** Amidst the turmoil that plagued the Tar Heel football program over the past two weeks, Withers has played a stellar hand by seemingly doing all of the right things. He aced the first test that was his opening press conference last Friday, then followed up by preaching a move forward slogan that his players quickly bought into and even incorporated Roy Williams into the mix by asking the Hall of Fame basketball coach to address his team earlier this week.
There’s now another item to add to that list. Less than one week after being named interim head coach, Withers sent out a letter to all UNC lettermen inviting them to attend the team’s scrimmage and tour the new Blue Zone on Saturday.
Withers opened the letter, obtained by Inside Carolina on Tuesday, with strong words directed as UNC’s past players.
“Never before has our football team needed the support and backing of all of the great guys and terrific players who have worn the Tar Heel football jersey,” Withers wrote.
He stressed the importance of the lettermen seeing firsthand that this coaching staff is committed to fielding a tough, passionate and winning football team, while also acknowledging the difficulty of the past several weeks.
“I understand that emotions are raw and nerves are frayed,” Withers wrote. “But our players need your support. They need our Lettermen and our fans behind them, 100 percent.”
When asked about reaching out to the school’s lettermen on Thursday, Withers emphasized that he believes in honoring the individuals that played on the Kenan Stadium field long before the current crop of players.
“I hope those kids understand the importance of what the lettermen built here,” Withers said. “Things just didn’t start overnight. Those lettermen built this program and I want our lettermen to feel a part of it, because I think it’s special and I think that group has been good to this football program and we need to show that to them.”
** After North Carolina pulled off its dramatic, if not chaotic, victory over Tennessee in the Music City Bowl last December, Bryn Renner climbed aboard the team bus, sat down near the back and felt the urge to send out a mass text to all of his teammates. The message was clear – if the Tar Heels could overcome all of the adversity that saturated the 2010 season and yet still win a hard-fought bowl game, there was no ceiling for their potential success.
“Even though we won, I texted everybody, every receiver, every lineman – I’ve got a little thing in my phone organized,” Renner said. “I just sent a text that said, ‘Hey, the Music City Bowl is great, but we need to do bigger things and I think we can.”
The response from his teammates was both positive and immediate. Renner has since made it a habit to text his fellow Tar Heels in a continuing effort to earn their trust and solidify his role as a leader within the program.
“I want everyone to know what’s going on,” Renner said. “If someone has a great practice, I’m going to text them and say, ‘Hey, you did a great job today.’ Just a little boost like that I think gives people a lot of confidence. I know it gives me a lot of confidence when somebody does that to me, so I think that’s one part of being a leader. You’re not always going to see a person, but you can shoot them a text or give them a call and say, ‘Hey, you did a great job today – keep improving.’”
** Early indication from former head coach Butch Davis at the ACC Football Kickoff in July was that senior running back Ryan Houston would be back to full speed by Aug. 15. Withers’ timetable on Thursday wasn’t quite as optimistic.
“It’ll be a couple of weeks,” Withers said. “We’re going to really try to take care of him up until we need him.”
Houston is practicing on a limited basis and is wearing a bright orange jersey to make teammates think twice about laying a retributive hit on the 6-foot-2, 245-pounder that has doled out punishment throughout his career in Chapel Hill. That has opened the door for red-shirt freshman Gio Bernard to take snaps with the first-team offense.
The rookie’s ability on and off the field has drawn praise from his new head coach.
“He epitomizes to me what you look for in a tailback and what you want as a student-athlete on your campus,” Withers said.
Bernard is still wearing a knee brace due to a ACL injury suffered last August, but it’s merely for precautionary reasons.
“I feel perfectly fine,” Bernard said. “I feel like I’m back to normal, probably if not better than back to normal. I feel faster, I feel stronger, I feel quicker out of my cuts. There’s nothing wrong with my knee.”
** Withers and Davis can agree on one thing, however – that the offensive line should finally be a strength for this program.
“We’re excited about it,” sophomore left tackle James Hurst said. “Obviously, there’s some pressure with that, but that’s what we wanted when we came in. And now that we’re getting some attention, if you will, there’s more pressure and we’re going to try to live up to that and meet and exceed everyone’s expectations for us. It’s a big goal for us to lead this team.”
** Senior linebacker Zach Brown has served as a talking point this preseason due to his movement between the first and second strings on defense. Brown ranked second on the team in tackles (72) last season and was named to the Butkus Award watch list this offseason, but attention to detail has apparently played a role in his inconsistency through a week of camp.
“Obviously with the talent he has, his ceiling is high,” Withers said. “We’ve been talking a lot, whether it be offense, defense or kicking game, about little things. As you know with college athletes that are talented, it’s about little things. If Zach can do the little things, then he can be a phenomenal athlete and a phenomenal linebacker for us.”
Withers also highlighted sophomore Darius Lipford, JUCO transfer Fabby Desir and true freshman Keeon Virgile as linebackers that can help North Carolina win games this year and in the future.
** The glaring hole in North Carolina’s team resides in the secondary after four-year starters Kendric Burney and Deunta Williams joined three-year starter Da’Norris Searcy in exhausting their eligibility after the 2010 season.
Cornerback Charles Brown returns after a year-long suspension, but sophomore cornerback Jabari Price and first-time starters Jonathan Smith and Tre Boston at safety will draw plenty of early scrutiny from opposing offensive coordinators. Oddly enough, Withers believes that Renner and his offensive counterparts will play a role in the secondary’s success this season.
“I think one thing that’s evident at practice so far is that we’re going to be a good secondary, but I’m going to tell you, we’ve got a good offensive passing system,” Withers said. “And if we can do well versus that offense in practice, then I think we’ve got a chance to be really good on Saturdays.”
Depth will undoubtedly be a concern throughout the course of the season. With Mywan Jackson’s departure, three true freshmen – Sam Smiley, Alex Dixon and Tim Scott – join walk-on Pete Mangum in battling for spots at cornerback in the two-deep.
** Quinton Coples was cleared by the NCAA for attending a NFL Draft party in April, but a failure to notify the coaching staff of his decision to attend the event after signing out for another reason got the All-ACC defensive lineman in some hot water. Withers refused to comment on Coples’s punishment, only saying the issue was being dealt with internally.
** While Withers has been solid thus far in dealing with the media, he waited until midway through his third session with reporters to deliver his first quip directed their way.
“I’m comfortable,” Withers replied when asked about adjusting to media questions. “I’m fine. I have no issues being up here. It’s like talking at home with my wife sometimes.”