John Bunting, UNC Class of 1972, was a hero his first season as head coach, leading the Tar Heels to a Peach Bowl victory after an 0-3 start. But since winning six of its final eight games in 2001, UNC has lost 19 of the past 24.
Bunting, however, is not burdened by the struggles of the past two seasons, choosing to look ahead, not back.
He looks to a potent offense with quarterback Darian Durant. He looks ahead to an unknown defense with several gaping holes to plug and new co-coordinators. UNC's past two recruiting classes have been solid despite 3-9 and 2-10 records, and the Tar Heels' lineup, especially on defense, will lean on those freshmen and sophomores.
"That's our job, to get those [defensive players] to grow up quickly," Bunting said. "It's our job to reconstruct the defense. Because I know on offense, we're going to be pretty good."
That defense is trying to keep pace in the new-look ACC. UNC allowed more than 505 yards per game in 2003, and that was without Miami and Virginia Tech on the schedule.
OffenseDurant will likely set just about every major UNC passing record, but that's little consolation for a quarterback with a record of 5-17 as a starter. Durant has had weapons to throw to for three years, and now he has an able-bodied group of running backs and an experienced offensive line as well.
Last year, Durant continued to leave his imprint on the UNC record book. He became the Tar Heels' career leader in touchdown passes in the second game of his third season, but he will need better decisions and fewer fumbles for UNC to improve on its 2-10 record.
Durant will throw first to 5-foot-8 waterbug Jarwarski Pollock, who caught a school-record 71 passes last season, and hand off first to tailback Ronnie McGill, who as a freshman ran for 244 yards against Wake Forest.
The Tar Heels return a veteran offensive line that must replace two starters but seems to have the depth to do so.
DefenseBunting, a former UNC and NFL linebacker, feels the defense is in good hands with the addition of new co-coordinators John Gutekunst and Marvin Sanders. Change was necessary after the Tar Heels, often playing freshmen and sophomores, yielded 505.3 yards per game.
The youth movement continues this season. First- and second-year players are vying for more than half the starting jobs, including all three linebacker positions. Fred Sparkman is a sparkplug at middle linebacker, and Larry Edwards is trying to build on a solid freshman campaign.
A surprise leader on the defense is safety Gerald Sensabaugh, an immediate starter as a transfer from East Tennessee State.
"He's a leader, and he's inquisitive," Bunting said. "I like that about him."
SpecialistsUNC has a dangerous return game with receivers Mike Mason (kickoffs) and Pollock (punts). Mason returned one kick for a touchdown and had a second called back by penalty in 2003, as he averaged 26 yards per try.
The Tar Heels have a strong-legged punter in David Wooldridge, and they are bringing in Connor Barth, a prep All-American, to handle the placekicking.
Final AnalysisUNC finished last in the ACC in 2003, losing for the first time in 14 years to rival Duke. That finale rankled UNC fans, who won't stand for another two-win season, even with an alumnus as coach.
The young-player excuse can only work so long, and the Tar Heels don't have an easy schedule -- their first road trip is to a place where they haven't won in 23 years (Virginia), and they will also make trips to Florida State and Utah. Miami and Virginia Tech visit late in the season, when basketball and Bunting's future will be on the minds of Tar Heel Nation.