North Carolina begins its 2011 season Saturday afternoon at home against a James Madison squad that has proven it can beat an Atlantic Coast Conference opponent on the road.
Get our 10 Keys to the game below"
It's no secret that it's been a while since North Carolina had a consistently dominant rushing attack.
But some of the pieces now seem to be in place where that might be possible in 2011. UNC has a talented, veteran offensive line and a pair of guys in Ryan Houston and Giovani Bernard that compliment each other well.
UNC was cautious with both Houston and Bernard throughout the summer, but now they get to unleash them both against the Dukes Saturday afternoon.
"I think we're all excited to watch them both (Houston and Bernard) and watch them together, because them together could make a pretty good pair of backs. They've got a little bit different styles, but I think it will be really important to get them in the game and get them going and get them an opportunity to get started and do what they do best," said head coach Everett Withers.
James Madison is a team built largely around defense and they've got a lot of veteran players returning, but the bottom line is that UNC's big and aggressive offensive linemen must take care of business and push these guys around if they're to do anything competitively against most anyone else they play this fall.
Everyone knows that Houston and Bernard are going to be raring to go. It's been nearly two years since either one of them have played in a game. The nerves and emotions are going to be running high, but both of these guys have the talent and they're healthy. This is the time UNC needs to get it going on the ground and make somebody pay.
A big key for the Tar Heel offensive line in assuming dominance on the ground will be getting to the second level and neutralizing James Madison's veteran linebackers Stephon Robinson and Pat Williams, who between them last year combined for over 200 tackles. Keep Robinson and Williams off Houston, Bernard and the other backs, and it should be fairly smooth sailing for the running game.
This is always a key component in any game, but against an opponent that is looking to find any advantage they can, the Tar Heels can't afford to slip up and allow James Madison to improve its starting field position through punt returns by All-CAA returner Dae'Quan Scott, nor can they afford to allow them to get good yardage consistently on kickoffs. The coverage units have do generally do a much better job than they did in last year's season opener against LSU if UNC is to handle JMU easily.
One thing that could be challenging for UNC from a field position standpoint is the fact that senior kicker Casey Barth is currently working through a thigh injury and will not be 100 percent for Saturday.
"We're going to do some things with Casey Barth. He's going to play, but we're going to try to do some other things in the kicking game maybe to give him a little rest, kick some other guys. He's got a little thigh soreness," said Withers.
It's likely that redshirt freshman Thomas Moore could get some work kicking off for the Tar Heels on Saturday, and how he does will be important in terms of helping the defense keep the Dukes pushed back.
With a first-time kicker there's always the worry of kicking the ball out of bounds, so that's something Moore or anyone else like who could potentially kick off will clearly want to avoid.
Another worry is the potential of offering good field position to JMU following a long missed field goal attempt, so Withers could have a tough decision or two to make on Saturday if the Tar Heels are in Barth's normal range of up to 48-50 yards, but don't feel that he's able to convert such a kick right now.
"We've got some other guys that can kick, so we're going to let some of those other guys kick," Withers said.
ATTACK UP FRONT
James Madison's offense wasn't particularly good in 2010 after starting quarterback Justin Thorpe went down to a season-ending knee injury in the season opener, but Thorpe is returning this fall healthy again and looking to cash in on the promise of his impressive 2009 season that won him four Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) player of the week honors and the CAA's Rookie of the Year Award.
For Carolina to make sure they don't allow the versatile Thorpe to run free and make plays, the defensive line, which should be one of UNC's strongest points, has to take control up front and apply as much pressure as possible.
It's been a while since Thorpe has played, so one or two good pops early on by the likes of Quinton Coples and Sylvester Williams is exactly what Carolina needs to jolt him back to reality.
"The biggest thing is we want to be able to put more pressure on the quarterback, especially when you're playing a team you don't know a whole lot. You feel like your front four can get pressure," Withers said. "If we can get in and get the ball out of the quarterback's hands quicker, if we can eat up the run gaps by adding a guy, we'll do that also."
Sophomore Kareem Martin had a very impressive August and he'll make the start alongside Coples at the opposite defensive end post, but Donte Paige-Moss will also play heavily on Saturday.
Coach Withers said that Martin's promotion to the first unit was a combination of his excellent play and Paige-Moss having worked through a groin injury for much of the summer, but reiterated that Paige-Moss is going to play a lot against the Dukes.
"Right now yeah. He (Martin) is probably going to get the first snaps. Donte has had some nicks this camp, and Kareem has played well. So, you know. it's two-fold, I guess. But Kareem has done a real good job."
"It (Paige-Moss's groin) just been sore. It's been ongoing and it's been sore, but it's been fine. Oh yeah (he'll play)," Withers added.
It's going to be up to Paige-Moss, Coples, Martin, and Tim Jackson to all hold down their sides of the field and get into the offensive backfield as much as they can to make life miserable for the Dukes offense.
NO TIME FOR JMU THROUGH LB BLITZING
The jobs of UNC' s defensive linemen getting free to put pressure on the quarterback can be aided by smartly-timed blitzes.
And of course those blitzes can produce pressure from the linebackers themselves when the opposing offensive line doesn't handle it correctly.
If James Madison can't handle the likes of Ebele Okakpu, Kevin Reddick, and Zach Brown coming at them every which-way, it's the recipe for a solid defensive outing for the Tar Heels.
Withers says that UNC spent time this summer looking to improve its aggressiveness getting to the quarterback, and it will be interesting to see how much of that comes out on Saturday afternoon.
"We blitzed a good bit in the bowl game. Hopefully we'll continue to increase that. That's been kind of our philosophy (during training camp). We've added a few more blitzes."
James Madison is bringing a confident and experienced defense to Chapel Hill this weekend. They were among the top 20 in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) in total defense last fall, and have many key returners.
There's a lot of questions with their offense, but defensively they have to feel halfway decent coming into this game.
"I think they play sound defense. (JMU head) coach (MIckey) Matthews is a defensive coach. They'll give you a 4-3 and they'll give you some 'three-down,' (defensive linemen look). They'll pressure you. They'll zone blitz you."
"They've got experience on defense, and I think when you've got experience on defense, kids that have been in the system a while, you tend to play better and play with a lot more confidence."
For the Tar Heels, the objective is not to worry so much about James Madison's defense and what they're capable of doing as much as making sure they're on top of what they do, and making sure they execute it better than anything they see from the opposition.
"It's really about what we need to do, you know. Our guys practice against a good defense everyday, so hopefully that won' t be a factor for us (worrying about James Madison)," Withers added.
This is an opportunity for UNC's offense to show some of its identity right off the bat without hopefully giving too much of it away for upcoming opponents like Rutgers and Virginia. John Shoop would surely like to keep a few things in the tank for those opponents, but the bottom line is that Carolina's offense needs to assert itself across the board and dictate the flow of the game.
Best way to do that? Consistently move the chains in a variety of ways.
UNC has shown a lot of versatility in camp and they've got a lot of options both in the passing and running game. They need to work it around, keep the chains moving, and make James Madison adjust to what they're doing---not the other way around. And they especially need to do it over the first three quarters. That will keep the fans happy and make sure that things don't get hairy in the fourth quarter.
BIG THINGS ON RETURNS
It appears that Carolina is going to have a bevy of options at both the punt and kickoff return positions heading into Saturday afternoon. During Thursday afternoon's practice, there were no less than eight players working out catching kickoffs and punts.
It appears that veteran Todd Harrelson is going to get a crack to return punts, and may very well be the first guy thrown out there against JMU. In the kickoff return game, it appears the starters could include T.J. Thorpe and Sean Tapley.
"We want to see who's the best guys back there for us. Todd Harrelson, T.J. Thorpe, some of those guys, they'll get opportunities," Withers said.
Harrelson gets a chance this year to step in after watching some older players play above him the past couple of years, but Withers is excited about what he might be able to do potentially breaking off a good return here and there on punts.
"I think he (Harrelson) does that (returns punts) really well, so we'll need him back there," he said.
WITHERS GAME MANAGEMENT
It's no secret that this is Withers' first-ever game as a head coach.
Having been in the press box throughout his previous three seasons in Chapel Hill, Saturday's experience is going to be something completely unique for him at UNC.
"2007 with Minnesota I was on the sideline," said Withers, recollecting the last time he had been on the field during a college game. "In the box you're kind of in your own cocoon. I would look at the play on the field briefly before I would put my head down and go back into what I was going to call next on what down and distance."
Obviously how Withers handles stepping up to the big chair as head coach---where his decisions are final and absolute---will go a long way in determining what happens in the game on Saturday.
"It was more Coach Davis's idea that I be in the box. I like being down there with the guys. so if I can touch base with one of them, I can. And I like being down there next to the players," he said.
"What I want to do is just hopefully manage the game, not get in anybody's way, and hopefully make sure we make the right decisions on penalties and situational football," Withers continued. "It will be interesting to hear the play call, watch what happens and then get ready for the next situation."
North Carolina heads into Saturday with known problems in the secondary, as the recent injuries to Jabari Price and Sam Smiley, combined with the one-game suspension of Charles Brown, has the team making alternate preparations.
UNC will start true freshman Tim Scott in place of the suspended Brown, while Tre Boston, who played cornerback last fall but had made a successful move to a starting safety position for the Tar Heels before Price's injury, returns to the position.
Withers expressed confidence in Scott, who has impressed the UNC staff since he arrived in Chapel Hill with his poise and maturity on the field.
"I don't think you have to calm Tim down. I think he's already a pretty calm guy. I think he's confident in his ability. Obviously we're going to put him in situations where he can be successful, and I'm just looking forward to watching him play," Withers said.
UNC's top backups behind Boston and Scott on Saturday appear to be junior Todd Harrelson, who just moved to cornerback from wide receiver, and sophomore Terry Shankle.
"I know this---we should have probably moved Todd (to cornerback) a year ago just from watching him out here. It's evident we should have moved him a year ago, so I'm anxious to watch those guys play," Withers said.
Shankle hasn't played since last October's ACL injury, but he's been working to get back to strength and could very well see action at cornerback as well on Saturday.
"Yeah, I think he (Shankle) is (healthy enough to play)," he continued. "Really he's been going full-speed the entire time (this summer). It's just been a matter of trying to ease him into back some things, but I think he's ready to help us whether it be special teams or as a backup role at corner. So we feel like he's back on track."
The foursome of Scott, Boston, Harrelson, and Shankle don't have much collective experience on Saturdays, but they were all highly-recruited athletes that North Carolina had to beat out several other BCS programs for on the recruiting trail. Shankle was in the Rivals 250.
These guys can play, and they need to show out against James Madison to give both the fans and the Tar Heel coaches confidence in what they can do.
Things will get easier next week once Brown returns, but this week the cornerbacks have to band together behind the veterans at safety, man up, and play some football.
STEPPING IN BIG SHOES
After standing behind the prominent shadows of Tar Heel standouts Quan Sturdivant and Bruce Carter the last few years, now is time for seniors Ebele Okakpu and Zach Brown to emerge as outside linebackers for the Tar Heels.
"Every kid grows and matures at different times and levels. We're happy that Ebele has stepped up. He's always had the ability. He's always been a physical player. Now it's just time for him to fill his role on this defense," said Withers.
"He (Okakpu) makes us athletic. And he's able to do some things. So we're excited about Ebele having an opportunity."
Both Okakpu and Brown have played heavily in past years, but now they're in position to step out of the relative obscurity of backup to big-time defensive contributor for the Tar Heels and potential All-ACC caliber prospects.
There's no time but the present time for this pair of last-year Tar Heels, Okakpu and Brown.
No more time to develop. No more time to wait. If they're to make their own legacies as UNC players and step out of those lengthy shadows cast by Sturdivant and Carter, it starts Saturday afternoon.
LEARNING AND BUILDING
It's been often said that the biggest improvement a football team makes is between Week One and Week Two of the regular season.
That's because a team finally has a chance to play another team, and they get to learn key lessons about what works and what doesn't work within the team and its personnel. In addition, it's a time to see where weaknesses are to improve on, and strengths to exploit. The value of watching that very first game on film and what can be attained from it cannot be underestimated.
Carolina obviously has to do whatever it takes to beat James Madison, but looking at it from a big-picture standpoint, they need to take this game opportunity and squeeze every bit of knowledge as they can from it immediately afterwards heading into that all-important second week of regular season preparation, and a step up in opponent with Rutgers coming to town.
"I think part of it is just learning about this football team. Every football team has a life, and this starts Saturday for the life of this football team," said Withers.
"I'm really not (nervous or anxious)," Withers added. "All I am right now is I can't wait until we get to the game. Because I think once we get into the routine and we get our situations and play the game, then we'll know about our football team."