Monday, August 9, 2010

UNC has talent beyond its No. 18 ranking

North Carolina is ranked No. 18 in the preseason coaches’ poll, and when you watch the Tar Heels on the practice field, that number seems low. UNC has the talent, and depth, to contend for a BCS bowl.

This is evident across the practice field. Redshirt freshman Bryn Renner looks smooth and poised at quarterback. If he’s not starting against LSU, you know he’ll be playing if T.J. Yates struggles.

Ryan Houston looks leaner at running back, and both he and Shaun Draughn have plenty of experience there. The line, a real problem last year, will be better. Carl Gaskins missed all of last season with a knee injury, but he’s a quick, strong athlete scheduled to start at left tackle. UNC has three returning starters on the line – guard Alan Pelc, center Jonathan Cooper and tackle Mike Ingersoll – and there is more quality depth than in the past.

The receivers are a year older, and that will help. And everyone knows about the defense. There is just an abundance of talent at UNC that is reminiscent of the last years of Mack Brown.

Given that, Davis said, “We can be tougher on them. We’re going to challenge them. We want to encourage competition in practice.”

Now, lots of football teams look great in “shells;” that is, just helmets and shorts. But the relentless preseason focus on Marvin Austin’s antics has overshadowed UNC’s development. How the season plays out may depend on two factors beyond the NCAA probe.

The first is how coach Butch Davis manages this season. The UNC staff had a dreadful stretch last season, losing three of four games in the middle of the year. Those losses included a horrible performance against a bad Virginia team and a second-half implosion against Florida State on national TV.

But Davis and his staff rallied the team after that, and what could have been a real downer of a year turned into an eight-win effort.

This year, Carolina faces the challenge of working through the NCAA investigation while focusing on a schedule that could derail its season right away. That LSU, Georgia Tech, at Rutgers, East Carolina stretch could evaporate the hopes of many teams.

But then you see Carolina on the field – and you think, they might be able to handle that after all.

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