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September 5, 2009The third season of the Butch Davis era at North Carolina officially kicks off at 6:00 pm Saturday, as the Tar Heels face off against The Citadel in Kenan Stadium.
For North Carolina, this is the first time since the 1998 season that the Tar Heels enter a season ranked in the Top 25---No. 20 in the USA Today poll and No. 21 in the Associated Press poll.
In light of the national respect the Tar Heels are getting, along with a renewed spirit from fans, there seems to be an air of confidence in Chapel Hill that this could be a season that North Carolina turns a corner and returns to prominence in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
It all begins against a Bulldogs squad coming off a 4-8 season that will be entering Tar Heel country as decided underdogs---although they have some weapons, including All-American wide receiver Andre Roberts and nine other starters on offense.
For a North Carolina team returning nine defensive starters and a healthy T.J. Yates at quarterback, Saturday night's challenge will be to focus on themselves---which Coach Davis indicated was one of the top themes of training camp---while not underestimating The Citadel.
Offensively, the Tar Heels will be looking to get the running game going early and often, allowing Shaun Draughn, Ryan Houston, and perhaps even youngsters like A.J. Blue and Jamal Womble plenty of repetitions.
It would be nice if UNC was able to get some of its key offensive line backups such as Greg Elleby and Cam Holland into the game at some point, although the Tar Heels will stick with its starting five of two seniors (Kyle Jolly and Lowell Dyer), two juniors (Alan Pelc and Mike Ingersoll) and a redshirt freshman (Jonathan Cooper) for most of the game, barring injuries.
Yates' old faithful in the passing game will undoubtedly be junior receiver Greg Little, the only returning wideout for UNC who's actually caught a pass in a game, but one thing is clear offensively.
Without the services of Dwight Jones, who will miss tonight's game after undergoing surgery on Friday, the Tar Heels will unquestionably look to some of its young wide receivers, such as Todd Harrelson, Joshua Adams, Jheranie Boyd, and perhaps even Erik Highsmith, to make some plays.
It will be interesting to see how much, if at all, the Tar Heels open their playbook in terms of passing to the running backs, tight ends, and H-backs, as it's expected that the UNC coaches will hold some things back offensively in anticipation of a game next week at Connecticut.
Defensively, the Tar Heels will be rolling plenty of players into the rotation, especially along the defensive line and in the secondary.
Saturday is the first opportunity for UNC to showcase it's ultra-fast starting linebacking corps of Zach Brown, Quan Sturdivant, and Bruce Carter, while the defensive backs will be looking to pick up from where they left off last year in terms of forcing turnovers.
On both sides of the ball, the Tar Heels figure to play plenty of true freshmen tonight, including Adams, Boyd, Kevin Reddick, Gene Robinson, Mywan Jackson, Terry Shankle, and perhaps others.
It will also be the first start as Tar Heels for several players, including Ingersoll, Cooper, Adams, and Brown.
If the game gets out-of-hand on the scoreboard as many are predicting, it would obviously allow the coaches the luxury of getting most of the team's second and even third-team players the opportunity for game repetitions.
However, Coach Davis and the rest of the UNC staff have been quick to point out that they're not instantly assuming it will be a blowout, and they expect a fierce challenge from a veteran Citadel squad.
The great news is that after a month of practice and a great deal of talking about it, the waiting is finally over for the players, the coaches, and the fans.
It's finally time for some football in Chapel Hill.