Team preview: North Carolina
The Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook previews the 2006 North Carolina Tar Heels.
The winds of change swept some of the cobwebs out of North Carolina's football program during the offseason. But will it be enough to take the Tar Heels off that maddening cusp of being just good enough to make a bowl game? Two years ago, John Bunting's team did play in the postseason, losing to Boston College in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. Last year, a 30-3 loss in the season finale against ACC Coastal Division champion Virginia Tech prevented the Tar Heels from qualifying for a bowl.
Bunting would like to remove all doubt by establishing this year's team early as the most successful since he took over the program in December 2000. That won't be particularly easy with games against Virginia Tech, Clemson and Miami in the first five weeks and a trip to Notre Dame in early November. Still, with Rutgers, USF and Division I-AA Furman on the schedule, the Tar Heels should have a far less brutal out of conference experience than the last couple of years. And success this season isn't out of the question: Since the ACC expanded to 11 and then 12 teams over the last two years, the Tar Heels rank fourth with Georgia Tech for the best ACC record at 9-7, behind Virginia Tech (14-2), Miami and Florida State (each at 11-5). Bunting has made some significant changes since last season, after long-time offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill retired and assistants Hal Hunter and Brad Lawing moved on to other coaching positions. It gave Bunting the opportunity to revamp his team's offense, which had grown stale in Tranquill's final season with now-departed quarterback Matt Baker. The Tar Heels were 10th in the ACC in total offense at 315.7 yards and 11th in the league in scoring offense at 18.0 points per game. So Bunting lured Frank Cignetti, a Tranquill disciple, from Fresno State to take over the offensive, with instructions to be more aggressive and more proactive. He also brought in two other new assistants, Mark Weber, who spent the last two years working with Cignetti at Fresno, to coach the offensive line, and Danny Pearman, of Virginia Tech, to coach the defensive ends. The trio seems to have injected new energy into a program that has not had a winning season since 2001, Bunting's first year back in Chapel Hill. Cignetti and Weber worked together to build teams that were ranked in the Top 10 in scoring offense in 2004 and '05. In his four years as Fresno State's offensive coordinator, Cignetti developed quarterback Paul Pinegar into the school's all-time leading passer and is now trying to find the right quarterback to guide his new system at North Carolina. The overriding question during spring drills was who would win the competition between junior Joe Dailey and redshirt freshman Cameron Sexton for the starting quarterback job. It was a question, in Bunting's eyes, that was never going to be answered in the spring, and probably won't be decided until deep into fall camp. If then. "I don't know when the quarterbacks will separate, but I believe they will at some point," Bunting said. "Then again, it might be a situation like my first year here [when Ronald Curry and Darian Durant shared quarterback responsibilities]. I may play a second quarterback in a game. When we did it in 2001, we had tremendous success. "When we had a two-headed quarterback, we were undefeated. When we had a one-quarterback system, we lost games. I don't know if there was something to that, but we won all our games with a two-headed quarterback. I wouldn't be a guy who objects to having two quarterbacks playing in a game. I have seen it done in the NFL. It could possibly happen here." The Heels' quarterbacks are both athletic. Dailey transferred in to UNC after spending two years at Nebraska, where he was the 11-game starter in 2004 under first-year coach Bill Callahan. Dailey has great speed and game savvy that is likely to tip the scales in his favor as the starter, Bunting said. He also feels more comfortable in the UNC system, because every minute detail of every read and situation was covered and studied in team meetings during spring practice. But Sexton, who sat out all of last season as a medical redshirt after breaking his ankle in spring practice, is a more accomplished passer, with similar speed. Either of the two quarterbacks should fit into Cignetti's system, which he promises will be a smash-mouth style that features between-the-tackles running, downfield passing and an aggressive, rather than a reactive, attitude. Cignetti revealed little of his new offense in the spring as he concentrated on the battle at quarterback. If anything, the spring game was conservative. Weber, a 26-year coaching veteran, has a big job in front of him -- to develop a line that returns only two starters and is populated by oft-injured players who don't have a lot of experience, even with some of the most basic fundamentals. During the spring, just about every center-quarterback snap was an adventure. The good news for Bunting is that the Tar Heels have made significant improvement on defense, especially on the defensive front. Bunting thinks this year's defense can rival the abilities of his 2001 team, when future NFL players Julius Peppers, Ryan Sims and Joey Evans were three of the four starters. One thing Bunting has particularly worried about since the end of last season -- when he lost a big senior class that was made up of some of his first recruits -- is developing the same kind of bond he had with last year's seniors. He's looking for the same kind of strong leadership he had last year and isn't quite sure where it will come from. The coach knows he will have to rely on his upperclassmen to help a slew of younger players -- Bunting played only seven freshmen last year out of a 23-player recruiting class and expects many of the 28 players he signed in this year's highly regarded signing class to be on the field, especially on the defensive front, at wide receiver and at linebacker. Still, the coach and his players can't hide their excitement over the offseason changes that were made and the prospects they have for the 2006 season. "I have to tell you, this was the most fun I have ever had coaching spring ball," Bunting said. "Everything had a newness, a freshness about it. Knowing that our defense played better last year and believing that we could play even better this year with better depth at most positions. "It gave us a great deal of confidence as we began our summer workouts."
The biggest focus in spring practice for the Tar Heels was the competition between junior Joe Dailey (6-1, 205) and redshirt freshman Cameron Sexton (6-1, 180) for the starting quarterback job. The battle ended in a dead heat, though that was somewhat by design. Bunting and new offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Frank Cignetti wanted the competition to spill over into the fall, giving the two players the entire summer to think about the prospects of being a starter. "There is no doubt that I was not worried about finding a starter in the spring," Bunting said. "I am not concerned about it. "There is a lot of mental toughness in this game, and the position that requires the most mental toughness is quarterback. I have a really good feeling about both of these young men and I do think they can both contribute. It is going to be competitive until the end." Dailey, who started 11 games as a sophomore at Nebraska in 2004 before opting to transfer before last season, is the more experienced of the two. He threw a total of 19 touchdowns and 21 interceptions in his two years with the Cornhuskers, completing 162-of-324 of his passes (.500). Dailey is more of a scrambler, who uses his 4.4-second speed to create rushing yardage and passing opportunities. Sexton, however, has better passing skills and is not necessarily slow afoot; he has 4.5-second speed in the 40-yard dash. The Laurinburg, N.C., native is still catching up physically, however, after he suffered a broken ankle in 2005 spring drills that forced him to have surgery that limited him through fall practice. "That has held him back in some of his development, in terms of strength and conditioning," Bunting said. "Those are some of the things he is working on this summer, in addition to all the offensive mechanics of being a quarterback and running the offense. "He is going to grow up." Bunting doesn't discount the possibility that he will play both quarterbacks in rotation when the season begins, but Cignetti hasn't mentioned that possibility. The likelihood is that Dailey, because of his experience, will be the starter, with Sexton earning significant playing time to prepare him for the future. "The one distinct advantage that Joe Dailey has is his experience," Bunting said. "He has been involved in ball games as a starter. He has played games and thrown touchdown passes in the Big 12. He probably has a little bit of an edge in some football savvy situations. "He is an extremely hard worker and very bright. I think he has a great interest in leadership and will be a great coach some day." Bunting felt so good about the two candidates for the starting job he moved last year's backup quarterback, Joey Bozich, to fullback. The Tar Heels signed a pair of quarterbacks they hosted in summer football camps, B.J. Phillips (6-5, 230) of Columbia, S.C., and T.J. Yates (6-5, 190) of Marietta, Ga. Both will probably redshirt this season.
If the Tar Heels can keep him healthy, senior tailback Ronnie McGill (5-11, 220) could be extremely productive, perhaps even the school's first 1,000-yard rusher in 10 years. But last year, McGill missed the team's first four games while recovering from a torn pectoral muscle he suffered while lifting weights last June. Because of his tendency to get hurt, McGill sat out of most of spring contact work. "I know what he can do," Bunting said of his top rusher from last year, who gained 530 yards on 130 carries and scored five touchdowns. "The question has always been whether we can run Ronnie 20-to-25 times a game. To date, that has not happened for one reason or another. "I think he will be fine." McGill certainly showed some flashes last year, such as his season-best 146 yards on 28 carries in a 24-21 victory over Duke. Still, Bunting wanted strong competition for the backup spot behind McGill. He particularly wanted someone to push junior Barrington Edwards (6-0, 230), whose debut with the Tar Heels was less than spectacular after transferring from LSU. Edwards started the first five games, in McGill's absence. However, Edwards averaged just 3.5 yards per carry and scored two touchdowns. His best game was a 129-yard performance on 25 carries in a win over NC State. "Barrington had a good second half of spring practice," Bunting said. "But he has to continue to work on all the issues that go with being a complete football player, the off-the-field issues. "I am hopeful he will work those things out, because if he doesn't, he will not be able to contribute like I would like him to." In the spring, Edwards was challenged by junior walk-on Justin Warren (6-1, 192), who saw action last year at tailback and on special teams, and redshirt freshman Richie Rich (5-9, 190), one of the top players from the 2005 signing class who sat out all of last season as a redshirt. "Justin Warren is a very consistent player and somebody I think can help us next year," Bunting said. "He can catch, he can block, he knows the game. I think he had a very consistent spring." The Tar Heels signed four potential tailbacks during the recruiting period: highly regarded running backs Johnny White (5-10, 190) of Asheville, N.C., and Anthony Elzy (5-10, 205) of Warren, Ohio, as well as versatile athletes Bruce Carter (6-3, 210) of Havelock, N.C., and Anthony Parker-Boyd (6-1, 200), who both played quarterback, among other positions, in high school. At fullback, Bunting expects to get more out of the position than last year, when four different players combined for four carries and seven yards. With little productivity returning, Bunting moved sophomore Joey Bozich (6-2, 228) over from quarterback, to compete with returning sophomore Nick Starcevic (6-2, 235). Starcevic, one of seven true freshmen who played last year, made the most out of his only carry of the season: he rushed for one yard and scored a touchdown against Louisville. He missed most of spring drills while recovering from an appendectomy. "He certainly is a bona fide fullback," Bunting said. "He can run, he can catch and he can block. He is very physical." Bunting thinks Bozich can also be a bruiser, while adding some athleticism to the position that was lacking last year, as the Tar Heels looked to replace Madison Hedgecock. "He is powerful fullback that knocks people off their feet, both as a fullback and as a personal protector," Bunting said. "And he got into the wedge in the kickoff return unit. This guy has a future for us. I am excited about it." Another former quarterback, redshirt freshman Bobby Rome (5-11, 220), is working out at fullback for the Tar Heels. "We have three guys that are young and tough and strong that can play that position for us," Bunting said. "I feel real good about the competition there."
The Tar Heels lost four of their top five receivers from last year. Jarwarski Pollock, Derrele Mitchell and Wallace Wright all exhausted their eligibility, while rising senior Mike Mason was dismissed from the team. He transferred to Division I-AA Tennessee State. Combined, those four accounted for 76 receptions, 1,150 yards and six touchdowns. While senior Jesse Holley (6-3, 208), last year's leading receiver with 47 catches for 670 yards and a touchdown, returns for his final season, no other receiver on the pre-fall depth chart has caught a pass in a college game. Clearly, there is an opportunity for several incoming players from the Tar Heels' Top 25 recruiting class, which includes two SuperPrep All-America receivers, to earn playing time as true freshmen. The focus of the spring was to find a way to prevent the frequent drops that made last year's receivers strong candidates to replace Bart Simpson as the official spokesman for Butterfingers candy bars. The Tar Heels might have been bowl eligible had receivers not dropped important passes against Miami, Georgia Tech and Wisconsin. "We had some opportunities to make some big plays last year," Bunting said of his team. "We made some and we dropped some. That is the difference between going to a bowl game and staying home. We did beat three Top 25 teams and our rival in NC State. Those are big wins. "But I look at some of our other games, and I saw a lot of dropped balls. That was frustrating for the players involved and for the coaching staff." Holley, who was also a member of North Carolina's 2005 NCAA champion basketball team before deciding to concentrate solely on football, is clearly the top threat at receiver. In the spring, the coaching staff worked on getting sophomore Brandon Tate (6-1, 193), who made a big splash as a true freshman returning kickoffs and punts, more involved in the offense. Tate, who did not catch a pass as a freshman, is listed behind Holley in the pre-fall depth chart. Starting at the other wide receiver position is sophomore Brooks Foster (6-3, 202), who saw action in five games as a freshman. However, he also did not record a reception. He is backed up by redshirt freshmen Dirk Engram (5-10, 170) and Kenton Thornton (6-5, 225) Among the incoming freshmen, Hakeem Nicks (6-1, 210) from Charlotte's football powerhouse Independence High School, which won its 92nd consecutive game last season, is the most decorated receiver. He was chosen the most valuable player of the NCHSAA 4-AA state championship game and was a member of the North Carolina Shrine Bowl team. As a high school senior, he caught 89 passes for 1,819 yards and 10 touchdowns, including a farewell performance of eight receptions for 209 yards and touchdowns of 11 and 80 yards in the state championship game. His Shrine Bowl teammate, Deunta Williams (6-3, 195) of Jacksonville, N.C., had a bigger reputation as a defensive safety at White Oak High School. In fact, he was selected North Carolina's Defensive MVP at the Shrine Bowl, while Nicks received the same award for offense. Williams was ranked as one of the top five players in North Carolina, and the No. 4 overall skill athlete in the nation by SuperPrep Magazine. Bunting predicts they will get on the field quickly once they arrive in the fall. "I am really looking forward to getting a couple of these true freshmen in here, Hakeem Nicks and Deunta Williams," Bunting said. "They could play really good roles for us next year. They are going to play. They are not going to redshirt." At tight end, senior Jon Hamlett (6-4, 260) returns for his second consecutive season as a starter. He's been a consistent contributor for three seasons and enters his senior year with 46 career receptions for 511 yards and three touchdowns. He has averaged more than 11 yards per catch in his career. "I really believe his stock will rise when the NFL scouts come in and take a look at him," Bunting said. "He has done a total change in terms of his body, his quickness, his strength and his blocking ability." Backing Hamlett up for the second consecutive year is sophomore Richard Quinn (6-4, 235) and junior Rock Wells (6-4, 250). The Tar Heels also recruited four high school tight ends, any of whom could be developed at other positions down the line. Both Ryan Taylor (6-4, 210) of Winston-Salem, N.C., and Ed Barham (6-4, 235) of Dendron, Va., were highly rated as prep tight ends. Vince Jacobs (6-7, 220) of Charlotte and Trevor Stuart (6-4, 250) of Sugar Land, Texas, are versatile players who could be used elsewhere.
Part of the restructuring of the Tar Heel offense is the arrival of new offensive line coach Mark Weber, who fills the void left when Hal Hunter departed for the NFL's San Diego Chargers. Weber worked with new offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti at Fresno State the last two years. Weber has 26 years of coaching experience on the college level. "He has a great mental toughness about him that translates well to the players," Bunting said. "They have responded very well to him." The Tar Heel line is anchored by senior left tackle Brian Chacos (6-4, 301), who was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA. He will return after starting all 11 games at left tackle last year. He is backed up by senior Kendall High (6-4, 290). At left guard, junior Charlston Gray (6-3, 301) also started all 11 games last year, giving the Tar Heels tremendous experience on the left side of the line. redshirt freshman Aaron Stahl (6-3, 280) and sophomore Bryan Bishop (6-3, 330), who missed all of 2005 with a back injury and redshirted in 2004, are behind Gray. At center, sophomore Ben Lemming (6-5, 301) steps in the starting position after sitting out all of last year as a medical redshirt. He saw limited action in the spring while still recovering from the shoulder surgery he had after last year's season-opener against Georgia Tech. Playing behind Lemming is junior Scott Lenahan (6-1, 285), an oft-injured reserve who played without a scratch in the spring and could be a potential starter. Sophomore Calvin Darrity (6-3, 297) is listed as the third-team center. However, the Tar Heels had difficulties all spring long with the center-quarterback exchange, including a fumble during the spring game that was returned 33 yards for a touchdown. On the right side, sophomore Garrett Reynolds (6-7, 300) and redshirt freshman Andre Barbour (6-6, 290) will compete for the starting tackle position, while redshirt freshman Kyle Jolly and Lemming are still competing for the starting guard slot. Sophomores Kenny Price (6-4, 320) and Wyatt Hicks (6-5, 275) are the third-team guard and tackle on the right side. The Tar Heels signed four offensive linemen in the spring: Zach Handerson (6-7, 265) of Jacksonville, Fla., Michael Ingersoll (6-4, 260) of Matthews, N.C., Alan Pelc (6-6, 300) of Houston and Morgan Randall (6-6, 255) of Greenville, N.C. "I am comfortable with the depth we have on the offensive line, but I am a little bit more concerned about the experience," Bunting said. "I think we have some talented offensive linemen. We just have to continue to train them and get them ready to play and perform so they can gain some confidence."
As a freshman, place-kicker Connor Barth (6-1, 192) made a name for himself when he connected on 14 of his 18 field goal attempts, including the game-winner against No. 4 Miami. As a sophomore, however, Barth slumped badly, making only 11 of his 21 attempts. He did make all 23 of his PATs. He also retained his kickoff duties, recording 11 touchbacks on 44 attempts. Now, as Barth enters his junior season, Bunting is looking for a bit more consistency out of his kicker. The coach was pleased with what he saw in the spring, after he challenged Barth and punter David Woolridge to take the game a little more seriously and develop better practice habits. Junior Lane Clemmons (5-10, 220) is listed behind Barth on the depth chart. Other kickers on the roster are junior Shawn Lawson (5-11, 180) and freshman Matthew Toney (5-10, 175).
There was progress on the defensive line last year, after three consecutive seasons of having a cheesecloth front. The Tar Heels allowed 138.2 yards per game on the ground, down significantly from the 218.4 they gave up the year before when they had, statistically anyway, the worst defense in the ACC. The biggest difference, of course, is simple maturity. The Tar Heel coaching staff filled its needs on the defensive front through recruiting and has waited patiently -- for the most part -- for those players to grow into their positions. Now, Bunting thinks he has the most talented defensive front the program has had since 2001, when NFL players Julius Peppers, Ryan Sims and Joey Evans were in the starting lineup. Look for seniors Brian Rackley (6-5, 263) and Melik Brown (6-2, 260) to hold down the starting jobs at the defensive ends. Juniors Hilee Taylor (6-3, 230) and Kentwan Balmer (6-5, 285) both showed off their impressive athletic skills in the spring and will challenge for playing time. Junior Bowen Chapman (6-3, 245) is also an option for new defensive ends coach Danny Pearman, who was hired from Virginia Tech. Rackley started the first eight games last season, recording 15 total tackles, three tackles for loss and two sacks before suffering a concussion against Boston College and missing the final three games of the season. Brown, who saw significant action as a freshman and sophomore, was a reserve end in seven games last year as a junior, recording seven tackles and a sack. "We have both talent and experience at the ends," Bunting said. The Tar Heels could still use more of a pass rushing threat off the edge, even though they improved their sack total from 20 in 2004 to 31 in 2005. Bunting will probably look to a trio of incoming freshmen to get some action at either end. Darrius Massenburg (6-4, 265) of Roanoke Rapids, N.C., spent last season playing at Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia and should be ready to contribute immediately. Tavares Brown (6-0, 260) of Rockingham, N.C., and Darius Powell (6-4, 220) of Waldorf, Md., could also help. The Tar Heels lost their two starting tackles from a year ago, NFL draftee Chase Page and Tommy Davis. Not only did they provide a combined 67 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss and 12 sacks, they were also the heart and soul of the defensive front. So Bunting is looking for players who can produce and who can lead. Coming out of spring, senior Shelton Bynum (6-5, 295) holds down one starting tackle position, while junior Kyndraus Guy (6-2, 282) mans the other. Junior Kalif Mitchell (6-6, 315) and Balmer, who can play inside and outside, are behind Bynum on the pre-fall depth chart. Behind Guy is redshirt freshman Cam Thomas (6-4, 330). Bunting will certainly give his two incoming freshmen strong consideration on the interior, especially because Aleric Mullins (6-3, 285) of Wendell, N.C., was a consensus prep All-America and is one of the top defensive line recruits in the country. Greg Elleby (6-5, 285) of Tabor City, N.C., is also considered an excellent prospect on the defensive line.
Bunting thinks he has a potential NFL player in senior Larry Edwards (6-2, 230) leading his linebacker corps and he has moved several players around to give Edwards more support. Playing at the strong-side linebacker spot last season, Edwards shared the team lead with 91 total tackles with departed fellow linebacker Tommy Richardson. Edwards ranks third among the top returning tacklers in the ACC, behind Clemson's Anthony Waters and Virginia Tech's Vince Hall. "Larry had a tremendous year for us last year," Bunting said. "He is very fast and aggressive. He has learned the position of linebacker." However, Edwards was held out of half of spring practice as Bunting forced him to concentrate on academics. Playing behind him is sophomore Garrett White (6-2, 235), who played in eight games last year as a pass rush specialist from the defensive end position. He was switched to linebacker in the spring. The biggest surprise of the spring was the development of sophomore middle linebacker Mark Pascal (6-0, 228), who was mostly a special teams player as a freshman. The son of former UNC and NFL tight end Doug Pascal made a serious push for playing time behind senior starter Victor Worsley (6-1, 235). That battle will probably continue into the fall. With two strong candidates in the middle, Bunting moved junior Durell Mapp (6-2, 220) from middle linebacker, where he started in the final six games last season, to weakside linebacker. Mapp had double-digit tackle games against Maryland and Duke and finished the season with 46 total stops, two quarterback hurries and two forced fumbles. Mapp was being pushed by sophomore Chase Rice (6-3, 220), who played last year as a freshman. Junior Martel Thatch (6-2, 223) will also see action at middle linebacker and sophomore Trey Brenner (6-0, 225) provides depth at the other positions. "Between those guys, I think we have a great linebacker corps," Bunting said. Three freshman linebackers will also be in the mix, starting with Parade and SuperPrep All-American Jarrell Miller (6-3, 235) of Highland Springs, Va., perhaps the most highly regarded of all the Tar Heels' incoming freshman. Rivals rated him a four-star prospect and the No. 7 inside linebacker in the country. The other two incoming freshmen are Wesley Flagg (6-0, 215) of Fayetteville, N.C., and Logan Buchanan (6-1, 220) of Mocksville, N.C.
Bunting feels good about his possibilities at safety, especially after sophomore Cooter Arnold (5-10, 190) moved over from tailback to free safety in the spring. He joins returning starter, senior Kareen Taylor (6-0, 200) at that position, and sophomore Trimane Goddard (5-11, 185) and senior D.J. Walker (6-0, 185) at strong safety. Taylor started all 11 games last season at free safety, finishing third on the team with 61 tackles. He had 3.5 sacks, a pair of interceptions and two pass breakups. Goddard, who started the final six games of last season, missed spring drills with a broken foot but is expected to return in the fall at 100 percent. Last season he contributed a team-best three interceptions, along with five pass breakups and a fumble recovery. Arnold, who opened last season as the starting tailback as a freshman, made a smooth transition to defense. Other options at the safeties, include redshirt freshman Bryan Dixon (5-11, 205), senior Jonathan Lane (5-10, 178), junior walk-on Jabir Jones (6-2, 218) and sophomore Zach Adrian (5-11, 185) At the corners, the Tar Heels have a lot of experienced players, but they weren't particularly effective on a defense that ranked 10th in the ACC in pass efficiency defense. Senior Jacoby Watkins (6-0, 190) returns on one side after missing the final five games of last season after a broken leg he suffered against Virginia. He was the starter in three of the six games he played and recorded a career-high three pass breakups along with seven tackles against Georgia Tech. Watkins is being pushed by a pair of younger players, junior Bryan Bethea (5-10, 185) and redshirt freshman Jordan Hemby (5-10, 175), who sat out last season and missed spring practice with a leg injury. On the other side, junior Quinton Person (5-11, 185) and redshirt freshman Jermaine Strong (5-10, 185) battled for the starting job all spring long. That fight will carry over into the fall. Person started four games last year, when he took over for the injured Watkins. He also had an impact on special teams, blocking a punt and returning it 11 yards for a touchdown against NC State. Other options in the defensive backfield include senior Ryan Salone (5-11, 183), senior Michael Felder (5-11, 187), junior Kendric Williams (5-11, 185) and freshman Rwenshaun Miller (5-11, 185). The Tar Heels signed a slew of defensive back possibilities, including Kendric Burney (5-9, 170) of Jacksonville, N.C., Shaun Draughn (6-0, 195) of Tarboro, N.C., LaCount Fantroy (5-11, 175) of Washington, D.C., and Tavorris Jolly (5-11, 180) of Shelby, N.C. Bruce Carter (6-3, 210) of Warren, Ohio, a two-way player in high school, was a standout quarterback who was also ranked the No. 33 safety in the nation.
Like place-kicker Connor Barth, senior punter David Wooldridge (6-3, 200) was challenged in the spring to become more consistent and productive after finishing last year ranked sixth in the ACC with a 41.7-yard average. It was the second consecutive season in which Wooldrige's punting average went down, after he averaged 45.1 yards as a freshman. Wooldridge, who attempted all 68 of the Tar Heels' punts last year, did have several impressive performances, including the Georgia Tech game in which six of his eight punts were downed inside the 20 and a season-best 45.6-yard average against Virginia. But he also had games in which he averaged less than 40 yards per kick, including a 32.0-yard performance against Louisville. In the spring, junior walk-on John Choate (6-2, 180) challenged Wooldridge in distance and hang time. However, Choate's only game experience came in 2004 when he punted three times against Louisville.
The Tar Heels found a great special teams weapon last year in freshman Brandon Tate (6-1, 193). Tate was easily the most productive of the seven true freshmen that played, finishing second in the ACC with a 25.8-yard kickoff return average and third in the league with a 9.8-yard punt return average. "Brandon Tate was superb as a true freshman," Bunting said. "He is our go-to guy right now and is very, very dangerous with the ball in his hands." Tate returned the opening kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown in the Tar Heels' upset of nationally ranked Utah. He also had season-best 40-yard punt return against NC State. He helped the Tar Heels rank second in the ACC in kickoff-return average and fourth in net punting. The Tar Heels, after five years of near-perfect snaps by Greg Warren and Warren Green, are breaking in a new long snapper for punts, junior Michael Murphy (6-2, 231). Murphy did the short snaps for field goal and extra points last year and will get the first shot at doing long snaps this year. But he was pushed in the spring by newcomer Ryan Baucom, a walk-on who joined the program in the spring, and senior Patrick Marsh (6-1, 225). redshirt freshman Charlie Henson (6-1, 210) is also listed as a deep-snapper possibility. The Tar Heels were ranked 10th in the ACC in kickoff coverage.
Bunting is clearly anxious to see his team start winning a little more often. The Tar Heels have had only one winning season in Bunting's first five years, and that came in his first season, when the team he inherited from Carl Torbush went 8-5 and won the Peach Bowl.
The Tar Heels did go to the Meineke Car Care two years ago, where it lost to Boston College to finish at 6-6, then followed that up with last year's 5-6 campaign. Bunting hopes this year's team is good enough to remove all doubt about being postseason eligible and move into the realm of contending for the Coastal Division's spot in the ACC Championship game. There is no doubt Bunting and his staff have ramped up their recruiting efforts and have filled in most of the holes that were holding progress back in the defensive line, on the offensive line and at running back. But there is still some work to do before the Tar Heels will make Frank Beamer and Larry Coker toss and turn at night. Bunting's biggest challenge for this year will be to establish a winning record again. Then he can worry about stepping to the next level.
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