The value of a productive running game, and by productive, one means the best since Carolina last produced a 1,000-yard back in 1997, when Jonathan Linton gained 1004 yards, is vital to the success for UNC this football season.
Quarterback T.J. Yates does not need to be throwing the ball in predictable situations on a frequent basis, particularly to a youthful group of wide receivers, any of whom are just as likely to run the wrong route or turn the right instead of left and hang Yates out to dry.
What this team needs, especially with a 6-foot-7 punter [Grant Schallock] who can boom the ball and a defense that is capable of dominating and forcing turnovers, is to be able to run successfully and dictate when it throws.
Red-shirt junior Shaun Draughn of Tarrboro will be the starter after making the switch back to offense from being a safety his first two years on campus. Draughn was a natural running back most of his life, but was converted to safety under the previous coaching staff.
He came to Coach Butch Davis and asked to switch, and he caught the coaches' attention in the 2008 preseason. He eventually became the starter and gained the most yards (866) for a Carolina back since Linton surpassed the 1,000 mark in '97.
This spring, Draughn built on his experience and refined his game.
"He's better at pass protection and better at route running and catching the ball," Davis said. "He's got good vision. He sees the hole. He's gotten a little bit stronger. He's gotten a little bit quicker. Those are the things that will make him a little bit more of a complete back."
Competition should push him as well. Redshirt freshman Jamal Womble is the real deal at running back. He's powerful, fast, quick and can cut at a moment's notice. He has a strong spring and a solid spring game in which he displayed the skills necessary to become an excellent collegiate running back.
Because the coaches knew what they had in Draughn and Ryan Houston, Womble got plenty of work in the spring, too.
"I think he has power," Davis said. "You see him break a lot of arm tackles. He's really good vision. He's a slasher. When he gets in the hole, he is just as apt to cut straight right or straight left. He can put his foot in the ground and jump cut, and it doesn't take him long to reaccelerate."
Womble, who displays a great deal of enthusiasm for the game when he talks about it, made the most of his opportunity, too. He says that he feels he gained his teammates' trust with how he played.
"I felt the whole spring, I competed very hard," Womble said. "I feel like now I have the trust of my coaches and teammates. They know I know the plays now. There is no more question: 'Does he know what he's doing?' I know exactly what I'm doing. I know the fundamentals of each play.
"I can read defenses better. I think I have proven that to the coaching staff and to my teammates."
He will have to continue to prove he can pick up pass rushers in protection as that is a big part of any running back's job. But there is little doubt at this point he will produce when he gets the ball in his arms.
"He is a powerful kid," Davis said. "He is very strong. He has really thick thighs. He is hard to bring down. He kind of slashes through. If you don't separate and get off a block, he is not a kid who is going to go down with an arm tackle or shoulder shot. He's going to ricochet around and look likes a pinball."
In today's game, few teams are going to rely on one running back, and Davis has never been one to do that. At the University of Miami, his teams produced a string of future professional running backs by playing several and not wearing down any single one.
Look for the Tar Heel to try to do the same thing this fall with Draughn, Houston and Womble. If this trio can be consistent, Yates will almost certainly use play-action and the extra time a successful running game produces to make some big-time throws in the passing game.