March 15, 2010

North Carolina has sights set on ACC crown

North Carolina's basketball team endured a miserable season, but Tar Heels fans still have reason for optimism this March. They just need to look on the football field instead of the basketball court.

Led by a defense that should rank among the nation's best, North Carolina heads into spring practice with reason to believe it could win its first ACC title since Lawrence Taylor led the Tar Heels to an 11-1 finish in 1980.

North Carolina has an elite pass rusher in Robert Quinn plus one of the nation's top secondaries. The question is whether the offense will be good enough to keep the Tar Heels in ACC contention.

Here's a look at how the Tar Heels stack up as they head into spring practice.

NORTH CAROLINA AT-A-GLANCE
QB T.J. Yates faces an important spring.
THE BASICS
COACH: Butch Davis
LAST SEASON: 8-5, 4-4 in the ACC. Lost 19-17 to Pittsburgh in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.
SPRING DATES: March 15-April 10
RETURNING STARTERS
OFFENSE (9): G Jonathan Cooper, TB Shaun Draughn, WR Erik Highsmith, C Cam Holland, T Mike Ingersoll, WR Greg Little, G Alan Pelc, TE Zack Pianalto, QB T.J. Yates.
DEFENSE (10): T Marvin Austin, CB Charles Brown, LB Zach Brown, CB Kendric Burney, LB Bruce Carter, E Robert Quinn, LB Kevin Reddick, SS Da'Norris Searcy, LB Quan Sturdivant, FS Deunta Williams.
SPECIAL TEAMS (2): K Casey Barth, P Grant Schallock.
POSITIONS OF STRENGTH

Take your pick on defense, particularly the back seven. North Carolina returns all four starters from a secondary that helped the Tar Heels rank 14th in the nation in pass efficiency defense last season. Deunta Williams, Kendric Burney and Charles Brown combined for 14 interceptions a year ago, when Williams and Burney earned first-team All-ACC honors. UNC also returns its linebacker corps intact, including first-team All-ACC selection Quan Sturdivant and second-team pick Bruce Carter. North Carolina must replace the departed Cam Thomas and E.J. Wilson on the defensive line, but the Tar Heels also boast one of the nation's top pass rushers in Quinn, who recorded 11 sacks and an ACC-leading 19 tackles for loss last season.

POSITIONS OF NEED

UNC needs better results from QB T.J. Yates, who placed 10th in the ACC in passing efficiency last season while throwing 15 interceptions and 14 touchdown passes. Yates has proved in the past that he's capable of playing well, but he regressed last season. Carolina's talent-laden defense has raised hopes that the Tar Heels can reach the first ACC championship game in their home state, but they won't get to Charlotte if Yates repeats his 2009 performance. The offensive line also is a major concern, as the Tar Heels must replace three-year starter Kyle Jolly at left tackle. Candidates for the job include junior Carl Gaskins and true freshmen James Hurst and T.J. Leifheit. Gaskins sat out last season with a knee injury, while Hurst - UNC's marquee recruit - and Leifheit enrolled in time to participate in spring practice.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

OTs James Hurst and T.J. Leifheit: These true freshmen are four-star prospects who already have enrolled and will go through spring practice. Hurst was the No. 4 offensive tackle and No. 32 overall recruit in the 2010 recruiting class; Leifheit was the No. 30 offensive tackle. Both should get plenty of chances to prove themselves this spring. Gaskins, a junior, also is competing to replace departed left tackle Jolly, but Gaskins will be limited this spring as he recovers from a knee injury that knocked him out for the 2009 season.

DE Donte Paige-Moss: This former five-star prospect arguably made more news off the field than on it during his freshman season. A fight with a teammate in a dorm room last summer resulted in a misdemeanor simple assault charge that eventually was dropped, and he was suspended from the Meineke Car Care Bowl after getting into an altercation with a N.C. State player after the Tar Heels' regular-season finale. If Paige-Moss matures and avoids off-field issues, he certainly has enough talent to develop into a solid pass rusher.

DT Tydreke Powell: After performing well as reserve in each of his first two seasons, Powell seems primed for a larger role this season. He has a good chance of filling one of the few vacancies at the top of UNC's depth chart. Powell recorded 24 tackles - four for loss - and two sacks last season.

THE PRESSURE IS ON

QB T.J. Yates: Although he isn't in any immediate danger of losing his job, Yates must bounce back from his disappointing 2009 season if North Carolina is to have any hope of winning the ACC Coastal Division. Although he struggled with injuries earlier in his career, Yates generally played much better in 2007 and '08 than he did last season. His slump has raised questions about whether Yates benefited earlier in his career from the presence of WRs Hakeem Nicks and Brandon Tate, who since have moved on to the NFL. Yates wasn't nearly as effective without Nicks and Tate last season. North Carolina's backup quarterbacks are sophomore Braden Hansen and redshirt freshman Bryn Renner. Although Renner is playing for North Carolina's baseball team, he isn't expected to miss any football practices this spring. Even if Hansen and Renner outperform Yates in spring practice and this summer, it's hard to imagine North Carolina starting an untested quarterback in the season opener against LSU. But if Yates struggles early in the season, he might not have his job by the end of the season.

THE BUZZ

If North Carolina can upgrade an offense that ranked 108th in the nation in yards per game last season, the Tar Heels could make a legitimate run at an ACC title. That's why the offense will get a lot of attention this spring. North Carolina returns the nucleus of a defense that ranked among the top 20 in the nation in just about every major statistical category last year. This also marks the first year in Butch Davis' tenure that the Tar Heels return their entire coaching staff intact. The biggest name is defensive coordinator Everett Withers, who could become a candidate for all sorts of high-profile openings next winter if the Tar Heels live up to expectations.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.


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