Welcome to the Bryn Renner era at UNC.
You ma want to temper your excitement a bit, because it was James Madison, a middle-of-the-road FCS school. But their pass defense was their strong point, and Renner had a field day in his first college start. The sophomore set a Carolina record for completion percentage, connecting on 22 of 23 attempts. That's one completion away from Tee Martin's NCAA record of going 23 for 24. An even that 23rd pass never hit the ground, finding its way into the hands of JMU safety Dean Marlowe on a deep route.
Renner started the first series with the standard short passes to Dwight Jones we're so used to seeing from last season before finding him on a deep route over the middle for a 34-yard touchdown. Jones would remain the favorite option, catching nine passes for 116 yards, including a second TD in the fourth, but the offense was spread around, with seven players catching passes.
The running game looked similar to what it was two years ago, with Ryan Houston grinding out 3.7 yards a carry, while redshirt freshman Giovani Bernard stepped ably into the Shaun Draughn role of the speedier, more nimble back. Bernard, who had a fractured hand in a cast for most of camp, averaged 7.1 yards on nine carries an caught two passes while alternating series with Houston. He also found the end zone twice, on runs of 12 and 14 yards. Again, I'm trying not to get too excited, as the Dukes' run defense isn't a particularly big challenge in the grand scheme of things, but this was a great debut performance.
The defense was strong, but not really tested. If a weakness stood out it was the two passes over the secondary that resulted in JUM gains of 41 and 47 yards, including their only touchdown. Things tightened up in the second half, and the passes were kept short, but that might be something to worry about in the next few weeks.
Even special teams showed some improvement. True freshman Thomas Hibbard botched his second snap leading to a blocked punt, but put his other two attempts on the JMU four and one yard lines. Another true freshman, wide receiver T.J. Thorpe, took kick return duties and averaged returns just shy of 20 yards on three attempts, while Todd Harrelson was equally successful handling punt returns.
Again, I have to keep telling myself this was an average FCS opponent, and not evidence that the Heels are going to dominate this season. But they played a lot better than many other schools against lesser competition yesterday – see State's slow start against Liberty, for example – and had a lot of new faces put of some very good numbers. Rutgers is a week away, led by another freshman with some impressive stats. But if Carolina can continue this level of play against steeper competition, this looks to be a very fun season.