But will it be enough to save a team picked to finish 10th in the mammothly-improved ACC?
The returning players, that have suffered through a 5-19 record over the last two seasons, must believe the Tar Heels’ ship has been righted as training camp gets set to begin on August 9.
Or, it may not be a long season for UNC coach John Bunting, but rather a short one.
Training camp is an unequaled opportunity for gaining confidence with more repetitions. And for a team that has hopes of overcoming seemingly un-scaleable mountain in front of it schedule-wise, there can be no room for error in the upcoming preparatory process.
The fans’ preseason clamor may be to see sophomore Ronnie McGill (pictured, above left) get more carries at tailback this year. But although he has been proclaimed by some to be the next 1,000-yard back at Carolina since Jonathan Linton last accomplished the feat in 1997, it appears the Tar Heels will continue to execute primarily a three-back set to begin the season.
“Until we feel that one guy can do it alone, or two guys can do it alone, then we’ll go with three guys,” Bunting said during ACC Kickoff on Monday.
The UNC coaches hope to be able to focus on the running game more this year, especially if the defense can help to limit the offense’s episodes in catch-up mode. Therefore, while McGill’s star continues to rise, Bunting emphasized that Chad Scott and Jacque Lewis will continue to get their fair share of the carries.
McGill’s physical conditioning could go a long way to determining whether or not he will get the chance to take over games. Several missed practices due to cramps during training camp set McGill back to start the season last year.
“I’m anxious to see how Ronnie goes through training camp,” Bunting said. “When he does carry the ball, he carries it well. We also believe Scott and Lewis – two very experienced players – have a lot to contribute to our team.”
As it stands today, 2004 quarterback signee Mike Rozier is expected to be in camp when it opens. The 6-foot-5 Rozier passed for over 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns in his junior and senior seasons at Henry County in McDonough, Ga.
In addition he was rated the No. 4 left-handed pitcher in the country by Baseball America, and an 11th round draft choice by the Boston Red Sox earlier this summer. Rozier turned down Boston’s initial contract offer. And once a baseball prospect competes as a freshman in college, he cannot be drafted again until his junior season.
Either way, Rozier’s destiny appears to be in Major League Baseball, not the NFL. Even if he does play football at UNC, he could easily be drafted again in 2006, and in a much higher round if he performs up to expectations in baseball. So how long he would remain a two-sport athlete at UNC could always be in question.
But Bunting said every indication Rozier has given him is that he plans to go to Carolina.
“When he got drafted, it was my understanding that they had made some verbal commitment of some sort [to play baseball], but I’m not sure where that stands,” Bunting said. “I can’t speak for them. I can only speak for how we feel about him, his family and his future. I think he would do a great service to himself by coming to Carolina and improving his odds of playing either football or baseball at the next level. I hope it stays that way.”
Sophomoe D.J. Walker, who originally matriculated to UNC with plans to play running back, was the Tar Heels’ special teams captain last year. He’s been a safety, but when camp starts, he’ll be working out at cornerback. The redshirt sophomore will play a bigger role this year on defense, but will also remain on special teams, Bunting said.
“He adds toughness to our team,” Bunting said. “I wish I could put a few more pounds on him. He’s still pretty thin, but he’s working on it, he’s got a great work ethic, and he has played good football for us. We now expect more from him this year.”
The Tar Heels needed better tackling at the linebacker position, and junior Tommy Richardson was moved over from safety this spring to help the team improve in that regard. Richardson didn’t mind the move too much after it was explained it was his best opportunity at more playing time.
“Tommy Richardson wants to play,” Bunting said. “He wants to get the best opportunity to play, and that is at the linebacker position. I’m really happy where Tommy is at right now.”
One thing is sure, Kareen Taylor will be a key figure in the Tar Heels’ defensive backfield this year. Exactly where however, remains to be seen. The UNC coaches are still trying decide if he will work mostly at safety or corner; and/or nickelback.
“We’ll have to determine where he will best help the football team,” Bunting said. “He’s got a great future; we’ve just got to figure out where it is.”
But Taylor’s performance in spring practice last season proved he will be a necessity on the field this year.
It may take a little while before Cedrick Holt can retain his great closing speed he displayed prior to breaking his foot last year at N.C. State. He’ll be in camp all right, but only a about ’95-percent,’ Bunting said. The coaches will monitor his repetitions and may limit his time some, but are hopeful he will be able to step in at cornerback when the season starts.
“I think he will be,” Bunting said. “He and the trainers have done a tremendous job working hard towards that end.”
Holt broke up three passes in the Tar Heels season-opening loss to Florida State last season.
Junior walk-on tight end Justin Phillips was forced into an advanced level of playing time when Bobby Blizzard went down due to a viral illness. He played in 10 of 12 games last year, and will likely play an even bigger part in the Tar Heels’ offense this season.
Sophomore Jon Hamlett and senior transfer Scott Brummett are listed one-two on the preseason depth chart. And fullback Madison Hedgecock will also see playing time at tight end.
“[Hedgecock] can line up any place,” Bunting said.
But also expect Phillips to be utilized substantially.
“He’s a very hard worker,” Bunting said. “He’s got some gift. But his most positive attribute is he just works hard; he wants to outwork everybody.”
Heaven forbid the Tar Heels should lose senior record-setting quarterback Darian Durant to injury for any length of time. The Tar Heels’ backups are few and inexperienced. Junior Matt Baker, who threw for a career-high 146 yards and a 76-yard touchdown pass to Adarius Bowman in mop-up duty, will begin camp as the first off the bench.
“I believe strongly in Matt Baker,” Bunting said. “I think now that he feels like is more of the guy, instead of C.J. [Stephens], he has taken his position more seriously than he ever has.”
But redshirt freshman Roger Heinz will get his chance to move up on the depth chart. Heinz showed just a glimpse of his dual-threat capability in the spring game, completing 9-of-18 passes for 64 yards.
“He has a great feel for the game,” Bunting said of Heinz.
More importantly, this year’s top backup will have the inside track to becoming next year’s starter. With the unexpected departure of Nick Cangelosi, and the uncertainty of Rozier’s football future, Carolina is desperately trying to discover its next starter at the position.
This year will mark the highly anticipated unveiling of a healthy Kyndraus Guy. The redshirt freshman is reportedly 100-percent healed from off-season shoulder surgery and ready to fulfill the promise he showed during training camp last season.
There was never any doubt when senior Gerald Sensabaugh transferred to UNC from ETSU last winter, it was to fulfill and immediate need. The 6-2 Sensabaugh, a two-time All-Southern Conference selection, is one of the Tar Heels' fiercest hitters and will start at strong safety.
Sensabaugh, who once tied an NCAA record with three blocked punts in a game, is Carolina's best leaper with a 41.5-inch vertical.
The Tar Heels hope less is more in the run-stuffing category, as defensive tackles Jonas Seawright and Isaiah Thomas have reportedly lost over 50 pounds between them.
Thomas is down to 307 pounds and Seawright is tipping the scales at a miniscule 312.
Seawright played in all 12 games last season, starting six. He holds the UNC record in the power clean (340 pounds).
Senior Chase Page has moved from end to tackle and will provide leadership to a relatively young corps. And sophomore Shelton Bynum will add experience, after starting the last three games last season.