College Football: Tar Heels want to run more and more
By Aaron Beard
CHAPEL HILL ó For the first four weeks of the season, it seemed as if North Carolina’s running attack consisted largely of 2-yard pileups at the line of scrimmage. The 22nd-ranked Tar Heels are hoping a big day from a converted defensive back is the start of changing that.
North Carolina finally managed to take the pressure off its passing game in a weekend upset of previously unbeaten Connecticut, a win that gave the Tar Heels their first ranking in seven years. The trick now is figuring out how to sustain that momentum and prove it wasn’t just one good performance.
At first glance, the biggest change might have been the decision to give 19 carries to Shaun Draughn, a reserve safety last year as a redshirt freshman, after giving him 25 in the first four games. Draughn came through with 109 yards and a touchdown, becoming the first running back on the team to surpass 71 yards in a game all year while every-game starter Greg Little got just three carries.
But coach Butch Davis isn’t promising that the Tar Heels (4-1) will have the same look this weekend when Notre Dame makes its first visit to Chapel Hill in 33 years.
“We’re going to play the guys at the time who give us the best chance to win,” Davis said Monday during his weekly news conference. “I’ll play anybody that will help us win the game. I think our players are receptive to that. … When you go in the game, contribute, play hard and give us a chance and make some plays. We’re going to try to keep guys fresh and give them all an opportunity.”
True to Davis’ word, Little ó despite struggling all season ó is listed alongside Draughn atop the depth chart at tailback.
Little leads the team with 223 yards and three scores, though he’s averaging just 3.3 yards per carry. Draughn is second with 206 yards, though he’s averaging 4.7 yards per carry ó including his 39-yard touchdown against the Huskies that was the start of the Tar Heels’ final game-clinching surge in the 38-12 win.
Not bad for a guy who remembers how nervous he felt before asking Davis to move him from defense to running back during the offseason. He expected the coach would react skeptically, though the staff agreed and made him the No. 6 running back entering training camp.
North Carolina thought it had found its running back via position switch once before, moving Little from receiver to the backfield for the final two games of last year. The rookie responded with 89 yards at Georgia Tech and 154 yards ó including the winning 25-yard score in overtime ó against Duke. But his struggles this year have allowed Draughn to creep into the lineup.
“Confidence wasn’t the thing. It was just a matter of when I was going to get in a game and get a chance to do what I can do,” Draughn said. “Like I always tell the coaches, just give me a chance and I’ll do what I can. I’m not looking for a starting role or looking for all the fame. I’m just looking to give the team a good chance to win and give them a spark.”
In addition, third-stringer Ryan Houston added a 35-yard run late and a touchdown ó part of the Tar Heels’ 146 yards on the ground. While it ranked only as the third-best team performance this year, the season-high of 163 yards in the opener against McNeese State came with receiver Brandon Tate running for 106 yards on a few end-arounds and inside handoffs.
In the past two games, North Carolina ran for 103 yards in the loss to Virginia Tech and 35 yards on 33 carries in a comeback win at Miami. The improved production is especially critical with one-time third-stringer Cameron Sexton taking over at quarterback after starter T.J. Yates went down with a broken left ankle against the Hokies.
“It was great watching them because you get set up in the play-action pass and it takes a little bit off me,” Sexton said. “There were a couple of times on film I saw myself getting excited back there because they were breaking long runs. We’ve talked about it all along: They’re the playmakers and we’re just trying to get them the ball.”
Davis said that plan won’t change, regardless of which running back takes the lead against the Fighting Irish.
“We don’t really entertain the, ‘OK, this guy’s in the game so these are the plays we’re going to feature,”‘ he said. “They practice the exact same things. We don’t have enough time during the course of the week to have six runs that Shaun runs and five runs that Ryan runs and four runs that Greg runs. You can’t get that many runs ready.”