First Quarter: The Good and the Bad

With a quarter of North Carolina's football season in the books, a couple things are clear. The Tar Heels can score points and the defense is nothing like last year's tough unit.

UNC coach Jon Bunting used this off week to re-evaluate his personnel, perhaps make a few changes, and to have his club work on some basic fundamentals, most notably on defense. Here is a look at the good and bad after Carolina's first three games, two of which ended in defeat.

u>GOOD

John Bunting – The checklist is growing. Bunting can motivate (check). Bunting excites the fan base (check). Bunting can reel in previously lukewarm fans, and even new ones altogether (check). He has incredible understanding for defensive schemes, and may be perceived to have a better understanding of the raw game than any previous UNC coach (check). For once, UNC has a straight shooter in Bunting (check). Bunting understands what is right and wrong with Carolina football (check). His players believe in and play hard for him (check). Bunting isn't searching for the personal spotlight and recognition (check). He delegates authority well and hires quality assistant coaches (check). Bunting is loyal (check). He loves UNC and won't seek another job (check). He is building a tough program (check). His teams quickly improve in problem areas (check). No West Coast offense with Bunting, just hard nosed football emphasizing blocking and tackling, which is ultimately the best way to build a consistent winner (check). He is incredibly upbeat while being totally genuine (check). There are still some areas that remain in question, but it is clear that he is changing the culture of UNC football (check).

Dexter Reid – Reid is the team's best defensive player and future pro. Few safeties play the run as well as he does and few can fly around the field, seemingly always at the right place at the right time. It's not because he has overwhelming speed or quickness, it's his intelligence on the field that separates him from most of his peers nationally. A real student of the opposition and the overall game, Reid has been in on 42 tackles, 30 of which have been solo, in UNC's three games.

Sam Aiken – Aiken's talents aren't well known outside the Carolinas, but he is easily one of the top five or six receivers in the nation. He doesn't have blinding speed, but runs sharp routes, has excellent hands, is tough, doesn't mind going over the middle as no route is off limits, and communicates well with his quarterbacks. He has 16 receptions for 327 yards (20.4 average) and a pair of touchdowns.

Offensive line – Credit Carolina's players for their wonderful development over the last year, but also give kudos to new offensive line coach Hal Hunter. Hunter, who came over from Indiana, has done an excellent job teaching the youngish Heels the basic fundamentals. Add the work of strength and conditioning coach Jeff Connors, the work ethic of the players, and there should be no surprise that this is the best bunch of blockers at UNC in a decade. Carolina doesn't have a great ground attack, but it is so much better than in the past five or six years. The staff has shown confidence in the group a few times, going for it on fourth down, and running off guard and tackle on numerous 3rd-and-two plays. There remains much room for growth, but the future is very bright.

Jacque Lewis – It appears that UNC may have found its first back fully capable of grinding out a 1,000-yard season since Jonathon Linton did the deed in 1997. And, Lewis' skills are such that he has the ability to finish in a class of former stars Leon Johnson, Natrone Means, Kelvin Bryant, Amos Lawrence, Mike Voight and Don McCauley. He has run the ball 45 times for 187 yards and a touchdown, and appears to be taking a tight grip on the feature back's role, meaning his number of carries will increase significantly. Against Texas' highly regarded defense, Lewis ran the ball 20 times for 84 yards. He has also caught seven passes for 41 yards.

Darian Durant – Durant has had his difficulties, which can't be overlooked, but he has also been amazing at times, and certainly enough to keep his job as the team's starting quarterback. He has shown astounding resilience bouncing back from the six-turnover affair against Miami and poor start at Syracuse to play a nearly flawless second half and lead the Tar Heels to a crucial victory. For the most part, he played well in the loss to Texas, and displayed improved running skills. Durant has completed 55 of 94 passes for 721 yards with four TDs and five interceptions. He has been a solid leader since his arrival, and must continue to have his mates' faith. He also needs to improve throwing toward the sidelines – short or long, but he is excellent over the middle.

Dan Orner – Rarely do legs like Orner's come along, but in the Michigan State transfer, UNC has an excellent weapon. He booted three field goals of 50-plus yards in the win at Syracuse, essentially keeping the Heels on life support before the offense got clicking. Just knowing he is there will take some of the pressure off of UNC's offense and apply some to the opposition's defense.

Team character – Taking their cue from Bunting, this program clearly has admirable character. Not only did they bounce back from last year's 0-3 start to go 8-5 and win the Peach Bowl, but showed how resilient they are by bouncing back from the loss to Miami by winning at Syracuse. Against Texas, the Heels overcame a 24-0 hole to cut the margin to 24-14 and 31-21. This new program simply doesn't quit.

Changing the culture – This was one of Bunting's stated goals when he took over nearly 22 months ago and it is slowly happening. He understands it won't occur over night, but in small ways, the transformation is obvious. From increased noise from fans to the popular team walk to the activity on IC's football message board, football is slowly on the path Bunting desires.

u>BAD

Turnovers – In the opener, the Heels coughed it up nine times, which is why they lost to the RedHawks. The Tar Heels have fumbled 13 times, losing eight to the opposition. They have also been intercepted five times, for a total of 13 turnovers. On the flip side, Carolina has just one interception and forced only three fumbles for a total of four turnovers. Giveaways cost UNC one game, and played a major role in the outcome of the Texas contest. Had a pair of passes not been intercepted in the end zone, the Heels might not have wilted in the fourth quarter against Mack Brown's Longhorns.

Linebackers – Although the growth of Doug Justice is interesting and positive, the overall performance of the linebackers has been poor. Well documented as a troubling area prior to the season, the young and inexperienced corps of linebackers have struggled in some of the most basic areas, including tackling, and the more difficult phases of the game, including UNC's array of schemes and blitzes. In time this unit will improve, but it might not be until next year when recognizable progress pays off on the field.

Defensive line – The front line has talent but is mostly raw. Will Chapman has the most experience and is the top tackler from the unit, having been in on 12 tackles, good for seventh on the club. The opposition has run the ball 140 times for 629 yards (209 per game), good for an average of 4.5 yards per attempt. Carolina has also managed just four sacks for a meager 24 yards. No pass rush equals few interceptions. Not being able to stop the run forces DBs to worry too much about playing the run, which opens up the opponent's passing game.

Tackling – The poor tackling has been a problem up front, in the middle with the LBs, and in the secondary, with the main exception of Reid. The Heels are making contact, but they aren't bringing ball carriers to the ground quickly enough. Much of this is due to youth, and players not being as physically strong as they will down the road. Some of it is technique and even at times tenacity.

Michael Waddell – First of all, Waddell hasn't been as bad as too many fans are saying. Few, if any, college cornerbacks could defend Texas' Roy Williams. And to be fair, Waddell only allowed him to catch five balls. Considering how often Chris Simms looked his way, that's not entirely awful. But Waddell has made some inexplicable errors, most notably the pass interference at Syracuse, the poor tackling attempt on Williams on the play he took a short pass a long way into the end zone for a 38-21 lead in the fourth quarter, and the "touch" on the bumbled punt against the Longhorns. Each mistake is disturbing considering he is a senior with a high football IQ.

Special teams – Aside from UNC's success with Orner's leg, Carolina has been mediocre in special teams play. UNC is averaging just 16.6 yards per kickoff return compared to the opponent's average of 24.7, and 4.5 yards per punt return compared to 8 per return for the opposition. The Heels have playmaking athletes, but haven't busted a return yet, but appear ready to. On the other side, poor punting (see next "bad") hasn't allowed the Heels much time to get down field, and poor execution of assignments has hurt on kickoff defense.

John Lafferty – Lafferty has struggled thus far, averaging 35.8 yards per kick on 13 tries. The snaps have been fine, but Lafferty has appeared a bit slow to boot the ball – a cause for concern as a few have nearly been blocked – hasn't had tremendous hang time or drive.

Game day environment – Although for some fans this has improved, the overall atmosphere at Kenan still needs plenty of work. The first two home games are difficult to use as a barometer because the opener was played in a monsoon and the second was Brown's return to Chapel Hill. But the band has virtually no understanding of how to perform during a football game. They are excellent at basketball games, but are terrible for football. More snippets from school songs should be played after first downs and quality plays. The band is also a bit small and quite low in tone. They should add more members and beef up the sound. Ramses shouldn't be shooting t-shirts into the crowd when a play is taking place, and there should be more than a handful of dance team girls on the field. There should be an additional 12-15 dance team girls used strictly for football that could perform on the other side of the enclosed end zone and on the home side near the old field house. Plus the "B-team" cheerleaders should also be on the direct opposite side of the stadium from where the current cheerleaders are. This will increase excitement and make for a more enjoyable game-day experience. Will judge again after the Georgia Tech game.


Senior writer Andrew Jones is in his seventh year with Inside Carolina. He hosts a late afternoon radio show on ESPN Radio, WMFD AM630 in Wilmington and can be reached via e-mail at: AndrewJones@AM630.net.

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