College Football: UNC cautious in opener
CHAPEL HILL ó There’s a good reason why North Carolina is approaching its opener against The Citadel with all the intensity and attention of a rivalry.
A year ago, the Tar Heels nearly lost this type of game.
And if they want to take another step toward becoming an annual contender in the Atlantic Coast Conference, they can’t afford any more close calls against teams from the Football Championship Subdivision.
“Every day, you’ve got to bring your lunch pail, no matter who you’re playing,” defensive end E.J. Wilson said. “You could be playing Florida, or you could be playing (an FCS) team. … Every opponent deserves the same respect, and that’s one thing we learned. We’re going into the Citadel game just like we’re playing one of our biggest rivals.
“It has to be important to you, because every week, you can’t turn it on and off,” he added. “It has to be a consistent, sustained effort ó mentally and physically ó every week.”
When the Bulldogs visit the 21st-ranked Tar Heels on Saturday night, the biggest test coach Butch Davis’ players probably will face is one of focus. The Citadel, the preseason pick by the media to finish seventh in the Southern Conference, offered little resistance in its finale last season ó a 70-19 loss to eventual national champion Florida.
Still, for a North Carolina team that dodged embarrassment in last year’s opener ó holding off McNeese State 35-27 in a game delayed by lightning ó the Tar Heels want to prove they can finish off a less talented team that’s gunning for them.
“We’ve just got to realize we have to stay focused in those types of situations, because we went into the locker room for two hours and kind of lost focus,” quarterback T.J. Yates said. “Those types of teams … that’s their biggest game on the schedule all year long, and they’re coming out absolutely with everything they’ve got. … They’re not just going to lay down. They’re going to come at us full-force, so we’ve got to be prepared for that.”
Yates is entering his third season as the Tar Heels’ starter, but he won’t have his favorite targets after the exodus of receivers Hakeem Nicks, Brandon Tate and Brooks Foster ó who a year ago combined for nearly two-thirds of North Carolina’s 182 catches. The situation got even worse this week when one of their top replacements, Dwight Jones, was ruled out with a knee injury.
With so much uncertainty and inexperience on the offense, most expect North Carolina’s defense ó which returns an ACC-best nine starters ó to be the strength of the team.
“I know people have been saying that’s one of our question marks, but in my mind, I feel we may not have a lot of experience, but there’s a lot of talent there,” he said. “We’re not asking them to go out there and score 40 points a game. All we need is for them to take care of the ball, for them to score when they get the chance and take advantage of the opportunities, and we’ll have their back.”
The best receiver on the field most likely will be the Bulldogs’ Andre Roberts, who led the SoCon with 95 catches for 1,334 yards and 14 touchdowns last season and could be a threat to take snaps in the wildcat formation.
“I’m definitely up for anything they put me through this year,” Roberts said. “I know I’m going to be a playmaker for this team, and I have to come out every game and produce. Wherever they need me, they can put me.”