Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
I think I might be underestimating North Carolina. Butch Davis has a good football team that's hungry to win, and it learned from last year's mistakes and realized a good season could have been a great season. Here's the thing, though: Everyone else in the Coastal Division is getting better, too, and it's a tough step to go from eight wins to 10. Davis has a methodical approach to what he's doing, though, and the staff and players have bought into it. Offensive coordinator John Shoop was nice enough to give me some time on Tuesday and go over the Tar Heels' offense a bit. Shoop, also the quarterbacks coach, is a good guy and a smart coach who can get pretty animated at practices. It was a pretty long interview, so I'll post it in two parts.
Where did you think the offense made the most progress this spring?
John Shoop: I think that we continued to get better at situation football. From the first to the second year we really made an emphasis on getting better at third downs. We went from one of the worst in the country to in the top third. We tried to really get better at red zone football. The one situation we didn't get as good as we needed to was the two-minute, so we worked really hard on the two-minute offense this spring as well. With T.J.'s [T.J. Yates] experience, we're continuing to get better at situation football.
Those aren't the only situations -- second-and-long, cutting it in half, playing from the middle of the field, playing from the fringe, playing backed up. The analogy I make is it's like a golf course: There are guys who can hit the ball well, but then they go out and shoot a 90. Part of it deals with scoring. The guys in our offense, with more maturity we understand what it takes to score well. We were second in the ACC in scoring last year, but I think we can even be better. These guys feel like they left a lot out there, and we don't want to waste those opportunities.
That's gotta be a huge difference. I think I read where Butch said in the News & Observer that you can talk to them as much as you want, but until they get out there and learn it for themselves, it's a totally different ballgame.
JS: Right. Butch has always said we're drawing on experiences we've had together. Often times it seemed like the first two years it was like, 'When I was at Chicago, or, when I was at Carolina, this was what happened.' Now it's like, 'Hey do you remember that Maryland game? We've got to get that ball up-and-down when we're on the fringe.' That's really helped our guys to grow.
You mentioned T.J. How much of a concern is his durability?
JS: Endurance and durability, I tell our team all the time are the two most underrated qualities in a football player. You can't practice if you don't have endurance and durability, and you can't get better if you don't practice. T.J. is a tough son of a gun. He played the bulk of his freshman year, a bit of it with an injured shoulder and really stuck it out. Last year he broke his foot. You break your foot, you break your foot. The thing we love about T.J. is he came back from that and finished up strong in two games. Like all of us, you're greatest strength is your greatest weakness. When he injured his thumb, we were at a team function.
We had different stations where our team for summer conditioning had been broken up into different teams, and he was competing like heck. A piano player probably isn't going to go out and play volleyball or Frisbee golf worrying about his fingers. T.J., if you put him in a situation where you're keeping score, he's going to compete. I was there, coach Davis was there, it wasn't a situation where he was just out horsing around.
He's fine, he's throwing now, everything is great. People ask me about his durability, and I think every player has to have endurance and durability. It's an underrated quality. I talked to him about it a lot, but I also talk to our wideouts, our o-line, and our tailbacks. Is it a concern? Yeah, because it is for everybody.
Speaking of the wideouts, how long realistically do you think it's going to take before those guys aren't thinking as much as they're just playing?
JS: I hope not long. We're a concept driven team. Our formations may change, but our concepts are always the same. Dwight Jones, Joshua Adams, Todd Harrelson, Greg Little, Johnny White -- these guys understand the concepts. They can go out there on their own right now and practice the individual routes that make up the concept and they get it. I think really what they need to do is adjust, keep working with our quarterbacks.
The big part about playing wide receiver -- we'll get them running the right routes, that won't be the problem -- they need to develop a rapport with the guy throwing the ball. That's what Hakeem did so well, sometimes to a fault. Like I said, you're greatest strength is your greatest weakness. Well, Hakeem [Nicks] would get in the quarterback's ear -- 'I need the ball, I need the ball.' Well, you're covered and the other three guys are wide open. There's a fine line.
I think that these guys right now are all working their tails off to develop a rapport with the quarterbacks. That's more important to me, because you know, sometimes you have to throw to a guy and he's not really open. But you have to trust: Either he's going to come down with it, or the ball is going to be left on the ground. That's what Hakeem and Brandon [Tate] did for our quarterbacks, is, 'Don't worry, if I'm right with the guy, don't worry, I've got you.'
Jamal Womble looks like he's going to be a good third guy for you. Is he a player fans should keep an eye on? He's kind of a fireplug.
JS: I imagine that's a little bit what Natrone Means looked like in college. He's built low to the ground, and is a tough guy to tackle. The thing you always worry about that when guys are hard to tackle, is you worry about ball security. He's working his tail off on that. He takes a lot of hits because he doesn't go down so easy. If he can take care of the ball security and keep working his tail off this summer -- he could still shape his body a little bit. He knows that. Yeah, we're certainly encouraged by Jamal Womble. He's a tough guy to tackle.
Who are some other players who are newcomers Carolina fans might get to know a little better this fall?
JS: I think we had some good springs from some guys who may not show up in the box score. Mike Ingersoll at one of the tackle positions has really made some strides. He's up over 3.5 GPA-wise as well. You invest feelings in guys like that, who do everything right and work their tails off. He's a first-in, last-to-leave guy. He really sets a high standard for those guys. I think he's really going to compete for playing time at the tackle spot.
Another guy who is in the same category of you love him, you root for him, is Ed Barham at the tight end spot. All of our tight ends really were excited when they saw Rich [Quinn] go in the second round. That can serve as a real motivational tool. The way those guys practiced, and
Ed's got a chance to really help us. He may not always show up in the box score, but he's a strong blocker. He and Zack Pianalto are working their tails off to again develop a rapport with the quarterback. Those tight ends, they're not always wide open. You've just gotta stay between the defender and the ball.
Stay tuned for Part II.