North Carolina's defense features a handful of potential NFL first-round picks, but the Tar Heels' chances of winning the ACC title rest on the performance of the man who leads their offense.
Tar Heels quarterback T.J. Yates showed plenty of promise early in his career, but he threw more interceptions (15) than touchdowns (14) last season while ranking 97th nationally in passing efficiency.
As good as UNC is on defense, the Tar Heels won't live up to expectations unless Yates and Co. improve on offense.
Because he could play such a vital role in determining whether his team lives up to its high hopes, Yates headlines our list of 12 players who need to bounce back from disappointing seasons.
The buzz: After catching 36 passes for 679 yards and three touchdowns in 2008, Dell headed into 2009 as one of the Big Ten's more promising receivers. But instead of building on his momentum, he missed two games with a shoulder injury and finished the season with just 26 receptions for 449 yards and one touchdown. To make matters worse, Dell was suspended in December for his alleged involvement in a fight with a fraternity. Dell caught four passes for 133 yards in the spring game, so perhaps he is ready to make the most of his second chance.
The buzz: After ranking seventh in the Big Ten in tackles per game and earning honorable mention all-conference honors as a sophomore, Ezeh suffered a big dip in production last season. As his tackle total dropped from 98 in 2008 to 69 in '09, Ezeh became a scapegoat for the struggles of a Michigan defense that ranked eighth in the Big Ten in points allowed and ninth in yards allowed. Ezeh struggled through back problems for much of last season, which lends credence to the notion that he could bounce back if he stays healthy.
The buzz: Texas had to overcome the struggles of its offensive line on its way to the BCS championship game. Because Hix was supposed to be one of the team's top linemen, he received much of the blame when the line didn't quite live up to expectations. The biggest reason Hix is on this list is because he's moving from right tackle to left tackle, which puts even more pressure on him to deliver as he protects first-year starting quarterback Garrett Gilbert's blind side. If Hix doesn't perform well, Texas will have a hard time winning the Big 12 South, much less getting back to the national championship game.
The buzz: It's not that Lewis had a bad year last season. He rushed for 871 yards and five touchdowns as one of the only weapons on a team that ranked 114th in the nation in total offense. But he rushed for nearly twice as many yards (1,736) in 2008, when he reached the end zone 22 times and ranked fifth in the nation with 124.0 rushing yards per game. His 871-yard total from last season also is somewhat misleading because he gained 301 of those yards in one game, a 29-27 victory over Eastern Michigan. A look at Ball State's record from the last two years shows how much Lewis means to this offense. When he rushed for 1,736 yards, Ball State went 12-2. The Cardinals slumped to 2-10 when he tailed off last season.
The buzz: When Murray rushed for 764 yards and 13 touchdowns on just 127 carries as a redshirt freshman in 2007, he looked like a future All-American. He followed that up by rushing for 1,002 yards and 14 scores in 2008, but he managed just 705 yards and eight touchdowns last season. Part of the blame goes to Oklahoma's offensive line. And it didn't help that Oklahoma typically used five-receiver sets after redshirt freshman quarterback Landry Jones was pressed into duty early in the season. But it's tough to ignore that Murray gained just 4.1 yards per carry last season, down from 5.6 in 2008 and 6.0 in 2007.
The buzz: After rushing for 1,133 yards and eight touchdowns to earn first-team All-ACC honors in 2008, Scott ran for only 425 yards and four touchdowns last season while missing five games with a broken left forearm. Although it would be easy to assume Scott's fall in production was a direct result of the injury, he was struggling even before he got hurt. His two fumbles proved critical in an early 32-31 loss to Middle Tennessee, and that game was the only time he reached the 100-yard mark. If Scott stays healthy and takes better care of the ball, he could team with Davin Meggett and quarterback Jamarr Robinson to give Maryland a solid rushing attack.
The buzz: Smith showed plenty of promise as a sophomore when he won a starting job at strongside linebacker and delivered 57 overall tackles, including 8.5 for loss. He actually increased his tackle total to 69 last season after moving to safety, but he had enough trouble at his new position that he moved back to linebacker for the second half of the season. Smith seemed to lose confidence as his struggles reflected the troubles of Notre Dame's entire defense, which allowed at least 30 points in six of its 12 games. Smith has moved back to safety and could benefit from not having to worry about switching positions anymore, as he isn't considered a fit as a linebacker in new coach Brian Kelly's 3-4 scheme.
The buzz: Although he threw for more yards in 2009 (3,308) than he did a year earlier (3,274), his efficiency went down. Vittatoe threw 33 touchdown passes with only nine interceptions in 2008; he had 17 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions in '09. UTEP might not need Vittatoe to throw for 3,000 yards this season because the Miners return Donald Buckram, who ran for 1,594 yards and ranked fourth in the nation in rushing last season. But they do need him to get his touchdown-interception ratio back to his 2008 level.
The buzz: One year after rushing for 1,036 yards and 17 touchdowns, Washington managed 865 yards and 10 scores in '09. He rushed for 171 fewer yards last season despite having 13 more carries. Washington has dropped 10 pounds during the offseason in an attempt to increase his quickness. It will be interesting to see what kind of workload Washington receives. He had a total of 59 carries in Missouri's final five games last season. Even in that outstanding 2008 season, Washington never had as many as 20 carries in a game.
The buzz: Weber's statistics indicate why Minnesota faded down the stretch last season. Over the Gophers' last eight games of the season, Weber threw nine interceptions and only seven touchdown passes. Weber threw five touchdowns and only one interception in a 42-34 victory over Michigan State during that stretch, so he was picked off eight times and threw for only two touchdowns in the other seven games. He finished the season ranked 98th in the nation in passing efficiency after throwing 13 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions. One year earlier, Weber had thrown 15 touchdown passes with only eight interceptions.
The buzz: Florida State was counting on this former five-star prospect from Butler County (Kan.) Community College to help fill a pass-rushing void. It hasn't happened. White had 24.5 sacks and forced six fumbles at Butler County in 2007, and he had 5.5 tackles for loss in a backup role at Florida State two years ago. White had a respectable 10.5 tackles for loss last year, but he produced just two sacks. The Seminoles need White to deliver on the promise he showed in junior college.
The buzz: Early in Yates' career, it seemed as though only injuries would prevent him from stardom. As long as he was healthy enough to stay on the field, Yates performed well while throwing to a receiving corps that included first-round draft pick Hakeem Nicks, third-round pick Brandon Tate and fifth-round pick Brooks Foster. He wasn't nearly as effective last season while playing alongside inexperienced receivers. Did Yates simply need a year to adjust to his new receivers? Or did Nicks, Tate and Foster make Yates look better than he actually is? Yates' 2010 performance should settle the argument.