North Carolina returned to the practice fields Friday afternoon as it began its training camp and its quest to get focused on the upcoming 2011 season.
Coach Everett Withers spoke for over ten minutes after practice, answering a multitude of questions about a number of different topics.
"I felt like it was a productive first day. Obviously you're just trying to knock some of the rust off the first day of practice, but I thought the guys went out there with some enthusiasm and practiced hard," Withers said.
Withers says he didn't lose any sleep the night before his first practice outing as head coach of the Tar Heels.
"I slept like a baby last (Thursday) night. I was tired," he said.
Those hours of good sleep Thursday night turned into a dream for Withers when he stepped out there officially as leader of UNC football for the first time.
"Well, yeah, it is what I dreamed, you know. It is. I dreamed to be out there in front of a bunch of kids that like football that are good kids that want to get a good education. It's been good today," he said.
A lifelong defensive player and coach, Withers admitted that it was pretty unique for him Friday adjusting to watching offensive portions of practice.
"Just getting to see it all, you know (is the biggest difference in practice)," Withers said.
"Today at the beginning it was (a little strange as head coach), but I think I jumped in it and felt comfortable with it as practice went on."
"It's the first time since I've been coaching that I've gotten a chance to see the offensive players go through individual (period). So that's different," he added.
Withers spent quite a bit of time checking out UNC's offensive players and coaches as they worked out in various drills.
"I wanted to see a little bit more today of the offense, obviously, because I haven't been over there. I wanted to see what was going on," he said. "I just didn't know where to go, you know. Am I going to go watch the running backs? Am I going to watch the receivers? That kind of stuff."
"I like learning new things, so I'm over there learning what Ken Browning tells the running backs and what John Shoop tells the quarterbacks. It's a great learning experience for me."
"As a defensive coordinator, you want to know how that offensive tackle thinks sometimes," Withers continued.
"So me getting to know the offensive linemen, me getting to know the running backs, me getting to know the receivers---even though I see them probably more than I see any other (offensive) position---but just the fact I want to get around those guys and know them."
Withers says he's going to try to stay out of the way of the UNC offensive coaches as they prepare the offense for battle this summer.
"I'm not going to be a meddler. I'm going to try not to be," he said.
One of the players the team figures to need the most offensively, senior running back Ryan Houston, was a no-show at camp on Friday.
A UNC official told us Friday morning that he expected back for practice, but he wound up missing both photo day and the afternoon workout.
Houston is expected back on Saturday, and he'll be limited in practice for at least a couple of weeks at minimum.
"Ryan Houston had some personal issues at home. He may be back tonight, but we expect him for sure back tomorrow (Saturday)," Withers said. He's going to be limited anyway because of his shoulder, so we decided to allow him to take care of that now."
Withers admitted that he couldn't get much feel for his team after a single day of practice, but he's optimistic about what's been put in place with this team.
"It's hard after one day. I mean, it really is. It's hard to know which one of these freshmen are going to have to step up and what position," he said.
"But I do feel good about lines, our offensive and defensive lines. I think we need to continue to build depth in both, but I do feel good about the first groups."
Withers also believes the Tar Heels are faster than they were when he arrived back in 2008 to lead the defense.
"I think we're faster. I would hope. We've recruited to do that. I would hope we are," he said.
The first-day head coach had some fundamental ideas in mind for the first day, noting that his role isn't that much different in practice from the one he previously held.
"The goals were to not screw it up, not go out there and do anything stupid. Just make sure the kids are where they need to be in each period, and just end the practice on a high note," he said.
"You know, it's getting a football team ready. It just so happens it's more than a position (coach) now. You just move forward and prepare the team," Withers added.
North Carolina made four players available for interviews after Friday's practice---Bryn Renner, Jonathan Cooper, Matt Merletti, and Tydreke Powell----but many others didn't speak.
The players will be openly available again to members of the media again late next week.
"It's us a matter of us focusing as a team and them learning me, you know," Withers said. "The more they learn me, the faster we can move and the better football team we'll be in a week. And then after point, then we'll open up things."
Withers elaborated on the idea of the team 'learning' him---noting that there will be some things he does different than his predecessor.
"I just want them to know me. I want them to go to know me because I want them to feel comfortable with me. I'm not Butch Davis. I'm Everett Withers, you know. Learn me and learn how I do things," he said.
In an effort to get the players more familiar with him, Withers mentioned that he's spending more time with them and discussing things with them.
"I've sat down a number of guys already, had dinner with different guys, talked to them, just so I get a good feel for them," Withers said. "I do want to know them all personally. And I think if I'm going to be a good football coach I need to---especially the leaders on this team---so that's my goal."
Despite the respect Withers has in the UNC locker room, it had to be expected that some guys would decide to go in another direction after such a stunning decision as Coach Davis's dismissal barely a week before camp.
IIn all three players (Hunter Furr, Brandon Willis, and Mywan Jackson) are seeking greener pastures, and Withers spoke about those situations and how, if at all, they'll impact camp.
"I talked to Brandon and his dad yesterday (Thursday)," he said.
"Basically I think they felt like they needed to move on and investigate some other avenues, and we basically said we'll do what we can to help you," Withers continued.
For those players that have returned to Chapel Hill and will engage in training camp over the next three-plus weeks, they'll have the challenge of knowing that jobs are open and players will be competing for playing time and starting jobs at some spots.
"There's some (position) battles. Here's the deal---when you have a good football team, you want to have people competing every day in practice," Withers said. "So we want to set up the depth charts to help us keep up the spirit in practice, the competition in practice."
"There will be daily depth chart changes, I imagine," he added. "Unless we have injuries, and knock on wood, we won't."
Everyone obviously has to deal with intense heat this time of year in practice, and the coaches will be closely monitoring their players in an effort to make sure they're as fresh as possible for James Madison the first Saturday in September.
The struggle between going ultra-physical in practice and saving some energy with lighter but more teaching-oriented practices is one the Tar Heel staff will have to collectively work through in August.
"It'll be a daily chess match, you know, but what it will be, the bottom line is we want our team to be fresh in that first ball game---that's the bottom line. We want to be healthy and fresh (for JMU)," said Withers.
"So our goals really are to try to get them to that first ball game and get them fresh and not beat them up."
Withers said that they'll likely give younger players more of the repetitions as training camp goes on in order to give them the much-needed work while also helping to save the energy of the veterans.
"At some positions you're young, So we've got to get some guys out there that can play the college game and learn how to play the college game. Some of these older guys, we're going to take care of them, make sure we can get those veterans to the game fresh," he said.
Withers also talked about players like Curtis Byrd and Mark House, who have been awarded football scholarships for the 2011-2012 academic year.
"We felt like a guy that has done everything right, that will play on all the special teams or most of them---we've asked him to do things that probably you wouldn't ask a guy football-wise and he's done it---so he deserves it," Withers said of Byrd.
"Same (with House). Here's a guy that's been our snapper and a guy that's been an integral part of the program. You reward guys that take the responsibility that you give them, or the role that you give them, and they do it well," he added.
Ironically, House's high school coach at Wilmington (N.C.) Hoggard, Scott Braswell, was a former coach of Withers back in the early 1980s when Withers played at West Charlotte High School.
"Scott was one of my coaches. Scott's one of those guys where there was no doubt he was going to be a head coach one day," Withers said. "I had no doubt. Scott was one of those bright guys. You could tell when he was coaching high school that he was going to be something someday."
"It's amazing. I saw Scott in Greensboro at the (Coaches) Clinic and we sat there and we looked at each other and he said, 'Man, I coached you in high school.'"
Withers has fond memories of Coach Braswell and stays in touch with the man who led Hoggard High---with current Tar Heels House, Cooper, T.J. Leifheit, and Casey Barth on the roster---to the 2007 NCHSAA 4-A state championship.
In fact, Withers called Braswell to let him know that House was getting a scholarship.
"Yeah, I talked to him (Braswell) the other day, as a matter of act. We told him about Mark getting a scholarship. I gave him a call," he said.