I will go on record up front as saying that the level of hype given UNC for this season is a tad much. What is ironic about that hype is the media in general loves to refer to UNC's 4-8 season in 2007 on their way to declaring them a dark horse to win the ACC Coastal Division. The question is, if a bevy of experts say UNC is a dark horse and assigns high expectations to them don't they cease being a dark horse at that point?
Anyway, the 2008 version of the Tar Heel football team does indeed have great promise. Butch Davis returns 17 starters from a team that went 4-8 in the most painful way imaginable in losing six of those games in close fashion. The hope is with a year of experience under the belt and also a full cycle of practices with a majority of players knowing where they are playing will serve to have everyone up to speed quickly.
What We Know
Passing Game: Depending on the play of TJ Yates, the offensive line and the development of a running game, this could be the most potent air attack in the ACC. Yates is coming off shoulder surgery but has been declared fit as a fiddle. The incredible trio of Hakeem Nicks, Brandon Tate and Brooks Foster will be more than enough to keep opposing secondaries busy making sure one of those receivers do not break the game open. The passing game will crux heavily on the offensive line controlling line of scrimmage and something productive happening in the running game to prevent the opposing defense from dropping over half the defense back in coverage. Assuming those two pieces work halfway well, Yates will have time to throw and good luck to any set of corners and safeties who think they can blanket those three speedsters. Add tight ends Richard Quinn and Zack Pianalto into the mix you are talking about a solid passing game.
Secondary: UNC has four guys in the secondary who are talented and experienced. Trimane Goddard and Deunta Williams will be manning the safety slots while Kendric Burney and Charles Brown(if he is healthy) will start at the corners. The upside is this is a solid group that should make UNC a tough secondary to throw into, that is unless someone gets injured then UNC will find itself depending on a few unknown commodities. Brown is nursing an ankle injury at present and should start against McNeese St. but nothing is certain. Jordan Hemby and former RB Richie Rich are backing up the corner slots opening the door for some uncertainty should the injury bug become more of a nuisance.
Defensive Line: Whereas the secondary has little depth, the defensive line has a ton of it and quality at that. This has been an area where UNC has been able to recruit well. Marvin Austin was a five star recruit out of high school and is looking for a breakout season following a freshman year coming off the bench. EJ Wilson will start at one of the ends and brings some experience to the table. The other two slots have been debated and as of this posting it would appear Cam Thomas and Darrius Massenburg are getting the early nod to start. However with the depth they enjoy along the D-line I imagine we will see a combination of different players based on the scenario. Overall this unit should do a good job controlling the line and in combination with the secondary provide sandwich a great black void known as the linebacker corps.
What We Think We Know
Running Game: Last season Davis used the RB By Committee approached and got fairly poor results for the most part. There was simply not enough in the way of yards on the ground to keep opposing defenses honest. Yates, who began struggling with the shoulder injury also had to contend with the fact the pass was well defended and his INT count spiked as a result. This season Greg Little appears ready to take the mantle at RB with some help from a slimmed down Ryan Houston and backfield returnee Anthony Elzy. Little tends to be more of a finesse runner whereas Houston, despite dropping 30 pounds is still quite the bruiser. There is also an X factor in the former of converted safety Shaun Draughn who is said to have been tearing things up in practice. We will see if this holds true in the game. All of this is a definite upgrade over last season and if they can excel, even beyond expectations, the Tar Heel offense will be a potent one to say the least.
Special Teams: Not much here except the kicker which for a team that lost so many close games Brandon Tate will continue to scare the living crap out of opposing special teams coaches. Terrence Brown will handle the punting duties. The only question we get into is who will do the kicking. Connor Barth graduated opening up a battle between RS FR Jay Wooten and true FR Casey Barth, younger brother of Connor. Wooten has been tabbed as the starter but we all know that can change if games are lost over poor FG kicking.
We Have No Idea
Linebackers: Yeah, there is a huge void on this one. Last season Durrell Mapp was basically all there was and he graduated leaving a corps of linebackers that is a huge question mark. As stated aboved the guys in front of the LBs and behind them should be up to the task. The two main issues with the LBs are the lack of experience and depth. Mark Paschal and Quantavius Sturdivant saw plenty of action last season, add Bruce Carter to the mix along with Chase Rice, who is else is there? Exactly. Bottom line here is we will either be thrilled beyond being able to speak about the play of the linebackers or not be surprised with the issues we see if they do not play well.
Offensive Line: The positives about the offensive linemen is they are experienced and also played as a unit last season. The negative is that is about all we know. In fact the O-line is the one unit that the offense teeters ever so delicately on. If the line does it's job of controlling the opposing defense, opening holes for Little and the guys as well as making sure Yates has more then two seconds to find a receiver the offense will run like a well oiled machine. If that does not happen or only happens sporadically then likewise the offense will function sporadically. Or you end up getting bailed out by some spectacular plays by individuals but that is no way to run an offense. In the end, I think the O line will do the job most of the time. They will not be perfect but they will do enough to allow the offense to function. However, until we see that actually happen, we will be in the dark
Schedule and Outlook
Despite UNC playing in the weak Coastal Division, this is a schedule with some spunk. Yes, McNeese State is I-AA but a very good I-AA team and not to be taken lightly. A ESPN Thursday Night Game at Rutgers 12 days later will be a serious test not only whether this team is ready to turn the corner but also if they can win on the road in a pressure packed situation. From there UNC gets Virginia Tech at home and then travels to Miami. There is a real possibility if everything goes horribly wrong the Heels will end up 1-3 to start the season and if things go equally right a 4-0 UNC team could greet UConn in Chapel Hill then followed by the big game versus Notre Dame at Kenan. I think the more realistic scenario is 4-2 through the first half of the season with wins over McNeese State, UConn and Notre Dame. The second half of the season will go much better as the Heels with go 4-2 beating BC, GT, NCSU and Duke. The road games will continue to be problematic for the UNC with losses at Maryland and Virginia...again.
Of course this is all pure speculation. As easy as it is to see UNC going 8-4, the Heels could in at least three of the those four predicted losses and end up 11-1 making their way to the ACC Championship. That is the beauty of this season and the source of great antcipation surrounding this team. If and yes it is a gargantuan "if" the Heels can play well early, gain some confidence and get swept up in the wave of winning much the same way Wake Forest did two years ago, the sky is the limit for this team. The Heels will walk a fine line however and much like last season so much could come down to a handful of plays across several games promising to both exhilirate and frustrate us all to no end.
In other words, welcome to the 2008 football season.