The Butch Davis Era, Year Two
If you read my post from earlier in this season, I was hopeful but not fully confident the football Tar Heels would have a successful year. (I said the games vs. Virginia and NC State were locks, and they lost both. Games vs. UConn and Notre Dame were wins, and I wasn't counting on either.)
Any objective observer would think the team made dramatic improvements this year, going from 4-8 in 2007 to 8-5 in 2008 (including the 31-30 loss to West Virginia in the Meineke Car Care Bowl).
Going into the season, I thought a 6-6 record and a bowl game were possible, so I should be elated, right? After all, WVU was a preseason Top 10 team. And (like last year), had the Heels not lost a few close ones, they could have had double-digit wins.
That said, expectations for this group became too high, especially after they trounced two Big East teams early in the season, entered the second half of the year 5-1 and would have won the ACC Coastal had they beaten Maryland and NC State.
What happened? Two key injuries prevented a 10- or 11-win season.
First, QB T.J. Yates broke his ankle during the Virginia Tech game in September. The Heels were up 17-3 when Yates was hurt and they lost 20-17. Davis put redshirt freshman Mike Paulus behind center and the highly recruited Paulus stank up the joint, throwing two picks out of the nine passes he threw. The next week, redshirt junior Cam Sexton took over and played the role of Kerry Collins (or perhaps in a better analogy, Bill Kilmer) -- essentially, he didn't mess up. The offense wasn't very exciting, but it didn't need to be. And the defense created enough turnovers to keep the team in the game.
Yates came back for the State game and looked really rusty. And we got smoked by QB Russell Wilson (more on him later), who's going to be a nightmare for ACC opponents as long as he's in Raleigh.
Next, WR/KR Brandon Tate blew out his ACL vs. Notre Dame. Tate's injury probably hurt more than TJ's. It's impossible to replace the all-time NCAA record holder in kick return yardage. Plus, Butch had figured ways to include Tate in the running game (with reverses -- he was the team's leading rusher and the time of the injury) and made him the featured wideout. If he touched the ball a dozen times on offense, chances are, he'd score once or twice.
His injury allowed Hakeem Nicks to again be the focus of the offense, as he was during the 2006 and 2007 seasons. But if we can use the NFL analogy again, Nicks is Muhsin Muhammad to Tate's Steve Smith. Nicks is power, precision; Tate is explosive speed.
Nicks also made a couple of the most amazing catches I've ever seen. One was in the bowl game, and it'll make plenty of highlight reels. A ball over the middle was thrown behind him and he caught the ball with his trailing (right) hand and while fighting off a defender he switched hands by putting the ball behind his back, never breaking stride. In an even better one, vs. Duke, he caught a touchdown pass in the back of the end zone with one hand, pinning it on his helmet (a la David Tyree).
Both those guys should have lengthy NFL careers.
Anyway, without Tate, there was no real kick return threat. The special teams were a weapon when Tate was there and not so much after his injury. Soph. Greg Little may be that guy eventually, but he's not there yet.
Going forward, I see seven likely wins next year: The Citadel, U.Conn, Florida State, Duke, Miami, Virginia, East Carolina. The others -- NC State, Boston College, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech -- are winnable, but they're on the road. I think they'll get at least one of those, and it wouldn't surprise me if they won them all. So, 8-4 or 9-3 is a reasonable expectation.
There are only 12 seniors on the roster, and they'll probably lose Nicks, a junior, who's likely to go pro. As of today, the recruiting class is rated No. 6 by Scouts.com.
Davis is building the kind of team he wants -- one that relies on speed and athleticism to win. His guys are bigger, faster, and stronger than the other guys.
The defensive coordinator, Everett Withers, doesn't believe much in using a lot of weird schemes defensively. They don't blitz much. They rely on pressure from the front four. They play zone, play their lanes, hit hard, close fast on the ball and if the other quarterback makes a bad throw, they pick it off. They can give up frightening amounts of yardage and win by capitalizing on mistakes, not necessarily forcing them. If the pass rush isn't effective, they can get shredded.
You saw that today in the game vs. West Virginia. Ridiculously athletic QBs who can break down defenses give them fits. Pat White did. So did Russell Wilson. They lost a game they should have won vs. UVa in overtime, because of a last-minute tying drive in regulation that was possible only because Withers stuck with a zone and didn't put any pressure on the QB.
White had his only 300-yard passing game today. The only time he had problems was the half-dozen or so times he was blitzed.
But that's the way Davis plays. When he has more athletes and more depth, he's confident he can substitute more frequently and beat you with depth. Late in the game, when your guys are gassed, his guys are still fresh. His offenses aren't really fancy. They make sure the best athletes get the ball a lot, and they win because his guys are better than your guys.
Butch is the opposite of, say, Tom O'Brien (formerly at BC, now at NC State), who gets good but not great players and "coaches them up."
In some ways, Butch is a lot like Roy Williams, who also tries to beat people with speed, athleticism and depth. Roy hates playing zones or junk defenses. His offenses are fast but predictable. He beats you by wearing you down and with crisp execution. His teams always rebound well. They make more free throws than the opponents shoot because they get the ball in the post and get fouled shooting easy shots.
So long as Butch and Roy recruit talented players, their teams will win. I see Carolina's football team being in the top 25 just about every year and in the top 15 most years. They'll probably play in more than their share of BCS bowls, either as ACC champs or as an at-large team. (Think about it; had they beaten Maryland and State, they would have been 10-2, probably good enough for an at-large bid even had they not won the division and played in the ACC title game.)
But the Tar Heels, football and basketball, will on occasion be beaten by someone with a better scheme or with one player who's better than everyone else on the field or the court.
After living through the Torbush, Bunting and Doherty eras, as a Carolina fan, I'll take it.