I will not go as far as to toss out some asinine comparison to June, 2008 when the Tar Heel basketball team returned the key pieces from a 36-3 Final Four team. However, this is a huge deal for the football program knowing 2010 will commence with nine starters returning from the sixth ranked defense in the country. Over the weekend Marvin Austin followed by Kendric Burney said on their respective Twitter feeds they would return. This followed previous assertions from Bruce Carter and Deunta Williams that they would return. The only piece left was Quan Sturdivant who appears to also be joining his fellow juniors in returning. Unlike many of this decisions that are often made on an individual basis, according to Williams, these guys decided to do this together hoping for that "special" season.
"We all agreed that next year can be the year," Williams told ESPN. "We believe we can be special, not only as a defense, but as a team."
UNC will have to plug to spots on the defensive line vacated by graduating seniors E.J. Wilson and Cam Thomas. The good news is there is plenty of depth on the defensive line. Quinton Coples, Tydreke Powell, Donte Paige-Moss and Michael McAdoo all saw time on the defensive line this past season. The Heels do not have any defensive line commits for 2010 but there is still time to bring in some extra help. Even with Butch Davis having to bring in two new starters the front four and the front seven should continue to be a terror.
The only concern I have about the defense heading into the next season is the state of the pass defense and coaching in general. UNC showed some weakness against quality QBs. Christian Ponder, Jacory Harris, Russell Wilson and Bill Stull all did plenty of damage against UNC's secondary with the jury out on how much that could be laid at the feet of the safeties and corners. There is still a tendency on the part of Everett Withers to dial back the pressure as well as fail to make adjustments. I lost count of the number of times Pitt completed the same freaking pass in the flat on 3rd down during the Car Care Bowl. That game and what happened against both FSU and NCSU concerns me that despite all UNC is bringing back so much NFL caliber talent they will still be hamstrung to some extent by the coaching staff.
Of course UNC still needs to find an offensive that is worth at least 28-30 points per game of we will endure more disappointing losses where the opposing team is kept in check but the offense cannot deliver the points. The offensive line will still be unproven losing two seniors and breaking in some talented freshmen. Questions abound about the running game as well. If Shaun Draughn can return healthy, I think the rushing attack will be effective since John Shoop will start the season with a good grasp on how to utilize Draughn alongside Ryan Houston with a smattering of Johnny White and Greg Little. Thrown a healthy Jamal Womble into the mix and I like the Heels to be effective running the ball if the offensive line can play halfway decent. The other question is the passing game and whether Davis and Shoop's loyalty to T.J. Yates will be set aside in favor of the best available option. Well, that is assuming Bryn Renner is the best available option. Reports say Renner was very good in practice. Spring drills will indicate whether that will translate into him being a legitimate option at QB. If he is I think the receivers will be far more dangerous. Greg Little has shown signs of being a top receiver. His biggest issue is keeping his attitude in check otherwise Little should be effective. I also think Erik Highsmith and Jhey Boyd, with a year under their belt, can become type of receivers who can outrun some DBs and open up the long pass down field. Dwight Jones is allegedly still on the roster and was once thought to be a decent WR. Maybe that will happen in 2010.
Overall, UNC has a lot of solid pieces in place. Like 2009, the defense will be the strength of the team. The offense will be analyzed to death with questions galore but again I think Shoop will have a better idea of what works in the running game and if Renner is the real deal then UNC will be much better across the board. As for the schedule, it will not be easy. UNC opens versus LSU in Atlanta and also plays Rutgers and ECU on the non-conference slate with Williams & Mary as the I-AA opponent. In the ACC, UNC gets Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech at home with NC State and Clemson. The road games are against Miami, Virginia, Duke and FSU. Could this be the season UNC breaks the losing streak in Charlottesville with the Cavs breaking in a new head coach? I hope so. Davis owns Miami and who knows what FSU will be like with the Seminoles also under a new head coach though one who has been there for a few years as an assistant. In short, UNC is capable of winning every ACC game on the schedule and only one game on the whole slate--the LSU game in Atlanta. In short, 9-3 with a 6-2 ACC mark is awfully doable with a potential for 10-2 or if the offense really comes together 11-1. For now and yes this is really, really early but based on what we know right now, I think 9-3 with a shot at 10-3 in the bowl game is the likely scenario. Anything less will be a disappointment and better than that will be gravy on your Thanksgiving turkey.