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July 17, 2009
THE SCHEME: North Carolina runs a pro-style offense that typically features one-back sets.
STAR POWER: Junior QB T.J. Yates has struggled with injuries throughout his career, but he has shown star potential when healthy. Yates was leading the ACC and was ranked 12th in the nation in passing efficiency early last season before he sat out five games with a fractured left ankle. Yates ended up throwing for 1,168 yards and 11 touchdowns with just four interceptions despite making only six starts. Yates might not be quite as effective this season because he's throwing to an inexperienced receiving corps, but he still could challenge for All-ACC honors if he plays the entire season.
IMPACT NEWCOMERS: UNC's lack of proven wide receivers should create an immediate opportunity for true freshman Jheranie Boyd, the No. 3 receiver and No. 48 overall prospect nationally in the 2009 recruiting class. Boyd's big-play ability gives him more upside than most of his teammates. Fellow true freshman Joshua Adams enrolled early, but Boyd's skills bear watching. Redshirt freshman Jonathan Cooper also has an excellent chance to open the season as a starter at guard because Aaron Stahl elected to forego his final year of eligibility after graduating in May.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: We'll continue to focus on the receivers by turning our attention to sophomore Dwight Jones, a former five-star prospect. Jones had no receptions last season because North Carolina already had so many talented receivers (Hakeem Nicks, Brandon Tate, Brooks Foster, etc.). All those guys are gone, leaving Greg Little as the only returning wide receiver who caught a pass last season. Don't be surprised if Jones wins the wide-open competition for a starting job.
STRONGEST AREA: The Tar Heels might not know who's going to catch the ball, but they have plenty of confidence in the guy making the throws. As long as Yates can stay healthy, he should rank among the ACC's best quarterbacks. Yates also should feel confident in his protection. LT Kyle Jolly is a third-year starter who should compete for all-conference honors.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: After having one of the best receiving units in the nation last season, North Carolina must rely on plenty of unproven performers to step up this season. Little, the only wide receiver to catch a pass last season, only had 11 receptions and actually started the season at tailback. The Heels recruited well at this position and have plenty of talented candidates, but they can't be sure about any of them.
THE SCHEME: The Heels use a traditional 4-3 scheme.
STAR POWER: Junior LB Quan Sturdivant led the nation with 87 solo tackles last season. He scored on a 32-yard interception return to spark North Carolina's come-from-behind victory over Notre Dame. Sturdivant moves from weakside linebacker to the middle this season. CB Kendric Burney earned second-team All-ACC honors last season. His three interceptions and 78 tackles last season show he's a solid pass defender who also can help stop the run.
IMPACT NEWCOMERS: North Carolina has so much experience on defense that it leaves little room for freshmen on the depth chart, but E Donte Moss could be an exception. Moss, a five-star prospect, was the No. 16 overall recruit in the 2009 recruiting class. Moss had 28 sacks as a senior at Northside High in Jacksonville, N.C.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: North Carolina's scheme typically allows the weakside linebacker to lead the team in tackles. That's good news for sophomore Zach Brown, who moves to that position this season as Sturdivant shifts to the middle. Brown (6-2/220) may be the fastest player on the team regardless of position, and he seems poised for a breakout season.
STRONGEST AREA: UNC has plenty of experience on defense, particularly in the front seven. The line features four returning starters in E.J. Wilson, Marvin Austin, Cam Thomas and Robert Quinn. The linebacking corps returns Sturdivant and Bruce Carter, who combined for 190 tackles last season. Depth looks good, too.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The Tar Heels must do a better job of rushing the passer. UNC was 11th in the 12-team ACC in sacks last season, with just 22. North Carolina State's Russell Wilson and West Virginia's Pat White exposed the Tar Heels' inability to apply pressure while leading their teams to victories over North Carolina late in the season.
Jay Wooten's decision to transfer makes Casey Barth the clear-cut choice as the Tar Heels' kicker. Wooten started the 2008 season as the kicker before giving way to Barth, who went 10-of-15 on field-goal attempts. Barth's season-long kick last year was only 42 yards, but he did go 3-for-5 from at least 40 yards. Grant Schallock performed well this spring and should open the season as the punter, though true freshman C.J. Feagles – whose dad, Jeff, is a longtime NFL punter – could challenge for the job. The coverage units were solid last season, especially the kickoff group, and should be so again. UNC's best special-teams weapon might be Carter, who led the nation with five blocked kicks last season.
Butch Davis built Miami into a national title contender earlier in his career and has wasted little time making North Carolina competitive again in the ACC. His staff recruits as well as any in the conference, and his ability to attract talent started paying off on the field last season. Davis made quite a few changes to his staff in the offseason. The new linebackers coach is Art Kaufman, a 25-year veteran who spent last season as Southern Miss' defensive line coach. Kaufman replaces Tommy Thigpen, who joined Gene Chizik's staff at Auburn. Troy Douglas came over from USF as the new secondary coach after John Lovett left to become Miami's defensive coordinator. North Carolina alum and former Buffalo assistant Allen Mogridge returned to his alma mater as tight ends coach after the Cleveland Browns hired away Steve Hagen.
North Carolina's non-conference schedule includes two Football Championship Subdivision programs (The Citadel and Georgia Southern), but it also has two potentially tricky games at Connecticut and at home against defending Conference USA champion East Carolina. North Carolina's ACC schedule won't help the Tar Heels' chances of winning the Coastal Division. The two teams most likely to finish ahead of North Carolina in the Coastal – Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech – get the Tar Heels at home. UNC also has a home game with Florida State, the preseason favorite in the Atlantic Division.
North Carolina seemed ready to play for an ACC title midway through last season in Davis' second year on the job, but stumbled down the stretch with three losses in its last four games. The Tar Heels could be better this season, but so is the rest of the Coastal Division. North Carolina needs Yates to stay healthy and must get breakthrough seasons from at least a couple of receivers. The Tar Heels might be good enough to win the Atlantic Division, but they instead have to fight it out with Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Miami in the Coastal. That's the main reason they're probably a year away from making a serious run at the ACC championship.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.