“When you look at the component of who we have on this football team, given the guys that have been injured and the guys that have been suspended and all of those kinds of things, we’ve got some depth issues,” head coach Butch Davis said during his Monday press conference.
Those words would qualify as a vast understatement. True freshmen Matt Merletti and Jonathan Smith are just a few of the youngsters penciled into the special teams lineup during a season in which they should probably be red-shirting.
Many of North Carolina’s best players are underclassmen, creating a situation where the freshmen are forced to fill their traditional roles on special teams, while also seeing significant snaps on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball.
“In the long run, it’s going to be a great benefit,” Davis said. “The short-term [problem] is that our guys are having to learn on the run. A lot of these guys didn’t play special teams last year – they didn’t even play offense or defense. A lot didn’t play it in high school, because they were the marquee superstar for their particular high school.”
Davis indicated that some of the problem is that his squad is lacking numbers in the linebacker and secondary groups.
“Those are the guys that play special teams for you,” Davis said. “They’re the guys that cover kicks and they cover punts, and [they] take pressure off of having to try to use and manufacture some of your offensive players at times to go play defense on kick units.”
So instead of third-string linebackers filling the gaps on special teams, starters Quan Sturdivant and Bruce Carter are having to make up the difference as true freshmen. Things got even worse with Kendric Williams' season-ending knee injury and Brooks Foster's early season injury that forced the junior to miss action in three games, considering those two served as UNC’s best coverage gunners.
Players that would normally be playing on only one or two special teams units are having to participate in three or four groups.
Davis has made it known since he first arrived in Chapel Hill about his preference to recruit versatile athletes that can play a variety of positions, and the current season has provided the perfect example of why that philosophy is essential in maintaining quality depth.
“I really believe that you try to recruit versatile athletes, because you never know at any given point in time, when your team might be put in a situation – either because of injuries or whatever – that a kid might have to change positions,” Davis said. “… If you recruit guys that are really good athletes, and they play both sides of the ball, then you’re going to be able to bring them in.”
Starting free safety Deunta Williams enrolled at UNC as a wide receiver, while Sturdivant and Carter played quarterback at their respective high schools. And even more recently, Richie Rich, who was listed as the starter at running back for the season opener against James Madison, has moved to defensive back to make up for Williams’ loss and Jermaine Strong’s suspension.
“We’re trying to get speed on the field,” Davis said. “It’s a major emphasis with me and with our football team – to just get speed on the field and faster athletes and guys that can run and make plays, so you’re always for guys that potentially [can move].”
Davis pointed to his 1999 Miami defensive squad, which started three high school running backs at linebacker. The experience of knowing what an offense is trying to accomplish gives that players an immediate advantage in their new roles.
Sophomore E.J. Wilson, who has played quarterback, wide receiver, tight end, full back and linebacker during the last four years before settling in at defensive end, would agree with his head coach’s assessment.
“It is helpful, because you know more of what the offense is trying to do,” Wilson said. “You know on certain plays how they are going to try to block you.”
That’s why Greg Little represents the perfect mold of what a Butch Davis recruit looks like – 6-foot-3-inches and 210 pounds with speed to burn.
“You could probably say that Greg Little might could start at five positions on this team – on both sides of the ball,” Davis said.
Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College standout Melvin Williams’ recent commitment fueled speculation that the North Carolina coaching staff may look to the junior college ranks to bridge some immediate gaps on the depleted roster, but Davis said on Monday the JUCO route is not the primary way to correct the current problems.
“You go out and you try to identify maybe two or three or four guys potentially where there’s a legitimate need,” Davis said. “… You just kind of cherry pick and you go around based on the needs.”
The first-year Tar Heel head coach said that his staff used the open week to travel to a number of junior colleges across the country, acquiring film and academic transcripts along the way. North Carolina gauged interest from a number of prospects, before working with the admissions office to determine which recruits had the necessary transferable hours to possibly enroll at UNC.
While junior college players will never descend on Chapel Hill in droves, they will be used to plug any significant leaks across the board.
“Just take a look at the impact that Terrance Brown has had on this football team,” Davis said. “Here’s a junior college player that came in and thank goodness – he has truly bailed us out from a punting standpoint. Not only is he playing very well, but he adds a little bit of age and a little bit of maturity.”
With four regular season games remaining on the schedule, this coaching staff has in no way thrown in the towel for the 2007 season – they are just working diligently on the shopping list for National Signing Day on Feb. 6, 2008.