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Wednesday, March 4, 2009
Tar Heels begin practice looking for receivers


Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

The Tar Heels begin spring practice today and coach Butch Davis and his staff have a lot of work to do in order to improve upon last year's impressive eight-win season. At the top of the list is finding a few players who can catch the ball.

Here are the highlights of our conversation, with the warning that Davis turns around programs faster than he tends to answer questions (not that there's anything wrong with that):

 
  Bob Donnan/US Presswire
  Greg Little will be someone the Tar Heels look to this season.

Everyone knows you have a lot to replace at wide receiver. What can you tell me about the guys who have the potential to step in there this spring?

BD: That will probably be our No. 1 main objective going into the spring, at least from a position standpoint, is replacing those three unbelievably talented wide receivers. And Cooter Arnold was a really significant player when we got into four wide receiver packages, but having said all that, I think that we've got five guys on campus right now that we're excited to find out about. They've had an opportunity to watch for this last year or so. They watched those three guys practice, how hard they practiced, how much film they studied, how much trust and confidence they developed with the quarterback, and certainly Greg Little is probably the most experienced player that we have. He's played wide receiver, and he's started games at wideout, he's played as a running back. He's got pretty significant game experience.

After that, then most of the guys, they're kind of somewhat young, but we think they've got some talent. Dwight Jones was one of the most highly recruited receivers in the country a couple of years ago. We think he is poised to step in and be able to contribute and do some things. We're also very excited about Todd Harrelson, a receiver we recruited last year that redshirted this past season. We think that he's got some things he can certainly bring to the table. One of the most highly recruited kids in last year's class was Josh Adams, that enrolled in midterm. So he's been going through our offseason program and that was part of the recruiting program, knowing a year ago we were going to lose some guys to graduation. We didn't know Hakeem (Nicks) was going to go out early in the draft, but that was one of the things in trying to get Josh. We knew he'd be able to come in at midterm. We've got another kid that's going to be a junior, Rashad Mason.

A lot of these guys have been waiting in the wings, flying under the radar, so to speak, because we had those three guys that did probably 85 percent of the playing over the last two years. So now will be a time for us to really work with some consistency, some continuity in the springtime, and it will be an ongoing process all summer long and certainly into training camp. We think by the start of the season we've got some other kids we signed -- we signed three other receivers to come in in this class that we think they'll have an opportunity to add a little bit to the position.

What are your other concerns heading into the spring?

A couple of things. We've got to address the departures of Mark Paschal and Trimane Goddard on the defensive side of the ball. We'll move Quan Sturdivant from will linebacker to middle linebacker which we did for the bowl game and we're going to see if that continues to be a very positive move. We've got some position competition with some guys at the safety position to find out who might be the heir apparent to Trimane.

We've got to find some replacements ... we lost three seniors on the offensive line. So we've got to try to find a right guard, a right tackle, and Bryon Bishop was kind of a swing guard between the two positions. We've got to replace that particular part of it.

Another area is developing some consistency in the kicking game, as far as extra points and field goals and kickoffs. One thing, I think we probably put too much pressure on two young kids -- Jay Wooten and Casey Barth. Both of those kids did a really good job. One year of having been in games, I think we'll see improvement in them, but we lose Terrence Brown, the punter. We've got to work very hard this spring with Grant Shallock, and in the summer time C.J. Feagles, who we signed, is Jeff Feagles' son, the kicker for the New York Giants. Those two guys will be battling and competing pretty significantly for the punting job. So there's no shortage of things. And we played a lot of young kids, just out of necessity.

Like the three freshman defensive ends. They played a lot of it on determination and athletic ability. Now will be a great chance for them to really develop some real good fundamentals and see how they can grow and develop as far as technique players. We have to develop some depth at the linebacker position. We've got some young guys we want to look at and try to find out how much can they come on this spring. We've going to have some pretty good position competition at a lot of places.

You guys were so close last year to taking that next step, you were in the mix for the Coastal Division, what do you think is the next step for the program in terms of getting it to where you want it to be in your third season?

BD: Depth and experience. We took a look at the Orange Bowl, the Fiesta Bowl, the Rose Bowl, the national championship game. All of the BCS championship games, one of the common denominators for most of those games ... most of them had somewhere between 17 and 23 seniors. That's one thing. Almost all of those programs, whether it was Southern Cal or Ohio State or Florida, LSU ... they had a significant amount of time within a system. Next year will be the third year the guys that are on the team, at least two classes of it, will have been in this system.

Next year's freshmen, we've got 25 incoming freshmen and it will be their first year, so, to be able to get over the hump to try to win some of those close games, you need leadership. You need veterans, you need guys that are experienced. You can't fabricate experience. There's no better learning experience. One of the reasons we won eight games was because of how close we were the year we won four games. They realized, 'Gosh, if we just eliminate these mistakes, these penalties, these turnovers, we can move that meter.' We moved it from four to eight.

It will be just as difficult to go from eight to more than eight. You've got to play better than you played to win those eight games. That's part of the process of building a program. As much as you'd like to just snap your fingers and the entire program, and the culture and the talent and everything switch in 18 months, it's not going to happen. It's going to take two, three and four years.

Did you have an idea, though, in your mind ... did you set specific goals
when you took over the program and say I want to win X amount of games by this year?

BD: There were some expectations that you expect to get better every single year, every single game. You expect to put yourself in a position to start to compete against nationally ranked teams, to put yourself in position to compete for the ACC conference championship. All of those things, once you start putting yourself in a position to do that, you can do it on a continual basis. It's very similar to the process that took place when I was at Miami. We hovered around 8-3, 9-3, and then all of a sudden, boom, you go 11-1, 12-0, and win a national championship, beat Florida in the Sugar Bowl and all those kinds of things. It didn't happen in Year 1. It didn't happen in Year 2. It takes a couple of years to lure enough talent and build your program.

What can you tell me about how your staff changes will affect the team?

BD: You don't like change, but I think it will be a positive effect from the standpoint we hired three really good coaches. One's got 25 years of experience, one's got 20 and one's got eight. They've been coordinators, special teams or defensive coordinators, recruiting coordinators. The chemistry, they've already fit really well with our staff and our players. We'll look at some new things we can add to our packages, and I think it will be a healthy situation.

And you guys are OK with the situation at quarterback, even though Cam left?

BD: We need to find out who can be a really quality backup quarterback. That's a big question. You don't want your entire season to hang in the balance. We were very, very fortunate last year that Cam Sexton came in and did just an outstanding job while T.J. [Yates] had the broken ankle. Had we not had somebody that can step in and do that, instead of winning eight games, we might have only won three.

I think that's the challenge every single year. Certainly this year will be no different, is who can step in, and who will be that quality guy the team believes in, and has got the talent to do it, and the work ethic to prepare for it. Because sometimes being the backup quarterback is a little bit of a thankless job until you get put in that situation and now all of a sudden the entire season rests on your shoulders. And if you waited until that moment to get ready, you probably won't handle it very well.

Is there anybody who was expected to be a pretty big contributor who might be missing this spring because of injuries or academics?

BD: We don't have any on the academics, but Aaron Stahl, who's been a starter on the offensive line, had minor surgery after the bowl game, and so he's not going to go through it. Ryan Taylor has been our special teams captain two years in a row and plays h-back for us. He had the same shoulder thing, so he's going to miss some playing time. And then Deunta Williams, who's been a starter for two years at safety, had wrist surgery, so he's going to miss the spring. In each of those cases, we pretty much know what those three guys are capable of doing, and it will open an opportunity for us to look at some young people that will probably get a little more playing time than they were going to get.