NORTH CAROLINA OFFENSE
The Heels’ offense finished 92nd in the nation in 2008 at 321 yards per game, and that was with NFL draft picks Hakeem Nicks (1222 yards, 7 TD), Brandon Tate, Brooks Foster, Richard Quinn, and Garrett Reynolds on the roster.
In many ways though, the 2008 offense was a major upgrade over the 2007 unit. First of all, the team racked up 27.7 points per game, good for 2nd best in the ACC. Secondly, QB TJ Yates improved significantly from his freshman year, and the running game also matured behind Shaun Draughn, Ryan Houston, and an improved offensive line.
Nonetheless, the problems that plagued the Heels in a number of close 2007 losses came back to bite them again in 2008. In a crucial showdown with Virginia Tech in Chapel Hill, the Heels were unable to capitalize on a number of first half trips to the red-zone. In the third quarter, DE Orion Martin outmaneuvered the Tarheel offensive line, dragging down TJ Yates and knocking him out for 6 weeks. Against Virginia, the Heels had similar red zone blues. Late in the game, the Heels simply couldn’t run out the clock on the ground, and Virginia’s offense capitalized for an exciting OT win. In losses to Maryland, NCSU and West Virginia, UNC simply couldn’t establish the running game.
That being said, there’s reason to believe that the 2009 offense could be better than last year’s inconsistent squad. While there is a serious lack of experience at WR, there’s no shortage of talent there. Greg Little, Dwight Jones, Josh Adams and Todd Harrelson were all big-time recruits coming out of high school, and should collectively replace the production of Hakeem Nicks and Brandon Tate.
In the backfield, there appears to be ample talent and experience. Shaun Draughn nearly reached the 1,000 yard mark despite very little playing time at the beginning of the season and Ryan Houston established himself as a powerful and effective short yardage runner. Redshirt freshman Jamal Womble of Desert Vista, AZ had a terrific spring and appears ready to inject a dose of explosive power to the rushing attack.
Perhaps the most important question mark heading into the fall is the offensive line. The line returns just 2 starters, but a number of other returning linemen have a lot of playing experience. If the Heels are to become the balanced offense that Coordinator John Shoop imagines, it has to start up front with the big fellas. They must protect TJ Yates better because if Yates goes down, Mike Paulus steps in. 2008 ‘s talented backup Cam Sexton transferred to an FCS school for more playing time in his senior year.
QB- TJ Yates (1168 yards 11 TD, 4 INT, 153 passer rating)
Yates quietly produced the ACC’s highest passer rating in 2008. However, if he’s to repeat as the ACC’s highest rated QB in 2009, he’s going to need a lot of receivers to step up quickly. Hakeem Nicks (1222 yards, 8 TD), Brandon Tate, Brooks Foster, and Richard Quinn will all take their receiving skills to the NFL in 2009, leaving Yates with almost entirely new targets this fall. Cam Sexton transferred this offseason, so if Yates goes down, Mike Paulus and the Tar Heels will be bowling at Bowl America this holiday season.
RB- Shaun Draughn (866 yards, 4.4 YPC, 3 TD)
After switching from safety and taking over for Greg “ Damn these running lanes look pretty” Little, Shaun Draughn proved himself as one of the top backs in the conference. Another year of practice at RB should alleviate his case of fumble-itis and lift him to the 1,000 yard mark.
RB- Ryan Houston (299 yards, 3.9 YPC, 8 TD)- Houston improved significantly in 2008 after a pretty uneventful freshman campaign. He rarely saw carries outside of the Power I, but he produced very well on the 3rd and short and goal-line situations. With the emergence of Womble, look for him to receive no more than 3-5 short yardage carries per game.
RB- Jamal Womble (4 star recruit; 5’10 220 lbs.)- Womble should definitely earn 5-7 carries a game this fall. He ran for 50 yards on 7 carries in the Spring Game and was named to the Rivals.com All-Spring team for his performance. Womble’s the kind of back who no one wants to tackle in the fourth quarter, so he should help the running game wear down defenses late, something the Tar Heels haven’t been able to do since Choo-Choo Justice steamed through leather-helmeted defenders in the 1940’s. According to an anonymous source, Butch Davis told Womble that he expects “10+ touchdowns” this fall in a variety of down and distance situations.
FB- Anthony Elzy- Elzy might be a small FB at around 210 lb, but he’s strong and he is a dangerous receiver leaking out of the backfield on bootlegs and other play action passes. He finished with 86 yards receiving last year despite a shoulder injury that kept him out for the second half of the season and could certainly surpass 100 yards this season.
FB- Bobby Rome- Former high school QB and trick-play dynamo Bobby Rome brings a lot more size (5’10 255) and variety to the FB position. People remember Rome for his 2 long TD passes, but he also has 330 receiving yards in his three years as a UNC FB.
WR- Greg Little (5 star recruit)
Durham native Greg Little finally appears to have settled in at a position after two seasons of dancing around the depth chart. He certainly won’t replace Hakeem Nicks or Brandon Tate at WR, but he’s strong, powerful and dangerous after the catch (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0l0XtAYouoo check out the TD at the 1:10 mark!). He’s already proved capable of picking up huge yardage on the end-around play that John Shoop loves to call (Carolina receivers picked up almost 400 yards on the ground last year!). Look for Little to finish with 500 yards receiving, 200 yards rushing, and 4-5 TDs this fall.
WR- Dwight Jones (5 star recruit)
Dwight Jones was a 5 star receiver recruit in the class of 2007. He’s also a massive wideout at 6’5 220 lbs. He finished the spring game with 3 catches for 61 yards, including a 46 yard bomb. He will likely be TJ Yates #1 vertical threat.
WR- Josh Adams (4 star recruit)
Josh Adams, considered one of the best WRs in the nation by Rivals two years ago, should see a lot of snaps as a freshman this fall. Like Little, he’s big (6’4) and strong, but his most valuable asset is probably his hands. He caught 3 passes in the spring game, and should finish up with 300-400 yards and a few TDs this fall.
WR- Todd Harrelson (3 star recruit)
Todd Harrelson might have the best hands on the team. Coaches say he can field a punt while holding onto 6 other footballs. Harrelson has a much slighter build than the other receivers, but he’s very shifty and a candidate for punt return duties in the fall.
WR- Jheranie Boyd (4 star recruit)
Jheranie Boyd will be a true freshman this fall. Rated as one of the top receivers in the 2009 class, Boyd brings an unbelievable level of athleticism to the wide receiver position. He has great hands and a 40 inch vertical. He could very well compete for playing time this fall.
TE- Ed Barham/Zack Pianalto
As a freshman in 2007, Pianalto was an undersized over-achiever at tight end finishing up with 204 yards. This past fall, he gained weight and improved as a blocker—but a leg injury sustained on his best play of the season (a leaping TD against Notre Dame) ended his season early. His longest catch at UNC in two seasons is 20 yards, but his presence as a possession TE will be important to Carolina this fall. Barham caught two passes for 35 yards in the spring game and should contribute as well.
H-Back- Christian Wilson
Wilson, a four star recruit in the class of 2008, didn’t get much chance to display his athleticism in his true freshman campaign. As a senior in high school, the 235 lb Heels H-back racked up 2000 yards and 33 TD on the ground. Don’t expect a lot of touches for Wilson this fall—but he should certainly improve on last season’s 2 catches for 19 yards.
The Tar Heels lose the entire right side of the Offensive Line. Center Aaron Stahl gave up football this spring, and Seniors Calvin Darity and Garret Reynolds have moved on to NFL careers. However, Kyle Jolly and Lowell Dyer (Rimington award watch list) return to lead a much-improved offensive line with a lot of young talent. Returning talent on the O-line can be a great predictor of offensive success, and by that measure, the Heels look to be in danger. However, lots of players—Mike Ingersoll, Jonathan Cooper, Kevin Bryant, Carl Gaskins, Alan Pelc—have playing experience. Former D-lineman Greg Elleby also hopes to contribute at Guard in 2009.
*bold indicates Spring Starter
I have to say—I was more than a little concerned when Butch Davis hired Everett Withers last fall as the new UNC defensive coordinator. In 2007, Withers’ Minnesota Golden Gopher defense finished dead last in the country. However, the defense actually performed pretty well in 2008. Let’s take a very early look at what’s to come for the defense in 2009-2010.
*All the star ratings are from Rivals.com
TALENT ON THE D-LINE
DT Aleric Mullins 3-star (12 tackles, 2 TFL), Marvin Austin 5-star (38 tackles, 1.5 TFL, INT), Tydreke Powell 4-star (18 tackles, 4.5 TFL, sack) , Jared McAdoo 4-star (will be a true freshman in the fall), Cam Thomas 3-star (34 tackles, 3.5 TFL, sack)
DE Robert Quinn 4-star (34 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 2 sacks), Quentin Coples 4-star (8 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks), Michael McAdoo 3 star (9 tackles, 3 TFL, 2.5 sacks), Donte Moss 5-star (true freshman…rated the #17 overall recruit by Rivals.com), EJ Wilson 2-star (38 tackles, 4.5 TFL, sack)
Marvin Austin, once rated as the 7th best prospect in the 2007 recruiting class, has not lived up to expectations so far, finishing 2008 with only 1.5 TFL (38 tackles) after a Freshman-All-America season in 2007. However, Glenn Dorsey performed similarly in his first two years at LSU—and he went on to earn All-America accolades his junior year. If the projected 1st round pick at DT pulls a Dorsey (or anything close)— and Tydreke Powell (4.5 TFL, sack), Aleric Mullins(12 tackles, 2 TFL), and Cam Thomas (34 tackles, 3.5 TFL) can continue demanding double teams—ends Robert Quinn (6.5 TFL, 2 sacks), Quentin Coples (3.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks), EJ Wilson (38 tackles, 4.5 TFL), and Michael McAdoo (3 TFL, 2.5 sacks) should be able to get a lot more pressure this year. In 2008, the bulky (read: fat)Tar Heel defensive line often struggled to track down shifty quarterbacks, but the addition of speed rusher Donte Moss (#17 overall recruit according to Rivals) should really help Everett Withers’ defensive unit to get pressure with just the front four. I’d be shocked if this defense finishes with less than 30 sacks this fall.
TALENT AT LINEBACKER
This might just be the most athletic linebacking corps in the ACC. According to Tar Heel coaches, all three linebackers run sub 4.5 40 yard dashes. At 6’4 245, Bruce Carter (65 tackles, 11 TFL, 5 sacks, 5 blocked punts) has unbelievable speed and power. In games against UConn and Miami, he blocked an otherworldly FOUR consecutive punts; he also returned an INT for a TD against Rutgers and led the team in sacks with 5. Junior Quan Sturdivant (122 tackles, 2 INT) moves to the middle linebacker position this fall to replace 2nd team all ACC performer Mark Paschal. After leading the nation in solo tackles last fall, Sturdivant should have no problems adjusting to his new position. Sophomore Zach Brown (one of the ten best athletes in the country according to ESPN.com; benches 380 lbs and runs a 4.28 40 at 220 lbs) came out of nowhere in the spring to snag the third linebacking spot. Losing Paschal hurts, but Brown makes the unit much faster in 2009.
QUESTIONS IN THE SECONDARY
Deunta Williams (65 tackles, 3 INT) and 2nd team all-ACC CB Kendric Burney (78 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 3 INT) have established themselves as top-tier ACC defensive backs. However, it’s still not clear who will step up to replace Trimane “Hand of” Goddard (7 INT, All-America accolades), who routinely saved the Tar Heel defense with late game interceptions—Da’Norris Searcy looks to be next in line after a superb bowl game at nickelback where he racked up 10 tackles and 2 sacks, but no one knows for sure how well he’ll fare at strong safety. It’s possible that 4 star JC transfer Melvin Williams could take more snaps at SS while Searcy specializes at nickelback in passing situations. Senior Jordan Hemby and Junior Charlie Brown will duke it out for the other starting cornerback spot, and whoever comes out on top must get a lot better quickly. Last year, Notre Dame and West Virginia really hurt Carolina by feeding Hemby a heavy dose of fades and deep balls. For the defense to be truly great, this position cannot be a liability again in 2009. Look out for incoming freshman Josh Hunter (4 star), Terry Shankle (4 star) and DJ Bunn (3 star) to get some snaps, especially if Hemby and Brown struggle again.
Will Zach Brown and Da’Norris Searcy succeed in their new starting roles? Will the defensive line be able to pressure—and sack—the quarterback without help from blitzing linebackers? Will Defensive Coordinator Everett Withers be less predictable in 2009?
And most importantly: will the Tar Heels be able to stop anyone in the 4th quarter after losing games to Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and Virginia Tech on late drives?