North Carolina's effort to go 4-0 for the first time in a dozen years runs headlong into Georgia Tech this Saturday, who ironically hasn't lost to UNC in Atlanta in that same time frame. It was back in 1997 that the Tar Heels last defeated the Yellow Jackets in Bobby Dodd Stadium, knocking them off 16-13 on the way to an 8-0 start.
Take a look at several topics surrounding this week's preparation for Georgia Tech:
LINEBACKERS FEEDING OFF STURDIVANT, CARTER
North Carolina has two of the more seasoned linebackers in the Atlantic Coast Conference in juniors Quan Sturdivant and Bruce Carter.
Between them they have now combined for over 45 career starts, and it's clear when watching them play together that they have an excellent feel for each other on the field.
"I think we've got a great relationship on the field," said Sturdivant of Carter. "I kind of know what he's thinking and he knows what I'm thinking a little bit. It goes good out there. If I mess up he's kind of got my back and if he messes up I've got his back. It's good out there."
Sturdivant likes what he sees out of his young teammates among the linebacker corps, who seem to be responding to the example they're seeing out of the veterans.
"They're doing real good," said Sturdivant of his younger teammates. "They're getting better each week. That's what we need them to do---just get better each week and keep playing."
TO FAIR CATCH OR NOT TO FAIR CATCH
Junior Da'Norris Searcy is developing a system for determining when it's the right time for him to make a fair catch, and when it's best for him to decide to catch the ball and take off running.
"Somebody asked me, 'How do I know when to catch it and when to let it go?'" said Searcy. "I have a clock in my head. I count to three. If it's still in the air after three, I'll throw my hand up for the 'fair catch,' but if it's down before I count to three, or right at three, I know I've got a chance to return it."
Searcy is currently leading the ACC with 10 punt return attempts. He's second in the league with 173 punt return yards, and is sixth in the league with an average of 17.3 yards per attempt.
The Tar Heels will need Searcy to play well against the Yellow Jackets to keep the field position in their favor.
WRINKLES IN THE SYSTEM
While North Carolina has its base offensive sets and most all of the plays fit into those sets in some fashion, head coach Butch Davis acknowledged that the coaches have inserted some wrinkles---some gadgets---to the offense.
They just need the right opportunity to break something out like a 'halfback pass,' a double-reverse, or another type of gimmick play.
"We have that kind of stuff prepared every single week. We had it earlier in the games," said Davis. "Anytime that you want to try to do unusual things the situation has got to be right. Obviously against The Citadel the score was such that you didn't want to use it and exploit it, but we practice those things all the time."
While Davis was willing to admit the identity of some possible trickery in the UNC offense, the players themselves weren't willing to divulge any of the real secrets.
"They're putting in a couple of new things, but not too much---pretty vanilla," said junior running back Shaun Draughn.
HEELS MORE COMFORTABLE IN 'MAN' COVERAGE
As North Carolina's defense has improved over the past couple of years, it has allowed the coaches to have more confidence in the individual ability of the people on the field that they can handle their own responsibilities.
As a result, it's given more opportunities for the coaches to feel comfortable putting the secondary and linebackers in 'man' coverage.
"We are playing 'man,' but I wouldn't say that it's an inordinate number. I mean, it's clearly not even in the 50 percentile of it," said Coach Davis. "Different game plans call for you to do different things, different receivers, different schemes, how they try to use the receivers, how they match up. The list of how you want to defense people, sometimes you're better off defending them in zone, and sometimes you're better off trying to defend them in 'man' concepts."
"You would love to have the ability to play as much 'man' as you want to play when you want to play it, and that's something that I think we're getting better at," added Davis. "A couple of years ago we played very little 'man' in 2007, and we played a little bit last year, but as the team gets better and the team grows, hopefully you've got the ability to play it whenever you want to play it."
"We know if our coach calls a blitz and we're in 'man-to-man' coverage, we know that we've got to trust that the blitz is going to get there, and we know that they've got to trust us to hold the coverage and allow them to get pressure on the quarterback and get sacks," said Searcy. "We talked about it all offseason---just trusting one another and doing your job, and just knowing that the man next to you is going to do his job."
YELLOW JACKETS HAVE UNC'S RESPECT
With the exception of quite possibly no other team on their schedule, North Carolina seems to give a tremendous amount of respect to Georgia Tech in terms of focusing on their style of play and figuring out ways to exploit it.
"This is probably one of the most physically talented teams that we'll play this season," said Davis. "They've got a tremendous amount of returning starters from last year. They have 17 returning starters. They've got nine coming back on offense, and they've got eight coming back on defense. This is a very, very good football team."
One thing that makes the Tar Heels have the utmost respect for the Yellow Jackets is the caliber of opponents they've already played, having gone up against ACC rivals Clemson and Miami in two of its first three games of the season.
"You watch the opponents that they've played. They've played some very challenging teams with other big, physically-gifted athletes in Miami and Clemson, and they've been able to really move the ball really well and had an awful lot of success," said Davis. "This will be every bit of the challenge that we thought that it was going to be."
MOTIVATION FOR CONSISTENCY
As North Carolina works through the season and builds towards the most difficult phase of its schedule, the Tar Heels are staying focused and determined by keeping their minds on specific themes that the coaches lay out for them.
"We talk to the team all the time," said Davis. "Sometimes it's more the 'theme of the week' as opposed to the 'theme of the day.' But you're always talking, challenging them to improve to work on certain things, fundamentals."
"One of the reoccurring things we had all season last year is 'If you want more do more.'" Davis added. "This year it is 'What does my performance mean to the team individually?'
"It all starts individually," he continued. "You have to look at yourself and say, 'If I play at this level how's our team going to play? And if I play 10 percent better, what's that going to mean to the team?' And so we're always challenging our kids emotionally and mentally every week. It really, truly is about your growth and development as a player. How consistent can you do it?"
For those who haven't experienced the life of a college football player, it's a difficult grind to attend classes, lift weights, attend meetings, find time to study film, practice, and then do homework and study when you're dead tired.
Individually, it takes day-to-day consistency and a strong motivation to succeed in order to hack it at this level.
Collectively as a team, it takes that daily consistency to ensure that disasters don't bring them down on game day.
"It's hard. It's hard to be consistent as a father, as a husband, as a coach, as a player," said Davis. "You've got to do the same thing and do it right every week, and it's a challenge. You've got to stay focused, and I think if you're always focused on working on fundamentals and doing the little things right, then the big things come a lot easier."
"We want to be a smart team," he added. "I mean, there's just no substitute for not giving games away and playing poorly in special teams and just doing dumb, stupid stuff. We got a little bit outside of ourselves with some of the 'late hit' things and some penalties (against ECU), and you'd like to be a little bit better from a penalties standpoint than we were last week."
"The number one thing I think about all the players, whether they're young kids or old kids, is consistency," Davis continued. "Nobody wants a 'flash in the pan.' Nobody wants guys to be good one week and mediocre the next week."