The first sign that the college football season is just around the corner occurs this Sunday and Monday in a golf Mecca.
The annual Atlantic Coast Conference Football Kickoff will be held on those two days at the Pinehurst Resort, home to the famed No. 2 Course that has hosted two U.S. Open Championships. The Kickoff is our first opportunity to query the ACC's 12 head coaches and at least two players from every school about the upcoming season.
Junior center Jonathan Cooper and senior defensive tackle Tydreke Powell will be representing UNC during the player portion of the event Sunday afternoon and head coach Butch Davis will be there to answer questions Monday after the annual Skeeter Francis Golf Tournament.
As a primer for the Kickoff, here are 10 questions I think will be directed at Davis and the players about the 2011 season, and my take on what their answers should be.
Q: How will Bryn Renner work out as UNC's new starting quarterback?
A: The verdict is still out. There's no doubt Renner is a talent. But he is lacking any serious experience at the college level because the coaching staff failed to break him in at all last season when he was the back up to T.J. Yates. My prediction is Renner will endure some early struggles, but by midseason will come into his own and propel the Tar Heels to a strong finish.
Q: Will Ryan Houston be 100 percent healthy when preseason practice begins?
A: He better be, considering the limited experience of the backs behind him. The Tar Heels need to be able to count on Houston for 25-plus carries a game, especially early as Renner develops at quarterback. A fractured shoulder blade required surgery in April and was supposed to keep him on the sideline for about four months. The coaching staff will likely treat him with kid gloves during preseason practice before turning him loose by game two against Rutgers.
Coach Davis said Thursday at the Triangle Pigskin Preview that Houston would be practicing from the start of training camp on Friday, August 5, but that he would be limited the first couple of weeks, held out of scrimmages and 'live' portions of practice. But barring any major setbacks, he should be ready for the season opener September 3 against James Madison.
Q: Is this the best offensive line UNC has had during Butch Davis' tenure as head coach?
A: Y-E-S. It's not only the best starting group to play for Davis, but there's experienced depth at almost every position. Tackle James Hurst and guard Jonathan Cooper are all-star candidates, and Hurst could wind up as one of UNC's all-time best blockers before he's done. Add to that group blue chip recruits like tackle Landon Turner, guard Jarrod James and tackle Kiaro Holts, and you've got the makings of one of the ACC's strongest units.
Q: Is Dwight Jones ready to become one of the nation's top receivers?
A: Well, the big guy certainly took a huge step forward last season by making 62 catches for 946 yards. He's received some significant preseason recognition by making the watch list for the Biletnikoff Award given to the nation's top receiver. But two factors beyond Jones' control could affect his status.
One, UNC is breaking in a new, untested player at quarterback in Bryn Renner. Two, no other Tar Heel receiver has established himself as a consistent enough threat to date to keep opponents from double teaming Jones. If those players come through, then the sky is the limit for Jones.
Q: Will this year's defensive line be one of the best in school history?
A: Could be. Ends Quinton Coples and Donte Paige-Moss, and tackle Tydreke Powell are sure-fire NFL draft picks. Senior Jordan Nix got his feet wet last season as a reserve at tackle, but the final verdict on this unit could rest with JUCO transfer Sylvester Williams.
If Williams can form a formidable tandem with Nix, then UNC may have a group to rival the Julius Peppers-Ryan Sims lines from the late 1990s and early 2000s or or the 1997 squad that featured future NFL players in Greg Ellis, Vonnie Holliday, Ebenezer Ekuban and Russell Davis.
Q: What is the status of Brandon Willis?
A: According to UNC spokesman Kevin Best, the status of the defensive tackle transfer from UCLA is still in limbo for the 2011 season. Willis has appealed to the NCAA to forgo the rule that would have him sit out a year after transferring because of a hardship.
His family moved back to North Carolina because of the declining health of his grandmother. If Willis is granted a waiver to play this fall, it would be a huge boost to an already talented defensive line group.
Q: What incoming freshmen do you expect to contribute this season?
A: They aren't freshmen, but junior college transfers Sylvester Williams at defensive tackle and Fabby Desir at linebacker are almost certain to see action. Of the true freshmen, offensive tackle Landon Turner and wide receiver T.J. Thorpe enrolled in January and participated in spring practice. So Turner could see time in a reserve role, while Thorpe is expected to take over as UNC's punt and kick return man.
One of the two incoming tight ends - Eric Ebron or Jack Tabb - might also work their way into the rotation. But the guy I believe will make the biggest impact among the freshmen is linebacker Travis Hughes. Hughes is highly touted, extremely talented and plays a position where depth is an issue for the Tar Heels.
Q: Will the NCAA investigation be a distraction for UNC again in 2011?
A: Unfortunately, yes. Until the NCAA comes down with a final verdict, Davis, the Tar Heels and UNC's administrators will continue to be questioned, criticized and condemned by those outside the program. But as in 2010, a strong performance on the field will be the best way for the Tar Heels to defend themselves.
Q: Can UNC contend for the ACC Coastal Division title?
A: There is a chance, but Virginia Tech and Miami look like the frontrunners at this point in the Coastal. A Thursday night game in Blacksburg, Va., against the Hokies on Nov. 17 will be pivotal to UNC's hopes.
Q: Will the Kenan Stadium crowd take time during games to turn to the pressbox and cheer Jones Angell like they did Woody Durham?
A: Probably not. It takes time to earn that honor, which Durham did as the radio voice of UNC athletics for 40 years. Besides, it's easier to chant "Woody! Woody!'' than it would be "Jonesy! Jonesy!'' With that said, Angell is a good choice to take over for Durham.
He's a Tar Heel born and a Tar Heel bred, and has had the advantage of working at Durham's side for the last six years. No, it won't be the same. But it wasn't the same when Bill Curry left the mike at UNC and Durham took over either. That seemed to work out pretty well.