“With those guys in there, we’re much quicker,” head coach John Bunting said.
Oh sure, statistics like 515 yards of total offense allowed made it clear that the corner has not only not yet been turned, but its distance is still undeterminable. Several prominent Virginia and local media members left John Bunting’s post-game press conference scratching their heads.
“‘Did he really think they would win today?’ ‘He did say the program was headed in the right direction. Didn’t he?’”
However, there was more defensive improvement shown Saturday than in any of the Tar Heels’ previous games – at least for one half of football.
Regardless of the game’s final outcome, Carolina’s linebackers were considerably quicker to the perimeter, and the tackling seemed slightly better. That was clearly due to the implementation of a revamped rotation of linebackers.
The Edwards-Sparkman tandem was a breath of fresh air, as each registered team-highs with nine tackles, including an amazing seven solos apiece. They have clearly broken into the UNC lineup and intend to remain there for a long time to come.
“I think we’re going to be pretty good in the future, because we’ve got young guys out there that are making the progress now, instead of making it later,” Sparkman said. “Larry and I have been together like this when we first got here. We’re pretty tight and we’re just trying to do what Coach [Dave Huxtable] tells us to make our team better.”
There is no baggage with these two. They’re just a couple of rookies that don’t know anything better than to hit the field with sometimes nothing more than their instincts.
“Just a few mental mistakes here and there, and I think we could have pulled out the win,” Edwards said. “I think we’ve made a big improvement from last week. We just concentrated on making good reads and playing good fundamental football. I just tried to be prepared as much mentally as possible.”
Junior Devllen Bullard, who has bided his time, also started his first game at the “Mike” position. Along with Edwards and Sparkman, this was a special day for Bullard.
“I was definitely excited,” Bullard said. “But I think a win would boost our confidence so much more.”
And that win could come as soon as next week. As remarkable as it may seem, Carolina will likely enter Saturday’s game at East Carolina as the legitimate favorite. No one ever expected this long-awaited in-state match-up would wind up being a meeting of two winless teams.
Obviously, the Tar Heels will not exceed anybody’s preseason expectations in 2003. In fact, a realistic shot at a conference win is not assured until the final game of the year against Duke – if then.
The time has come to either accept at least another season of growth backed up by solid recruiting, or form a lynch mob.
While Carolina may very well pick up its first victory next week, it could be a long time before that feat is duplicated with regularity.
“It’s a real danger when you go 0-5,” Sparkman said. “People can get down on you easy and you’ve just got to motivate them to keep their heads up.”
While they don’t have much if any other choice, it sounds like the young UNC players buy into Bunting’s promise of recovery and are in it for the long haul.