2010 Season: 8-5 (5-4)
By: Danny O’Donnell
North Carolina was on the fast track to first place in the conference last season until a dark, dark shadow was cast over the program. Plagued by horrific off-field decisions, the Tar Heels finished just fourth in their division above Virginia and Duke. And though beating Duke in anything is a plus for the university, Butch Davis will have eyes on his team’s production in 2011. Beating Tennessee, last season, in the Music City Bowl was a nice momentum builder going into the offseason. But when returning just 10 total players, Davis is going to need more than momentum to finish in the top half of the conference, let alone the division.
The offense will be bringing back six of their starters from last fall and three of them come from the front five. Restoring left tackle James Hurst, left guard Jonathan Cooper, and center Cam Holland will be an important factor for the Heels after finishing 10th in the ACC in rushing yards. North Carolina is losing their top three rushers from last season and will rely on Ryan Houston to perform. Houston sat out the majority of the season last year during NCAA investigation and ultimately took a redshirt. TJ Yates (3,418 yards, 19 TDs) has also moved on from the team. Sophomore Bryn Renner will go under center and should need a few games to adjust. Offensive coordinator John Shoop often used Renner to run the first team practices and will be knowledgeable of the offense from day one.
The defense will be the question after finishing fourth in the ACC last season in yards allowed. The team would love to repeat those numbers, but will find it unlikely with seven fresh faces on the defensive side of the ball in 2011. The defensive line will stay the most intact for the Tar Heels and will showcase defensive tackle Sylvester Williams’ skill set on the line. Quinton Coples (led the team in sacks, 10) is a freak at defensive end and will be the team’s leader and the subject matter for a lot of NFL scouts. The Tar Heels have had four different defensive line coaches in the less than six months. Former LSU assistant Joe Robinson has ended up with the job and plans to move UNC from fourth place in the ACC to a top tier run stopping system in 2011.
Weakness: Defensive Backs. The secondary will be showing an all-new group in 2011 but don’t have steep expectations after their former leaders finished middle of the pack in ACC pass defense efficiency. Da’Norris Searcy (four interceptions last year) was a physical presence for the Heels and will be replaced by senior strong safety Jonathan Smith.
Strength: Wide Receiver. Dwight Jones (946 yards, 4 TDs) will return after being 2010’s leading receiver. He is fast and he has great hands. Erik Highsmith (348 yards, 3 TDs) will take over on the other side along with redshirt freshman standout Sean Tapley as a possible breakthrough.
2010 Team Rankings
Scoring: 25.3 ppg (8th ACC, 76th National)
Rushing: 125.7 ypg (10th ACC, 94 National)
Passing: 264.0 ypg (4th ACC, 26th National)
Scoring: 23.2 ppg (8th ACC, 45th National)
Rushing: 125.6 ypg (4th ACC, 22nd National)
Passing: 212.9 ypg (6th ACC, 50th National)
Four-year starters Bruce Carter and Quan Sturdivant have moved on from the program and will be colossal sized leadership holes to fill. Kevin Reddick (team high 74 tackles in 2010) will be the voice of the linebacking core in 2011. Herman Davidson and Darius Lipford will continue to battle for Carter’s slot going into preseason practices with Davidson being the favorite to take over.
Big Man on Campus: Quinton Coples, DE. Coples dealt with off-season difficulties after being looked in on by the NCAA. But this season, Coples will forget all about the questioning and focus on ending his NFL-bound resume with a huge splash in 2011.
On the Rise: Donte Paige-Morris, DE. On the other side of Coples, Paige-Morris totaled seven sacks last season and should be able to increase that number this coming fall. Paige-Morris will see a lot of potential action with weak ACC running games avoiding Coples.
Breakout Freshman: Travis Hughes, LB. The Tar Heels have to deal with the loss of some of their starters, but will not be in such a pickle where they’ll be forced to start a freshman right away. Hughes was ranked the No. 9 linebacker in the nation by Rivals.com and could be a power hitter on the kickoff team. Don’t expect much since he won’t be on the field.
The schedule is a run of the mill ACC Coastal division to-do list. Georgia Tech will be a week four test when traveling to Atlanta to take on the declining Yellow Jackets. The Heels will need to come out of that 4-0 before getting into the meat of their schedule. Miami, Clemson, and Virginia Tech are all featured on the schedule and should give the baby blue some serious headaches. And even though the expectations are low, North Carolina must take care of some business in order to have a productive season… beat Duke and beat NC State (something the Tar Heels have yet to accomplish under Davis.) GT and Duke will finish at the bottom of the Coastal region. Virginia could shake it up but expect UNC to finish third behind the Hurricanes and Hokies.