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July 21, 2013GREENSBORO--- It won't be until August 29 that North Carolina provides an answer that plagues college football nationally - how to compete against South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney - for now, the team is still working on a game plan.
"That's definitely the driving point of the summer," Kareem Martin said. "Everything that we're breaking down on, it's 'Beat South Carolina,' it's in everybody's head. That's all you hear is 'August 29th, South Carolina,' so the guys are really amped for this game."
The game against the Gamecocks is one that Martin anticipates will feel the same way many games last season did, despite the hype. With hyper-conditioned bodies and internal play clocks, the Tar Heels feel that games against differently structured teams are breaks, he says.
"This being the second year in the defense, and everyday in practice going against this no huddle offense is definitely just preparing us for games because it's like a conditioning drill every team period going against those (other UNC) guys," Martin said. "They're getting plays off in about ten seconds and in a game, you've got teams getting off every twenty seconds so it definitely helps us because a game is like a break for us in a sense."
So does Martin stand by his statement that playing other teams feels like a pace-break, even when considering the pressure and opportunity that comes with playing a top ten team in the season opener?
"I don't think they can go as fast as our offense, so yes - definitely," he said..
But the senior defensive end recognizes that regardless of the mark the border battle leaves on UNC's record, the Week One game performance will set a standard that North Carolina will either have to break or live up to throughout the duration of the season.
"If we win this game, it could propel us into the national spotlight," Martin said. "(It could) bring up the brand of UNC football to where it should be and can be, so I think it's more than win or loss riding on this game, it's branding."
The brand of the Tar Heel football team and entire program took a shift to the faster last season in its first year under coach Larry Fedora as it adopted a spread offense that challenged and improved the physicality and endurance of North Carolina players on both sides of the ball.
And although returning and veteran players did their best to adopt the new play book and style, and posted an ACC Coastal Division-best 8-4 record, going 5-1 in their final six games, the level of comfort was not what quarterback Bryn Renner wanted it to be.
But after a full year with the no-huddle scheme under offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Blake Anderson and Fedora's lead, Renner believes he and his teammates have the grasp they need on things.
"I think every quarterback wants to be in total control and I think that finally going into my fifth year and understanding this offense, that's the point I'm in now," Renner said. "We're doing OTA's right now and I can kind of coach people and teach people and it's the level I wanted to get to at this point. Last year I couldn't say that, I was running around a chicken with my head cut off and not knowing where everybody was and it's tough to play with confidence like that. The roll's reversed this year."
A year ago Renner said he was being asked questions he didn't really know the answer to, but now his confidence is in place, and the schedule he'll lead the UNC team through is one that draws envy from former Tar Heel TJ Yates, he says, but the match-ups aren't the only thing about the 2013 season that draws envy from UNC football alumni.
The new Nike uniforms that Martin, Renner, former running back Giovanni Bernard and other players helped design are drawing attention from players who used to list UNC rosters despite receiving some negative feedback from more traditionally minded fans.
"I can't tell you how much a jersey means to a player," Renner said. "It's got your name on the back, when you walk in the locker room you get that feeling that you're wearing something that's brand new."
"You put those things on and cherish them and to be the first team that can wear these new uniforms and break them in, so to speak, it's awesome. All of our old alumni that I played with are jealous and it's an exciting time. But as far as the old people getting mad about it, I just think it's a new age of college football."
For the Tar Heels, last season's explosive win against NC State was partially driven by the pre-game surprise to the players of chrome helmets, and it's a freshness that Renner believes this season's uniforms will inspire again.
But in the meantime, before the players break out the all-black uniforms, the size of the stage the Tar Heels will compete on in their opening week game is motivation enough to hype up the already face-paced team.
The start of Renner's senior season has a younger feel than could be expected for a fifth-year collegiate player.
The feeling that comes from entering the season knowing that the newer offense can be used without limitations - that no post-season ban or remnant of NCAA sanctions straps the North Carolina team into a November-ended season.
"It's almost like Christmas and you're getting a new toy," Renner said of being able to play with the face-paced offense for a bowl game. "Cause you know everything's out of the way and you can go out and play football and have fun."
"For it to be my senior year, and to get new jerseys, and to have all the exciting things that are happening around Chapel Hill it's an exciting time."
But having the opportunity to play into the post season and amidst the changes that are reshaping the North Carolina football program is not just a thrill for the veteran players, it's one that lifts an already spirited Tar Heel team.
"The morale is high -last year we ended on a good note," Martin said. "But to know that this year we can actually go to a post-season game is just raising it up even more. We're thinking BCS, ACC Title games, so that's definitely been a motivating factor. "