose eligibility is in doubt with this whole agent bonanza uproar, but there's plenty of depth at WR should he be forced out of the season.


There's no question about it: North Carolina had the league's top defense last season. They allowed just 2.83 yards per carry on the ground and 5.7 yards per attempt through the air. And the bad news for the rest of the ACC: everyone's back. Or most everyone. The starting lineup was hit with just two graduations, and both DT Marvin Austin and DE Robert Quinn surprised everyone by forgoing the draft. Austin may have reason to regret the decision, as his eligibility is also in question with this agent business.

Both are unquestioned all-ACC talents, though, and Quinn stats are eyebrow-raising, with 19 TFL and 11 sacks. On his other end is Michael McAdoo, who had 7 TFL of his own in a reserve role in 2009.

The line is the only place that saw any attrition. Three starting linebackers return, team tackles leader Quan Sturdivant being the most notable. He and middle 'backer Bruce Carter are both Mel Kiper-approved, the top on his prospect lists at their positions. It's a very talented top three, the only caveat being they're almost the only ones with any game experience. Zach Brown will also rotate in and be ready to go in the event of injury - he has starting experience on the weak side, though Kevin Reddick is the incumbent. Beyond that, experience with live bullets is almost nowhere to be found in this unit, so dominant have Carter and Sturdivant been.

No question, the secondary is a big-play unit. CB Kendric Burney averaged a whopping 40 yards each on his five interception returns in 2009; ball-hawking safety Deunta Williams picked off six and averaged 19 yards a return; and the opposite corner, Charles Brown, averaged 30 yards on his three picks. All except Burney are seniors, and along with strong safety Da'Norris Searcy, there's NFL talent everywhere you look. North Carolina was one of only three teams in the ACC whose opponents topped 30 pass attempts against them per game, and still they allowed just 174 yards per game.

ESPN somehow came up with figures that put UNC 45th in the nation in pass defense, but 5.7 yards per attempt say otherwise and put the Heels in the top 10. And oh yeah, tied for 6th in run defense. This was a nasty bunch to try and gain yards against in 2009, and it's the same group this year.


Casey Barth is following in his big brother Connor's footsteps at UNC, and his kicking is similar: 84% success rate on field goals in 2009. His longest of the season, though, was just 42 yards. Grant Schallock is over the all-important 40-yard average as a punter, but just barely. Da'Norris Searcy and tailback Johnny White are the incumbent punt and kick returners, respectively, but expect the blazing fast Jheranie Boyd to get a crack too. UNC had the ACC's top punt coverage team in 2009, allowing just five and a half yards per return.


What to make of the Heels? There isn't a team in the ACC that returns this much of 2009's talent. And it's actual talent, not a bunch of crappy players hanging onto their job because there's nobody better. The defense looks particularly feisty. But with that agent fiasco just now kicking into gear in Chapel Hill, it puts a cloud of suspicion over some of those returnees that raised eyebrows by doing so - and the epicenter is on Marvin Austin. This is absolutely a make-or-break year for Butch Davis and the Heels. Next season there'll be a complete revamping of everything - the whole offense, the whole defense, the works. New players everywhere. Any Orange Bowl contention has got to be now, here, in 2010.

But the two biggest season-killing controversies a program can face both loom on the near horizon: NCAA investigations and quarterback debates. Both are self-inflicted - particularly the QB controversy, which doesn't need to happen. This is why people question Butch Davis's ability to get it done, and vote his team fourth when they have all the talent a team could want. Carolina has the pieces to roll all the way to the Orange Bowl, and probably would be a heavy favorite to do so if not for Davis. As it is, I have to think that the twin scandals, along with a playbook whose complexity is comparable to a Tecmo Super Bowl scheme (except for that nutty reverse flea-flicker - UNC would never do anything so bold), are likely to torpedo UNC's chances to contend. The defense is too damn good to allow UNC to fall out of bowl eligibility, but the schedule is full of land mines (only the best and bravest dare take on William & Mary.) It looks like another Tire Bowl season for Carolina - which, combined with the unknown slings and arrows ahead from the NCAA, may be the end of Butch Davis.

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