Friday, August 28, 2009

CFI Countdown: #15 North Carolina Tar Heels

2008 Record: 8-5 (AAC: 4-4)
Bowl Game: Lost Meineke Car Care Bowl to West Virginia 31-30
Location: Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Stadium: Kenan Memorial Stadium (60,000)
Head Coach: Butch Davis
Overall: 63-33 (9th season)
@ North Carolina: 12-13 (3rd season)
Link to UNC Football Page

After going 4-8 in Butch Davis’ first season back in college football after a stint with the Cleveland Browns, the architect of the great Miami teams from earlier this decade began building the foundation in Chapel Hill. Davis reversed the 4-8 record of 2007 to 8-4 in 2008 (in the regular season), and you can expect steady improvement from the Tar Heels under Davis until they become national title contenders.

When the Heels Have the Ball

Offensive Coordinator: John Shoop (3rd season)
Scheme: Pro Style
Starters Returning: Six
Key Losses: WR Hakeem Nicks, WR Brandon Tate, WR Brooks Foster, TE Richard Quinn, OT Garrett Reynolds, OG Calvin Darity

Junior T. J. Yates made strides as quarterback in his sophomore season and he should continue to improve as a junior. As important as his ability to read defenses and make decisions under pressure is, staying on the field is the key for Yates and the Heels, especially with backup Cameron Sexton having transferred in the off-season. They will also have to deal with losing the explosive pass catching troika of Hakeem Nicks, Brandon Tate, and Brooks Foster to the NFL, as well as the loss of starting tight end Richard Quinn. Former tailback Greg Little appears ready to break out as their number one target, sophomore Dwight Jones has oodles of talent, and tight end Zack Pianalto is primed to step into the starting lineup, so Yates won’t be alone as the Heels try to improve their passing attack. On the ground, they have found the answer to their woes in junior Shaun Draughn, who was impressive down the stretch last season. Fellow junior Ryan Houston is a barreling 250-pounder who provides punch and excels in short-yardage situations. The line returns three starters, including senior left tackle Kyle Jolly, who has 25 starts under his belt, and senior center Lowell Dyer. As a unit there is room for improvement along the offensive line.

Top Pro Prospects: 1) RB Shaun Draughn (JR), 2) WR Greg Little (JR), 3) TE Zack Pianalto (JR)

When the Other Team Has the Ball

Defensive Coordinator: Everett Withers (2nd season)
Scheme: 4-3
Starters Returning: Nine
Key Losses: S Trimane Goddard, LB Mark Paschal

It is no exaggeration to say nine of the Tar Heels starting 11 will one day hear their name called at the NFL Draft. Linemen Robert Quinn, Marvin Austin, and Tydreke Powell (backup); linebackers Quan Sturdivant, Bruce Carter, and Zach Brown; and safety Deunta Williams all have day one talent and none is a senior. The linebacking corps of juniors Carter and Sturdivant, and sophomore Brown may be the fastest unit in the country. It will be a challenge for any back to get by the trio, particularly the sure-tacking Sturdivant. Carter is also a kick-blocking machine. Williams leads the secondary with junior Kendric Burney developing into a solid coverman. What could allow this defense to take the next step is the defensive line. The three seniors—end E. J. Wilson, as well as tackles Cam Thomas and Aleric Mullins—are solid, but it’s the kids who could be special. Quinn should be a pass-rushing demon from his end position, with sophomores Michael McAdoo and Quinton Coples each capable of contributing off the bench. The two players who ultimately may end up having the most impact are Austin, a junior, and his backup, the sophomore Powell. The 300-pounders move in a way that 300-pounders just aren’t supposed to move. If they turn the corner as players, all bets are off when taking on this defense.

Top Pro Prospects: 1) DT Marvin Austin (JR), 2) LB Quan Sturdivant (JR), 3) DE Robert Quinn (SO)

The Schedule

The Tar Heels face an uphill battle in the Coastal Division race as they not only have to visit Blacksburg to take on ACC favorite Virginia Tech, they must face the other top challenger, Georgia Tech, on the road. UNC also closes out the season with back-to-back road games, the finale in Raleigh against in-state rival North Carolina St. They should be able to handle their out of conference slate, although they would be wise to be wary of East Carolina. Not only did the Pirates knock off Virginia Tech and West Virginia last season, they handled the Heels in Davis’ first season.

Pivotal Point

Finish…finish…finish. In the very-tight ACC, the ability to win close games will likely decide which teams advance to the ACC Championship Game. Other than the 41-10 beating at home to NC State, UNC’s other four losses came by a combined total of nine points. They dropped a three-point contest to Virginia Tech, blowing a 17-3 third quarter lead after Yates went down. Their second loss came in overtime at Virginia (16-13) after giving up the game-tying touchdown in the final minute of regulation, and their third loss was by two points at Maryland (17-15), on a Terps’ field goal in the game’s waning moments. Finally, they lost their bowl game by a single point (31-30) to West Virginia after taking a 30-24 lead into the fourth quarter. Even in 2007, six of their eight losses came by a touchdown or less.

CFI Final Analysis

The defense is almost there, and it’s already one of the best in the ACC, perhaps the nation. If they can do a better job of getting to the opposing quarterback and protecting fourth quarter leads they will be at a championship level. The offense is a little further away. They don’t have to be prolific, but if they can keep Yates healthy, protect the football, and help keep the defense off the field for long stretches they may arrive ahead of the schedule. They’re not yet in the National Championship picture, but a run at the ACC title is not out of reach. One thing is clear—Butch Davis is building something special.

College Football Insiders Top 25 Countdown:

The Next 25 (26-50) Plus 18 Bowl Teams
#25 West Virginia Mounainteers
#24 Tennessee Volunteers
#23 Clemson Tigers
#22 Pittsburgh Panthers
#21 Michigan St. Spartans
#20 Utah Utes
#19 Oregon Ducks
#18 Florida St. Seminoles
#17 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
#16 Boise St. Broncos

Photo Credit: UNC Athletic Communications