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August 26, 2011
Batten: Renner looks to repeat history
If history is any indication, North Carolina has more than a 50-50 chance of producing a .500 or better record this season with a first-year starter at quarterback.
The Tar Heels will see a new face under center in the season opener for the first time since 2007 when redshirt sophomore Bryn Renner takes over for graduated T.J. Yates.
Renner appeared in just three games as a redshirt freshman as Yates' backup last season, but was only in for a handful of plays and threw just two passes.
The limited game experience makes Renner an unknown commodity at a pivotal position for UNC.
So, how good can the Tar Heels be with a new starter who has limited experience?
Well, recent history tells us that it may be a struggle for UNC. But going all the way back to 1955, it appears that first-year Tar Heel quarterbacks have directed teams to a .500 or better finish 58.6 percent of the time.
Based on school records of yearly passing leaders, there have been 29 first-year quarterback starters at UNC since 1955. Of those, 14 played for teams with winning records, three produced .500 finishes and 12 had losing records.
Four of those winning first-year starters played for teams that won 10 or more games. Three of those - Oscar Davenport in 1997, Rod Elkins in 1980 and Nick Vidnovic in 1972 - led their squads to 11-win seasons. Elkins actually piloted the Tar Heels to their last Atlantic Coast Conference championship.
Like Renner, Elkins was just a sophomore when he became the starter under then-Coach Dick Crum.
It was assumed before the season that Chuck Sharpe would be under center for the Tar Heels. But a preseason knee injury sent Sharpe to the sidelines and Elkins into the starting lineup.
Vidnovic was a junior when he landed the starting assignment under Coach Bill Dooley in '72. He quarterbacked UNC to the ACC crown and actually led the league in touchdown passes with 10 (my how times have changed!).
Vidnovic's most memorable performance in '72 came in the Sun Bowl against Texas Tech when he completed 14 of 26 passes for 215 yards and two scores, including a 12-yarder to Ted Leverenz with 1:02 left that finished a 32-28 victory.
The gutsy Vidnovic, who tragically passed away from cancer in 2007, played the last three periods of the Sun Bowl with a broken wrist.
While those were the top performances by a UNC team playing a first-year starter at quarterback, the signal caller who posted the best combination of individual and team success is Chris Keldorf.
Keldorf originally signed with Utah State, but when that school tried to convert him to tight end he transferred to Palomar Community College. The Tar Heels were seeking some insurance at quarterback for 1996 in case anticipated starter Oscar Davenport wasn't completely recovered from knee surgery. So in a rarity at the time, they signed Keldorf out of the JUCO ranks.
With Davenport struggling, Keldorf won the starting job and went on to one of the best years in history for a UNC quarterback. He completed 201 of 338 passes for 2,347 yards and 23 touchdowns to earn All-ACC honors.
More important, Keldorf helped the Tar Heels to a 10-2 record, although he sat out the Gator Bowl win against West Virginia with an injury.
Great team success, however, hasn't been achieved by the most recent first-year quarterback starters. Only one of the last five first-year starters have played on a team that produced a winning record.
Darian Durant threw for 17 touchdowns as a freshman in 2001 when the Tar Heels went 8-5. The other four first-year starters in that stretch played on teams with a combined record of 15-31.
The Tar Heels went 4-8 in Yates' first year in 2007, were 5-6 when Matt Baker took over in 2005, 3-9 with Joe Dailey in 2006 and 3-8 with Ronald Curry in 1999. In Dailey's case, he started only seven games in '06.
Renner's situation this season will be a fairly rare one in UNC history. For just the second time in the last 27 years, the Tar Heels will head into a season without a quarterback who has started at the college level. (Remember, Keldorf started in junior college and Dailey started 11 games at Nebraska before coming to UNC).
The most recent time that occurred was in '05 when Baker finally got his shot to start as a senior after spending three years as Durant's backup.
Beyond that, you have to go all the way back to the 1984 season when sophomore Kevin Anthony stepped in for graduated Scott Stankavage. Behind Anthony, UNC posted a 5-5-1 finish.
Perhaps the most successful first-year quarterback on a team without any starting experience was Matt Kupec. The Tar Heels graduated Bill Paschal following the 1975 season and sophomore Bernie Menapace initially won the staring job in '76.
But Menapace, who went on to star at defensive back for UNC, eventually gave way to Kupec as the Tar Heels reeled off five straight wins to finish the regular season. North Carolina would complete the year with a 9-3 record and Kupec went on to start three more seasons.
While studying the past does give some insight into what may lie ahead for UNC in 2011, there are plenty of other factors that suggest the Tar Heels can excel with Renner at the helm.
"I'm blessed to have a great offensive line coming back and a top NFL draft pick at receiver (Dwight Jones) in my first year starting,'' Renner said recently. "I'm just trying to be a small piece in this puzzle. I'll hand it off, if I need to, make plays when I need to and just try to get out of the way.''
Sounds like a good philosophy for a successful future.