We have reached the mid-point of the 2011 season with the Tar Heels sitting just about as pretty as one could ask for after six games. And yet, Carolina's 5-1 start has elicited little more than a collective yawn from both the media and the fan base, if UNC's lack of appearance in the top 25 and a half-empty Kenan Stadium last week would seem to indicate.
So far UNC has pretty much done what was expected of them in normal circumstances, but these have been far from normal circumstances. Given that head coach Butch Davis was dismissed barely a week before the beginning of fall practice, Carolina's play on the field thus far has been impressive. Then again, there is this feeling that the first six games of the season were mostly against cream puffs and that the serious football will begin this weekend. The numbers bear that out slightly, but not much. UNC's six opponents thus far have a record of 20-12 on the season, while the six remaining opponents are 23-10. The five teams UNC has beaten have a combined record of 14-12, which is not great but seems somewhat better than, say, Georgia Tech, whose six wins are over teams who are a combined 14-18 (toss out UNC, and the records of Tech's other five wins are 9-17).
Here's how the Heels are grading out at the halfway point:
Quarterback: Bryn Renner is who we thought he was. He has looked brilliant at times and he has looked like a first-year starter at other times. The great thing about Renner is that his upside is tremendous and will only get better with experience. Grade: B+
Running Backs: Gio Bernard has been as good as advertised and gives the Tar Heels a consistent rushing dimension they have not had in years. Ryan Houston seems to be accepting his role and stepping aside for the rookie. Fullbacks have shown they are equally adept at blocking and catching the ball out of the backfield. Grade: A
Receivers: Dwight Jones is certainly among the class of the ACC at wideout. Erik Highsmith and Jheranie Boyd still show big-play potential but continue to lack the week-to-week consistency to make them elite receivers, so that brings this group's grade down slightly. The tight end by committee plan seems to be working but they are not as solid from the pass-catching side as last year's group of Zack Pianalto and Ryan Taylor. Grade: B
Offensive Line: Our favorites to bash weekly in the GBU report, the O-line continues to look like Tarzan and play like Jane. It's hard to be critical of a line when UNC has a running back averaging 100+ yards per game, but Carolina absolutely cannot run between the tackles and last week's 8 tackles for loss and four sacks surrendered to a sub-.500 Big East team tell the tale. Grade: D-
Defensive Line: Solid, but not spectacular, seems to describe this year's D-line. This group has not been as dominant as one might have expected, but they have not been a liability either. Quinton Coples' move back to end has led to mixed results, but JUCO transfer Sylvester Williams has been a pleasant addition to this unit. Grade: C+
Linebackers: Again, it's hard to follow last year's linebacking corps, but Zach Brown and Kevin Reddick have done as well as could be hoped and are the team's leading tacklers. Grade: B+
Defensive Backs: Ugly doesn't begin to describe the play of the secondary this season. Although we knew this group would be young, the amount of playing time they received last year as a result of the NCAA unpleasantness was supposed to ease the transition. The D-backs are going to have to get better in a hurry or it could be a long second half of the season . Grade: F
Special Teams: Long a weak point in the Davis/Withers era, special teams again are problematic for the Heels. Casey Barth was on track to be one of the ACC's best kickers and wrest most of the UNC career kicking records from his brother Connor before an injury. Punts are an adventure, with the chance of landing it inside the 5 being about equal to the chance of it being blocked. Kick coverage has been sporadic at best. Grade: D+
Coaching: Everett Withers has pretty much said and done all the right things since being named interim coach. With most of the staff remaining in the same roles, the results on the field are about what you would expect if Davis were still here, particularly since Davis wasn't exactly known as being a master Xs and Os guy in the first place. The coaches still do not seem to make in-game adjustments, which is to be expected since the coordinators and position coaches are the same. But Withers has not only kept the train on the tracks but has the team at 5-1 for the first time in over a decade, and on track to at least match if not exceed what UNC has done under Davis. Grade: A-
Intangibles: In the words of the late Al Davis, Carolina has found a way to "just win, baby." UNC looked sharp in the opener against JMU and at certain points in other games, and at the same time have floundered. UNC has been out-gained in two of its wins and hasn't looked great a couple of times, but they have five wins in six tries, and this with a rookie interim head coach and a first-year QB. The team's mettle will be tested in the second part of the season, but for right now, what they have accomplished under the circumstances is incredible. Grade: A