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Tar Heel Football Notebook

North Carolina has a little over a week to prepare for its December 26 showdown with Pittsburgh in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.
With examinations for the fall academic semester ending on Friday, the Tar Heels will get the weekend to spend some Holiday time with their families before reporting back to Chapel Hill and heading to Charlotte on Monday.
Take a look at what some of the UNC players and head coach Butch Davis had to say about several different topics in another edition of the 'Tar Heel Football Notebook.'
While several UNC players are going to have to make a big decision in regards to whether they'll return to North Carolina or head to the NFL after this season, senior offensive tackle Kyle Jolly says he's not worried at all about 'The League' as he heads into his final game week as a Tar Heel player.
"Right now I'm not trying to think about that (the NFL). I'll worry about all that stuff after the game," said Jolly. "I can't really explain it. It's one of those things, I think everybody that's played a sport has to end it---I think you can probably understand what we (the seniors) are going through. Right now I'm just trying to focus on Pittsburgh and try to get a 'W.'"
Junior defensive tackle Marvin Austin has the utmost respect from his teammates for the way he's fought and battled this season to have a second-team All-ACC year.
Considering that he takes on double-teams for much of the game's plays on a typical Saturday, Austin is one of the glues of arguably the biggest strength of this UNC team heading into the bowl game---the defensive line.
"I think the defensive line is probably the one area where it is, with the exception of quarterback, it's the biggest learning curve for incoming high school kids just simply because there is enormous amounts of contact every single play. You're getting hit in the mouth every single play," said Coach Davis.
"Some kids in high school, they get the opportunity to unbelievably dominate an awful lot of guys that as soon as that game is over with and that season is over with, they're going to go to work or go to college and never play another down of football, and in some respects in college it's a little bit like that---you get your nose bloodied a little bit as a freshman, you learn some things, you learn some fundamentals and techniques and you get better and better and better.
"All the great players I've ever been around, from Jerome Brown to Cortez Kennedy to Russell Maryland and all of those guys, every year they learned how to dominate the entire game the entire season," Davis added. "And he did, he (Austin) has made some strides this season."
"It's really hard to focus on one guy with our D-line as a whole. I think we've got a pretty good D-line---I'd say one of the best in the nation," said defensive end Robert Quinn. "When you've got so many good people to try to stop all at once, someone is going to get free and hopefully make that play."
Quinn says that Austin is one of the loudest players he's ever played with in terms of talking trash to the opposing team.
"I just don't pay much attention. I hear him talking, but whatever. I don't think Marvin ever stops talking---hooting and hollering---and I'm like, 'Yeah,' just being the quiet guy that I am," said Quinn. "I'm not sure what's running through their (opposing players') mind, with Marvin saying some of most random and craziest things out there when we're on the football field, but we're just out there having fun."
"I think it's just really getting into their heads," Quinn added.
North Carolina's offense got better and better over the course of the season thanks in large part to the midseason return of redshirt freshman offensive guard Jonathan Cooper, who earlier this week was named to the Rivals.com All-ACC Freshman team for 2009.
"He's such an athletic guy," said quarterback T.J. Yates of Cooper. "He can do a lot of things in the run game with him pulling around, getting to different levels and stuff like that, kind of getting around the horn. Watching that film when Johnny White scored on that end-around (earlier in the season), Jonathan Cooper was running right there next to him all the way down the field, down to the end zone. He's just such an athletic guy, and for his age he's so smart and well-oiled up there."
"It was critically important (that Cooper return). He's such a good athlete, and he's got the ability to pull and he's a really good pass protector," said Coach Davis. "It was the hardest thing (to lose him)."
"I don't know that he played a game the entire season 100 percent healthy, except maybe in week one," Davis added about Cooper. "He came in the East Carolina and we were struggling a little bit and he, just that one addition into the line, kind of settled the offensive line down to where we didn't have to keep moving guys."
Davis concedes that it's usually much harder to insert young offensive linemen into the mix than it is 'skill' position players such as wide receiver, which makes Cooper's contributions this season all the more impressive.
"We plugged in Jheranie Boyd pretty good for a true freshman. We plugged Erik Highsmith pretty good for a freshman," said Davis. "I mean, we had some guys that came in as young kids, but in the offensive line, for a redshirt freshman like him (Cooper) to come in, you need to play. You need to get better every single week, and as he did, his confidence level (went up over the course of the season)."
Junior running back Ryan Houston heads into the upcoming bowl game looking to make a statement in his hometown, just as wide receiver Hakeem Nicks did a year ago on his way to cementing an NFL Draft first round selection.
Houston admitted that Nicks was a big reason why he chose UNC in the first place, along with the opportunity to come in with the new coaching staff---a staff that he felt could help get him ready for a possible career in professional football.
"Hakeem was a big factor---Hakeem was like my older brother," said Houston. "That, and being close to home but far enough away from home to enjoy the college experience. I looked at the coaching staff that was coming in---Coach Davis was an NFL coach and he knew he was going to get an NFL offensive coordinator, and sure enough he did."
"And basically the whole offense and defense---when you've got NFL coaches, that's going to help us get to the next level while we're playing great football. I felt like Coach Davis was going to give everybody a chance, and he was going to put the players out there that could make plays on the field, and that's what he did," Houston added.
Houston did get his chance, coming in and playing heavily as a true freshman.
Now, just a little over two years later, he finds himself the workhouse of the UNC backfield.
"Everybody in my class basically played (as true freshmen), because we went out there and made some strides and won some ball games," Houston said.