College Football: Tar Heels figure they’re moving yp
Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 31, 2008
By Aaron Beard
The sting had yet to subside from North Carolina’s locker room following its Meineke Bowl loss to West Virginia when Butch Davis turned his attention to the game’s role in rebuilding the program into a perennial Atlantic Coast Conference contender.
“You don’t go to the summit instantly,” Davis told his players afterward.
It was a fitting epitaph on the 2008 season for the Tar Heels ó and perhaps a needed reminder that the turnaround won’t be immediate. North Carolina (8-5) finished with its first bowl appearance in four years and had its winningest season in seven years, which was also the last time the program held a national ranking before this season.
The Tar Heels also squandered their chances for more, namely a shot at an ACC division title. They lost three of four to close the year, including Saturday’s 31-30 loss to the Mountaineers in Charlotte.
The Tar Heels figure they laid the foundation this year for a preseason national ranking in 2009 and a shot at an even better postseason destination. The biggest question might be just how big of a step they’ll take.
“I feel like adversity is going to come and on the way up, you’re going to take bumps and bruises,” said tailback Shaun Draughn, whose fourth-quarter fumble led to West Virginia’s go-ahead touchdown, “and this is one of the bruises we’re going to take and keep going.”
At the beginning of the year, North Carolina was just trying to show progress from the woeful years since Mack Brown left for Texas in 1997. The Tar Heels had gone 47-71 in the 10 seasons since, though Davis’ first team gave reason for hope with six of its eight losses coming by seven or fewer points.
His second team had familiar trouble in close games, with four of the five losses coming by a combined nine points. His team was blown out just once, through that came disturbingly enough against rival North Carolina State at home in November.
Along the way, there were plenty of highlights: a late touchdown for the lead and interception to seal a win at Miami; a recovered fumble deep in its own end in the final seconds to beat Notre Dame; and lopsided wins against ranked teams Boston College and Georgia Tech.
There were also an overtime loss at Virginia ó extending a losing streak at Charlottesville that dates to 1981 ó and a 17-15 loss at Maryland when the Tar Heels controlled their own destiny in the ACC’s Coastal Division.
Key injuries ultimately hindered the Tar Heels. They lost starting quarterback T.J. Yates to a broken ankle in September and his late-season return seemed to throw off the momentum built under backup Cameron Sexton. In addition, big-play receiver Brandon Tate went down to a season-ending knee injury and senior linebacker Mark Paschal to a spinal injury.
Yates will be back for his junior season, part of what should be an experienced returning group considering there were only eight seniors on North Carolina’s two-deep depth chart for the bowl game. Draughn, who provided a boost to the struggling running game, will also be a junior.
The biggest question will be whether receiver Hakeem Nicks decides to return for his senior season or head to the NFL. He has already set the school’s career receiving yardage record and had a 200-yard day against the Mountaineers.
Defensively, the Tar Heels lose Associated Press second-team All-American Trimane Goddard from the secondary, but expect to return talented linebackers Quan Sturdivant and Bruce Carter, along with defensive tackle Marvin Austin.
They all should benefit from this year’s ups and downs, including their first taste of bowl action.
“We’ll learn from it,” Yates said. “A lot of guys have never played a game of this magnitude. This is definitely a learning experience for everybody.”