North Carolina Tar Heels (2000: 6-5)
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Coach and programIf nothing else, new North Carolina coach John Bunting will make sure his team is more intense this season than it was a year ago.
“When I got here, I saw a team that lacked confidence,’’ Bunting said. “The reason they lack confidence, I think, is that they don’t really understand how tough it is to play this game day in and day out, play after play after play."
Spring practice was scheduled late, to ensure that two-sport stars Ronald Curry and Julius Peppers would be able to participate, and Bunting spent much of his time inspiring a new self-respect into the sagging program, mainly with uniform-soaking workouts.
There are problems that will have to be settled in the fall, specifically along the offensive line, which has only one returning starter, and the defensive front, which is thin after Peppers.
But Bunting isn’t afraid of challenges, which is why he agreed to add a 12th game to the Tar Heels’ schedule, a season-opener against defending national champion Oklahoma in Norman in the Hispanic College Fund Classic, followed by road games at Maryland and Texas. It’s the first time since 1893 that UNC has opened the season with three consecutive road games.
It’s a new era in Chapel Hill. One that will take a tougher kind of Tar Heel.
OffenseIt must have been fun sitting outside Bunting’s office in the spring, listening through the door as he watched game tapes and screamed at the screen. He would then come outside and find someone to scream at.
“Anybody can tell you that I would come out of there just sick watching Ronald Curry get hit, watching Ronald Curry trying to run for his life and watching the running game have very little ability to get started,’’ Bunting said. “It was just tough to watch.’’
It may not be any better this year.
The Tar Heels have to replace three starters on the line, and have almost exclusively underclassmen to fill the holes. Senior center Adam Metts (6-0, 270) and junior Isaac Morford (6-3, 300) started all 11 games last year and will certainly be expected to guide the youthful players who will surround them this fall. Morford played guard last season, but was moved to center to back up Metts in the spring.
It’s hard to question the productivity of Curry, the Tar Heels’ offensive most valuable player. Last year, he set the single-season record for total offense at 2,676 yards, including 2,325 passing yards and 351 rushing yards. He threw 11 touchdown passes and ran for six more scores. But he also had 12 interceptions and was caught behind the line of scrimmage too many times.
Bunting is just asking for a little more consistency.
Bunting was pleasantly surprised to discover the talent he had at tailback, with three speedy sophomores on the squad: Brandon Russell (5-11, 185), Willie Parker (5-10, 200) and Andre Williams (6-0, 215). Russell started the first eight games at tailback last year, becoming the first UNC freshman to start at tailback since the legendary Charlie Justice in 1946.
Because his team won’t be able to grind it out up front, Bunting hopes to use Curry and a veteran corps of receivers to make big plays, put a lot of points on the board, and hope that the defense can hold on.
The Tar Heels certainly have big-play potential among the receivers, starting with junior Bosley Allen (6-1, 200). The group is led by senior Kory Bailey (6-3, 187), a consistent contributor in his first three years on campus. In all, six of the Tar Heels’ top seven receivers return this season.
Defense and special teamsPeppers (6-6, 270) is perhaps the premier end in college football. He led the nation last year with 15 sacks and set the school record with 24 tackles for loss. He finished one sack short of the UNC single-season record set by a guy named Lawrence Taylor.
The premier player up front is senior Ryan Sims (6-4, 295), who didn’t get as much attention as Peppers but was a key reason the Tar Heels led the ACC with 53 sacks. He had 56 total tackles last year, including six sacks and nine tackles for loss.
Over the years, plenty of other linebackers of distinction have come through the program, and under Carl Torbush’s guidance, they were the reason UNC had dominating defenses throughout the 1990s.
All of a sudden, however, that deep pool has suddenly dried up, now that Sedrick Hodge and Brandon Spoon, a pair of three-year starters, have taken their games to the NFL. Three of the players on the post-spring depth chart are former walk-ons -- junior middle linebacker Robert Harris (6-1, 230), senior backup middle linebacker Sean Williams (6-1, 218) and senior strong-side linebacker David Thornton (6-2, 222).
With three of four starters returning, the Tar Heels are set in the secondary, with a couple of adjustments. UNC is so deep, in fact, Bunting signed only one defensive back in his first recruiting class.
One position Bunting won’t have to fret about is place-kicker. Senior Jeff Reed (6-0, 200), a fourth-year walk-on, turned into one of the most reliable place-kickers in the ACC last year.
Bottom lineAfter the three road games and the home-opener against Southern Methodist, the Tar Heels play, in succession, Florida State, at N.C. State, East Carolina (the first meeting since 1981), Virginia, at Clemson and at Georgia Tech. Bunting’s initial team will be fortunate to enter November with more than two victories. So he seems willing to let this year’s team take its lumps, so he can go through another recruiting season to fill some of the many holes he sees and another spring practice so he can toughen up the Tar Heels.
And who knows? If he gets more than four wins, next spring might not be so hard to live through.