The main story at North Carolina’s first football practice could have easily been about who wasn’t there. In the last two weeks, three signees from the 2004 class announced they wouldn’t be attending UNC, including quarterback Mike Rozier. But, coaches and players didn’t seem to notice, sounding as optimistic as they have ever been in the John Bunting era.
“If we play fast and play smart we are going to be special,” Bunting told his players at the end of the two-hour practice Monday night. “This is as much talent as we have had around here. Good start.”
Conditions were ideal with temperatures staying in the low 80s, thanks in part to a slight breeze. No pads were used, but players did wear helmets. They will begin wearing half-pads Wednesday and Thursday.
“It’s like the spring,” said senior defensive end Chase Page. “We are all flying around. There is a lot of excitement. The enthusiasm level is up.”
Page nor his teammates didn’t grab the most attention. Page’s new haircut -- a bright blond mohawk -- created the most buzz. But, the usually-outspoken veteran wasn’t allowed to talk about it.
“No comment,” said Page when asked about his hair. “Sorry, but no comment. The powers that be (won’t allow it).”
Several famous faces on the sidelines also grabbed plenty of attention. Former longtime UNC head coach Bill Dooley, who Bunting played for, and his brother and former longtime Georgia head coach Vince Dooley both watched the action intently and received a big round of applause from the players at the end of practice. Vince Dooley, whose tenure as Georgia’s athletic director recently came to an end, was wearing a polo shirt and hat that each had UNC logos.
“Coach (Bill) Dooley made us play at a higher standard,“ Bunting said. “That’s what we have to do. We have to take our level of play to a different standard.”
A handful of former Tar Heels also attended, including John Anderson (class of 1971), Ronnie Brewer (2002), Don McCauley (1970) and Ted Elkins (1974).
On the field, the rust from the offseason was apparent. During one drill, senior quarterback Darian Durant stumbled back from the offensive line without the ball as junior center Steven Bell never snapped it.
There was also plenty of highlights:
In 7-on-7 drills, a pair of receivers made spectacular catches. Junior Wallace Wright, who was recently placed on full scholarship, out-jumped junior cornerback Cedrick Holt near the sidelines and caught a 45-yard pass from Durant. Sophomore Daunte Fields dove to the ground with his body outstretched to make a difficult grab on a short pass from Durant.
In 11-on-11 drills, senior receiver Jarwarski Pollock made a savvy play. Surrounded by a pair of defenders with a poorly-thrown pass heading toward his direction, Pollock jumped high into the air to knock down the ball and keep it from being intercepted.
While few players stood out individually, it was obvious the coaches are counting heavily on highly-touted freshmen defensive end Khalif Mitchell, who received the third-most votes for Rivals.com's ACC Preseason Defensive Rookie of the Year. Coaches pulled Mitchell, who grabbed the a top spot on the depth chart in the spring, aside on several occasions to offer instruction about plays, formations and techniques. Mitchell also worked one-on-one with coaches for a few minutes after practice.
The three freshmen who were expected to join Mitchell and their classmates were defensive end Marcus Hand, cornerback Daniel Phelps and Rozier. Due to academic problems, Hands reportedly enrolled at East Carolina. Phelps, from Sarasota, Fla, decided to attend nearby South Florida. Rozier, a 12th-round draft choice by the Boston Red Sox, signed a lucrative professional baseball contract.
The trio did escape one tradition that Bunting implemented when he took over the UNC program four years ago. All freshmen turn in their car keys to the coaches and receive them back at the end of "camp."
Luckly, for the newcomers this will be the shortest camp in the Bunting era due to an earlier start for classes than usual. They are all staying at Carmichael until Aug. 15.
Here’s what else Bunting and Page had to say to the media:
Question: What do you think about the senior leadership on this team?
Answer: They are leading by example right now. They have been through some tough times and they want to win. We’re trying to let the seniors lead and they are doing a great job.
Q: What are you trying to improve most right now?
A: We’re trying to help players get smarter and help the team come together.
Q: How frustrating do you think it is for Darian Durant to have so many records but such a bad record as a starter?
A: Darian wants one thing and one thing only. He doesn’t care about records. He wants to win.
Q: What do you think about the newly-expanded ACC?
A: Two years ago we had Oklahoma and then Texas and the next year we had Wisconsin on the schedule. So we take Texas off and we have Miami and we take Oklahoma off and add Virginia Tech. What’s the difference?
Q: Did any of the freshmen impress you today?
A: They all looked lost, but they displayed a lot of talent too. Kenny Price is going to be a force. He is going to play defense. He plays really hard and has a ton of athletic ability.
Q: Is Kentwan Balmer going to play basketball?
A: He hasn’t talked to me about that, but I have seen him play (basketball). Kentwan is a heck of a player, He is a great athlete. That’s how you build a defensive player.
Q: Did you get a chance to watch the kickers?
A: I saw the punters and they were inconsistent. John Choate got better and we think the world of David Wooldridge. They tried to nail it just like me in golf. When I try to nail it, it goes 50 yards out of bounds.
Q: What’s your outlook on the season?
A: I can’t wait for the William and Mary game. I’m real excited. I want to win bad.
Q: What did you tell the new freshmen today?
A: Finish every play. I’m telling the younger guys to finish a little more.
Q: Did any of the freshmen impress you already?
A: Kenny Price and Kentwan Balmer both know how to get down in a stance. Both make it look natural and they are also very athletic.
Q: What do you love most about playing football at North Carolina?
A: Chapel Hill. I think Kenan Stadium is the most beautiful stadium in the country. Our fans are devoted. They are there whether we win or lose.
Q: What are you trying to improve on most before Sept. 4?
A: I’m trying to lose body fat and get faster on the pass rush. I want to get quicker and a step faster.