The Least Predictable Team of 2008

Normally, this would be the time where I give a final predicition of how well Carolina is going to play this season, based on schedule, personnel, experience, coaching, and the rest of the conference.

But I cannot, in my heart of hearts, give a proper predicition. There is no true way, prior to the beginning of the season, to predict how my Tar Heels will fare. Whether it’s 10-2 or 2-10, any one who says they can pinpoint the 2008 season is lying.

Here’s why.

1. The Rest of the Atlantic Coast Conference is just as unpredictable as we are.

Half of the conference, UNC included, is breaking a new coach they have hired within the last two years. We happen to be facing all of the other five teams (@Miami and Duke, hosting BC, Georgia Tech, and NC State). Two of our other ACC opponents have had to complete overhaul their lineup as well (Va. Tech, @UVa). The only stable team on our ACC slate is Maryland, and they finihed 6-6 in the 2007 regular season. We could finish anywhere from 7-1 to 2-6 in conference. We just don’t know.

2. Our Non-Conference Opponents.

McNeese State is the only game than I can declare victory with any level of certainty, and even that could reasonably be an upset. Our other OOC games are against two mid-level Big East teams (@Rutgers, vs. UConn) and Notre Dame, the only FBS to have had an larger roster turnover than the Tar Heels. They’re all technically beatable, but I’m certain that each of these teams also consider us beatable.

3. Our Coaching Staff.

Butch Davis and John Shoop are in their second year at Carolina, and I think we’re fairly comfortable with them. But last year’s defensive coordinator, Chuck Pagano, has since gone back to the NFL. In his place: Everett Withers. Will we see the Everett Withers who was a top DB coach at the University of Texas and the Tennessee Titans, or will we see the Withers that led the nation’s worst defense in 2007 at MInnesota? Only time will tell.

4. Our players.

How will T.J. Yates play in his second year? WIll Greg Little provide enough run support? Will the offensive line be a cohesive unit?  Will we have reliable linebackers and defensive ends? We have a good starting 22, but who’s behind them? At what positions will our lack of depth come back to bite us, if any? So many personnel question, all of which can only be answered by the upcoming season.

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There are way too many unkowns about this team to make an accurate prediction. While I would be ecstatic with anything 7-5 or better, I could realistically see this team finishing 11-1 or 4-8 without being completely surprised. So to maintain your sanity as a UNC football fan, I ask that you just enjoy the journey this season, and not worry too much about the ultimate destination.

The journey officially begins tomorrow night at six. Let’s do this.

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2008 UNC Season Previews: Running Back

Probable Starter: Greg Little

Key Reserves: Ryan Houston, Devon Ramsay, Jamal Womble, Shaun Draughn, Anthony Elzy, Bobby Rome, Rameses the Ram, Ramses the Dude in the Costume, Usain Bolt, Anrdei Arshavin, Bear Grylls, Chancellor Holden Thorp, Chinese Badminton sensation Lin Dan, Lego Steve Nash, Ben Mauk (6th Year of Eligibility), Ronnie McGill (8th year of eligibility)

Overview: Up until the post-Mack era, the Tar Heels were synonymous with a powerful rushing offense. Carolina tailbacks rushed for 1,000 yards 24 times between 1969 and 1997, and UNC had at least one 1,000 yard rusher for 12 consecutive seasons (1973-84).

In the Torbush/Bunting era, however, the best rushing season came from Chad Scott in 2004: 796 yards and 8 TDs. 2007 was near rock bottom: 107th in the nation at 99.5 pards per game, no one broke the 400 yard plateau, and no player established himself as the feature back. If Carolina has any hope of living up to the preseason hype, they’ll need far more support from the backfield.

Fortunately, Greg Little may change that. Little moved from wide receiver to tailback well into the season, and he was placed into the starting lineup against Georgia Tech and Duke. In those two games he rushed for 243 yards and two touchdowns on 50 carries, including 154 against the Blue Devils. With his performance at the end of 2007 and in camp, Little is going to start at tailback for the beginning of 2008. He has even said that his goal is to rush for 1,000 yards this season. While he does necessarily need to move mountains, he should certainly help make the offense more balanced.

Little’s place is fairly secure, but every other carry is up for grabs. Anthony Elzy, who rushed for 351 yards, is being moved to a fullback/H-back role. Both Johnny White and Richie Rich are switching to defensive backs. That leaves Ryan Houston as the incumbent, having rushed for 152 yards on 44 carries in his freshman year. He is much more fit this season than he was in 2007, which almost certainly means better production in 2008.

Then we reach into the unknown, the freshmen. Devon Ramsay is a 6-2, 240 pound redshirt freshman from Lawrenceville, NJ, who ran track in high school. So we can surmise that the guy has both size and speed, but that’s about all we know. Jamal Womble is a highly touted true freshman from Arizona who stands at 5-11 and 215 pounds, runs a 4.5 40, and rushed for 1,787 yards, 20 TDs, and over 10 yards per carry in his senior year, all school records in Sierra Vista. Again, we know his amazing potential, but not much else.

The most interesting story in this RB battle has been the emergence of Shaun Druaghn, whom I already like if only for the fact that his name rhymes. He was recruited as a safety, but also played QB and tailback at Tarboro High. After spring practice he asked coach Davis for the opportunity to play at running back in fall camp. He was given a significant share of practice carries while Houston has been banged up and Womble has learned the offense, and he has done nothing but impress. By August 30th, Draughn could be the 2nd tailback on the UNC depth chart.

Outlook: Little will definitely be a stable influence at the running back position, but depth is still an issue. Up to five tailback could have an impact this season, and we still have little idea who emerge as the #2 option. The running back position is Carolina’s biggest question mark heading into the season, and the answer will in all likelihood determine for far the Tar Heels can go in 2008.

(Draughn Photo: Tar Heel Blue.)

2008 UNC Season Previews: Wide Receivers

Probable Starters: Hakeem Nicks (#88), Brandon Tate (#87)

Key Reserves: Brooks Foster (#1), Kenton Thornton (#3), Rashad Mason (#85), Dwight Jones (#83), and apparently 20% of the state of North Carolina.

Overview: Wide receiver is the deepest and most talented part of UNC’s offense. At the very least, Carolina has three fantastic, experienced receivers and three talented, if unproven, players behind them in the depth chart.

We start with junior Hakeem Nicks. In the entire, 115+ year history of UNC football, no one has amassed 1,000 yards receiving in one season. Hakeem Nicks has come closest, setting a school record with 74 receptions and 958 yards to go with five touchdowns. This year he’s a preseason first team All-ACC selection and is expected to break the 1,000 yard barrier with relative ease.

Brandon Tate is right behind him in the depth chart. While he might leave Chapel Hill as the greatest return man in ACC history, he hasn’t been renowned for his receiving. Last year Tate made a solid impression as the #3 receiver, scoring as many touchdowns as Nicks with only one-third of the receptions (25). A touchdown for every 5 catches is a pretty amazing number, and it’s enough for coach Davis to put him alongside Nicks in the starting lineup.

Brooks Foster may be listed third on the depth chart, but the senior has had 67 receptions for 903 yards in the last two seasons. Expect him to get a lot of touches while defenses worry about Nicks and Tate.

The greatest attribute that UNC’s top three receivers have is the ability to get yards after the catch. In 2007 the majority of the their catches would comes from quick throws form T.J. Yates within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. With Nicks in particular, Yates delivered a bullet from a one step drop against a corner who gave just a little too much space, and Nicks would fight for 8-12 yards and a first down.

Among the three receivers behind Nicks, Tate and Foster in the depth chart, only Kenton Thornton has any experience (three receptions in nine games played). One distinct advantage that Thornton, Rashad Mason and Dwight Jones have over the starting lineup is height; all three are at least 6’4″ while Nicks and Tate are both 6’1″. They may be unproven talents, but they should be in a few extra plays this season; if Nicks declares for the draft after this season, these three receivers are the probable starting lineup of 2009. Expect them to enter the fold for jump balls, passes up the middle, and the red zone.

Outlook: T.J. Yates should be counting his lucky stars right now. With the combination of talent, experience, and depth, he might be throwing to the best receiving corps in the ACC this season.

2008 UNC Season Previews: Tight Ends and H-Backs

(Photo: Inside Carolina)

Probable Starters: Richard Quinn (#89), Zack Pianalto (#17)

Key Reserves: Ed Barham (#80), Bobby Rome (#4), B.J. Phillips (#81), Christian Wilson (#33)

Overview: Much has been made about the Tar heel receiving core, but the key to T.J. Yates’ development as a QB may be short range passes to reduce pressure. Both the tight end and the H-back should favor heavily into an effective short and medium-range passing game.

Pianalto (the talent from Springfield Arkansas not named Mitch Mustain) was the fourth leading catcher for the Heels in 2007, gaining 204 yards on 24 catches. Pessimistic Carolina fans may remember him because he made a key fumble in the fourth quarter of UNC’s 22-20 loss to Virginia. Still, Pianalto made a significant contribution to the offense in 2007, and is expected to do so this year.

As for Quinn…not so much. His biggest play last year was also a costly mistake, a wide open drop in the endzone against Georgia Tech that led to a turnover on downs and another two point defeat. His stats were far less impressive than Pianalto’s: four receptions, 27 yards. It’s worth noting that the tight end and H-back are rarely on the field at the same time in John Shoop’s offense. Still, it’s important for Quinn to make a bigger impact on offense.

Outlook: Pianalto is expected to have a breakout year, and Carolina certainly seems committed to incorporating him into plays whenever possible. However, given the depth of talent at wide receiver, it’s unclear how many touches he and Quinn are going to get.

2008 UNC Season Previews: Offensive Line

Probable Starters: Kyle Jolly (#72), Calvin Darily (#79), Aaron Stahl (#73), Byron Bishop (#76), Garrett Reynolds (#75)

Key Reserves: Mike Ingersoll, Kevin Bryant, Lowell Dyer, Morgan Randall, others

Overview: An offense lives and dies by the offensive line. There’s no getting around it; speedy receivers and powerful running backs can only help you so much if the guards get knocked back three yards behind the line of scrimmage.

How this offensive line will perform this year is a bit of an enigma, especially considering the extremely difficulty one can have quantifying any offensive line with stats. Four out of five starters from last year return in 2008, and everyone is a Junior or senior. It follows logic that the line should play like a veteran, cohesive unit. On the other hand, they didn’t play particularly well in 2007. Carolina had one of the worst rushing attacks in college football, and gave up 37 sacks to opposing defenses. Greg Little, Jamal Womble, and other running backs will definitely help improve those stats, but the line must make leaps and bounds for the offense to be effective.

Kyle Jolly and Garrett Reynolds are the returning tackles, with Calvin Darity returning at right guard. The only newcomer is senior Byron Bishop at left guard. Aaron Stahl is taking the responsibility of playing center after the departure of Scott Lenahan.His development at center will be key to the line’s success this season.

Outlook: This offensive line is now a more experienced unit. More importantly, they’re experienced together, so they’ll definitely improve over 2007. As for where they stand amongst other lines in the ACC…we will have no bleeping idea until September.

A Sneak Peek Into the 2008 Schedule

We’re only three weeks away from college football, which means a look at this year’s schedule is long overdue. (Now is a good time to let you take a look at the 2008 ACC Helmet Schedule from Sporting Gnomes.)

As you’re well aware, I (like most people) have high hopes for Carolina to challenge for the ACC Coastal Division this season. Several factors lead to this conclusion. We returned a lot of startes from last season, this team seems to have a steep learning curve, A lot of our close losses in 2007 can turn into close wins in 2008, T.J. Yates’ arm is finally healthy, and we may finally have a running game this year.

The most important factor leading to the extra optimism, however, is the schedule. Only one of our opponents (Virginia Tech) is in the top 25, and we get them at home. Most of our other opponents are solid, middle-of-the-road teams, ranked somewhere in the 30-55 range. We are right at that level with them.

What does that mean? Well, there are two sides to it. The optomistic side is that every game is winnable. If the defense plays at the same level that it did last season, and the offense can finally get clicking, 10 wins is not out of reach.

The pessimistic side is that these games are just as winnable for our opponents. @Rutgers, VT, @Miami, UConn, Notre Dame, Georgia Tech, @UVa, @Maryland, NCSU–all of those teams have enough going for them to win, and there are anough pitfalls for us to end up losing those games. 5 wins and missing a bowl game isn;t entirely out of the question either. Much like last season, the only games you can definitely say will go UNC’s way are the 1-AA opener and Duke. And given the MIchigan fiasco and our close OT game at home last year, who’s to say that even those games are guaranteed anymore?

Our schedule certainly is manageable, but it isn’t as deliciously cupcake-y as one might think. This season could end anywhere between 5-7 and 10-2; It just depends on many factors, too innumerable to discuss in one post.

If Carolina plays to their potential, this certainly could be the year to make the leap to coastal division champions. As optomistic as I am, I have to compare this season’s potential success with the recent past. I would be ectsatic with anything over 7-5.

Address the Mess: Slow Starts

Address the Mess is a new feature to discuss some of the problems Carolina Football faced last season, and how the team might correct them. Not that we’re in a mess; far from it. But in the parity (bad-ness-ness-ness-ness) of the ACC, where Carolina played in 8 games decided by a touchdown or less, successfully addressing even one of these issues can be worth an extra win or two. Today we start with the Tar Heels’ struggles in the first and third quarters.

The Problem: “Hello, uh…Mr.  Yates? Coach? O-Line? D-backs? Hi, my name is Mike. I’m a big fan of yours. Listen, uh just so you know, it’s ehmmm about 12:30, which means the football game you guys are a part of has, uh already started, so I just wanted you a friendly reminder to, uhh START PLAYING LIKE IT! Okay, good to see you, and good luck.”

Is this an accurate description of you, the Tar Heel fan, circa last season? If so, I understand. In Carolina’s eight close games, opponents outscored UNC 123-71 in the first and third quarters, and in four of our twelve games the Heels were shut out in those quarters. Conversely, UNC outscored its FBS opponents 126-83 in the second and fourth quarters and overtime Extrapolated, that’s a swing of more than 20 points per game when the outcome was determined by a touchdown or less.

The Reasons: The Heels had just appeared to be sluggish out of the gate. It’s difficult to know exactly why, but two trends presented themselves in the first and third quarters more than anything else.

The most obvious (and correctable) problem is turnovers. First quarters were littered with interceptions, almost-interceptions, and a failed fourth-and-goal conversion against Georgia Tech (a turnover in spirit) caused by a dropped touchdown pass. These kinds of mental mistakes would fill an entire article, but this is an inexperienced team, and in this case turnovers are only part of the story.

A larger and more subtle theme at the start of games has been the inability to control the line of scrimmage. The offensive line, with only one experienced starter (Scott Lenahan), were particularly vulnerable in the first quarter, getting beat by opposing D-lines consistently. This explains more than anything else why the running game just didn’t work at the start of games, and Yates made bad decisions in the first one or two possessions.

Conversely, the defensive line had some odd lapses to start the game as well, completely uncharacteristic compared to their typical performances later in the game. They allowed Virginia’s Cedric Peerman to run for nearly 100 yards in the first quarter. Virginia Tech’s only big offensive play came on the second play from scrimmage, a 54-yard run by Eddie Royal to set up their first touchdown. And Chris Smelley lit up the secondary to help South Carolina gain a 14 point lead in the first quarter. Carolina came back in all of these games after correcting their defensive issues.

The Solution: There isn’t a very clear-cut way to deal with this particular issue. Protecting the ball obviously helps, keeping both possession and momentum in your favor early in the game. The offensive line also has to do its job. It’s difficult to get much of anything done if the O-line gets pushed 2-3 yards into the backfield. On defense, it’s about controlling the line of scrimmage early in the game. That shouldn’t be a problem for the defensive tackles, but Carolina may show a bit of weakness at the ends. If Carolina puts E.J. Wilson on one side of the line and QUANTAVIUS THE MAGNIFICENT behind the other DE, it should probably patch up any glaring issues at the line.

The Tally: Many other factors belie whether or not a team gets off to a good start in a game, but at least breaking even in the first and third quarters should be worth an extra 1.5 to 2.5 victories this season.

(Photo: Inside Carolina/Jim Hawkins)