The performance of the secondary will go a long way toward determining how strong this Carolina defense turns out to be in 2009.
A year ago, Carolina struggled at the end of some games because of the dreaded "prevent defense," in which only three linemen rush at times in order to put more defenders in the secondary.
What Coach Butch Davis could not say publicly was that the Tar Heels often did this because they were not confident enough in their secondary to cover man-to-man with the game on the line.
Of course, getting more pass rush is going to help any group of defensive backs. When North Carolina had its best defenses in school history in 1996 and '97, the Tar Heels had two lock-down cornerbacks in Dre' Bly and Robert Williams. But those corners also had one of the finest, fastest defensive fronts in front of it.
Linebackers literally leaped offensive linemen to get into the backfield and attack the quarterback. And with guys such as Greg Ellis and Vonnie Holliday pressuring from the defensive line, covering receivers was not nearly as difficult.
Defensive tackles are not normally known for pass rushing because their job is geared more toward clogging the line and making sure the opposition does not run the ball. But with players such as Marvin Austin, Aleric Mullins and Tydreke Powell bringing extraordinary speed to the position, the tackles may get some quarterback sacks, too.
Fellow tackle Cam Thomas may not get as many sacks, but he is going to be a serious run stopper.
"The real buzzword with our whole defensive line and especially those young [defensive ends]," Davis said, "is consistency. Last year they were good athletes. They were totally green. Everything they saw was totally new to them. Now they are learning to play consistently every single down."
The biggest difference for this team and those in the 1990s is the spread offense that so many teams play now. The game has evolved to this strategy of isolating defenders on great athletes for the last 20 years. It appears to be at its peak now.
"College football is a game of such speed," Davis said. "Offenses have changed so much with the spread offense. Florida is running single-wing concepts when there is an awful lot of speed. There are three or four wide receivers; quarterbacks are very athletic. It really puts a premium on trying to have a fast, athletic defensive team.
"I think we're moving in that direction. We have some guys who certainly can run. With this recruiting class, we're going to continue to add to that. Jeff Connors has done a good job with our strength-and-conditioning program by helping our kids' mechanics and learning to run better. We're making some strides there."
For UNC to defend opposing rushers well, the cornerbacks are going to have to tackle. And for the Tar Heels to avoid playing a sagging defense late in the game, the corners and safeties must prove they can take a receiver and handle him one-on-one.
Kendric Burney is set to be the starter at one cornerback, but the other side is not settled. Carolina needs Charles Brown to be healthy this fall. He stayed hurt so much last season he never provided the contribution a player of his caliber needs to give for the team to reach its potential.
Davis said Brown and Jordan Hemby competed hard this spring and will do so again in August. There will be some new faces as well.
"We have six young defensive backs coming in as freshman," Davis said, "and it's an area we some of those guys to come in and earn an opportunity to help us with depth."