Following North Carolina's Friday morning practice session, Tar Heel head coach Butch Davis spoke about multiple topics, including the depth concerns along the offensive line.
The Tar Heels have had some major setbacks up front over the past few months, including losing Aaron Stahl to graduation, Mike Dykes to a medical hardship, and incoming freshman Johnnie Farms due to qualifying issues.
Things have gone from bad to worse in recent days, with the season-ending ACL injury suffered by Carl Gaskins and the news leaking out of camp that another backup offensive tackle, Kevin Bryant, was not returning to UNC.
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DAVIS ADDRESSES O-LINE CONCERNS
Despite the losses of the five scholarship offensive linemen, Davis remains optimistic thanks to the return of two seniors and two fourth-year juniors among the starters, along with a talented group of three true freshmen, of which two, Travis Bond, and Brennan Williams, are currently working in the two-deep.
"Though it's going to be young, we think that we've got some talented kids, and they've just got to get some experience," said Davis. "It is critical for guys like Kyle Jolly to sit there and to talk to some of the younger guys. I think it's unbelievably important. Lowell Dyer, having somebody inside on both sides of him, he's talking to Jonathan Cooper and he's talking to some of the other young guys that are playing guard and stuff, and it really helps."
"They're quasi-coaches on the field. They've got to take care of their own responsibilities and they've got to continue to play well and they've got to improve, but it's good to have good senior leaders," Davis added in regards to Jolly and Dyer.
For the freshmen, the biggest area of significance this summer will be getting up to speed as quickly as possible in pass protection, from the standpoint of fundamentals and in picking up things such as defensive line slants and blitzing linebackers.
By getting all the repetitions in practice they're getting with the second team, freshmen like Williams and Bond are striving to pick up the confidence that they could go into the game and get the job done if necessary.
"I think that all the reps that they (the freshmen) are going through in training camp certainly pay dividends, and it's a baptism under fire," Davis said. "I don't think there's any question, I think mastering pass protection (is the toughest thing for a freshman to learn), because so much of it is one, it's the fundamental aspect of using the right techniques, of getting in good balance, getting in good position, getting your hands on the pass rusher."
"The second part of it has nothing to do with fundamentals and techniques," Davis added. "The second part of it is just the confidence. It's feeling like, 'Okay, I know that once I get my hands on his guy, I've got enough strength, I've got enough body mass, that I can stop his initial rush. I can slow his feet down and allow my feet to catch up.'
One thing that should help the rookies in the trenches is the fact that they shouldn't get challenged any harder on game day than they are each and every practice by North Carolina's talented and deep defensive line.
"We talk about this all the time, that when your going against good talented, defensive linemen, you'll fast-forward the clock four weeks from now, eight weeks from now, and they'll see what was tough during training camp will turn out to be a blessing," said Davis.
"I can tell you that the offensive lines at Miami when I was an assistant coach got better every day because they had to block Cortez Kennedy or Jerome Brown or Russell Maryland, and it was tough on them. You had to work on their confidence level so that they could see that every day they really were getting better."
Following practice, offensive line coach Sam Pittman indicated that the Tar Heels are currently working Greg Elleby in at both left guard and left tackle, while they're also working Jolly and Cooper on both sides at tackle and guard, respectively.
In addition, Pittman is pleased with the progress of walk-on tackle Peyton Jenest. The UNC coaches feel that Jenest, a sophomore from Davidson (N.C.) North Mecklenburg, could have a bright future, and he's currently running with the 'second' offense at left tackle along with Elleby.
GROWING DEPTH KEY AT ALL POSITIONS
While building up the personnel along the offensive line has suddenly become one of the biggest keys to training camp for the Tar Heels this August, Coach Davis reiterated that building depth all over the field is a focus.
"We said this at the beginning of training camp, that part of the importance of this training camp at all positions---not necessarily just the offensive line---was to continue to try to build our depth," said Davis. "Build our depth at linebacker. Build our depth in the secondary. Build our depth at quarterback, and the offensive line is no different than the other positions."
Although there is no quarterback battle in camp this summer from the standpoint of who's the starter, Davis mentioned that the coaches are working hard to make sure that the other three scholarship signal-callers in camp are all getting a chance for some action with the first two offensive units.
"Clearly right now, obviously T.J. Yates is the starter, and he's having a very good camp," said Davis. "What we're trying to do is we're trying to give significant reps to all three (backup) guys---Mike Paulus, Braden Hanson, and Bryn Renner---and try to put them all in situations where they get a chance."
"Sometimes it's awfully hard for your growth and development if you're not playing with a supporting cast that gives you the best chance to kind of show what you can do, so periodically you'll throw any of those three guys in with the 'twos,'" Davis added. "We've even been throwing some of them in with the 'ones' as well. I think they're competing well. I think they're learning. I think that they're getting better every day."
REDDICK IMPRESSING AT 'WILL'
There is a potential starting position battle shaping up at the 'Will' linebacker position for the Tar Heels, and while Zach Brown hasn't done anything to lose the job, true freshman Kevin Reddick is making a major push for playing time.
Reddick, who missed all of the spring after contracting mononucleosis, took advantage of the extra reps that were available with the first defense as Brown was out the first few days of camp, and now that he's back at full strength, he's making strides each day.
"I'm very pleased with Kevin," said Davis. "You'd never say it's unfortunate that Zach Brown missed a couple of days because of going to his sister's wedding and stuff, but it gave Kevin some extended opportunities to make up some of the reps that he missed in the spring time."
Davis praised both young linebackers, who are clearly going to be in position to be among the top producers in terms of tackles for the Tar Heels this coming season.
"I think both of those players are very, very good," said Davis of Reddick and Brown. "Kevin is very instinctive. He's physical. He's fast. I think probably if you were going to say besides speed at linebacker, the one great intangible that you'd love all your linebackers to have is football instincts and awareness."
'A lot of times he (Reddick) just diagnoses where the ball is going to go just because he sees it. I mean, he's got great vision, and he's having a very good camp," Davis added.
SEARCY, BLUE AMONG MANY CANDIDATES TO RETURN KICKS
North Carolina has gotten ample opportunity over the first week of training camp to work on special teams, and one of the key areas has been trying to find a consistent kickoff and punt returner.
Coach Davis mentioned that four rookies (Mywan Jackson, Terry Shankle, Hunter Furr, and A.J. Blue), are all getting looks at the returner positions, including a couple of past performers (Kendric Burney and Charles Brown) and a veteran who's getting his first shot in this discipline at the collegiate level.
"With some of the older guys, one of the guys, and this is poor coaching on our part that we found out that Da'Norris Searcy was a punt and kick returner in high school, and here's a kid that runs 4.4 that's got a lot of speed, and we put him back there today just catching in pre-practice, and he did a very good job. He looked smooth and he looked natural," said Davis.
"Kendric Burney and Charles Brown are very good catchers, so we've got some guys that we think will do a good job back there," Davis added. Surprisingly, there's probably as many as four candidates just in the freshman class. Both of the two corners that we've just talked about (Shankle and Jackson) have got really good hands. Hunter Furr has got some hands. A.J. Blue has got good hands."
EXPERIENCE HELPING ON SPECIAL TEAMS
One thing that is significantly helping the Tar Heels this summer from a special teams standpoint is the fact that they have so many experienced players on the various coverage and protection units.
For the first time since Davis arrived at UNC nearly three years ago, the Tar Heels do not have to have freshmen on the 'first' units on team such as punt coverage, kickoff coverage, and on extra points/field goals.
"It helps (to have so much experience)," said Davis. "I noticed that today that all seven of the interior core guys on the punt team with the exception of Ryan Taylor (who is out a month with a sprained knee), are all there. So they are instantly making calls. They're talking about protections. They're coaching the other guys, so that really helps."
"I mean, it was really, truly a frightening experience in 2007 when they didn't know our scheme, and they also had never played before and they weren't very experienced, so this helps us an awful lot," Davis added.
SCHALLOCK GROWING INTO NEW ROLE
Another positive in special teams for the Tar Heels has been the presence of junior Grant Schallock, who has earned both a starting job and a scholarship over the past few months, and finds himself in position to potentially be one of Carolina's breakout players in 2009.
"I think he (Schallock) worked extremely hard to become a two-step kicker, and he's put about seven months of work into it," said Davis. "I think he had 10 or 12 live, full-speed punts yesterday (Thursday), and every single one of them were under 2.1 (seconds). So that was spectacular. Now part of that is obviously we're getting great snaps from the snappers. They're all in the 0.7, 0.81, 0.78 (seconds), which really contributes to it, but his tempo and his speed has been very good, and his hang times have been excellent."
WAITING TO SCRIMMAGE
The Tar Heels have not yet officially determined their first scrimmage of training camp, although it could come as soon as Saturday, or early next week.
Coach Davis stressed the need to get all the young players up to speed on the practice field before exposing them to a more game-like environment, which will help ensure that when the Tar Heels actually do scrimmage, it will be more productive for everyone.
"We're going to wait until we feel like the team is ready to scrimmage," said Davis. "We're trying to grow the football team to where they've got enough confidence to go out there and play. Our 'ones' can go out and scrimmage and we can scrimmage for a couple of hours. We just want to make sure that the 'twos' and the 'threes,' that they can go out and execute well enough so that the scrimmage is actually effective."
Although they haven't yet engaged in an actual scrimmage, Davis did mention that the team is getting in plenty of physicality and aggression during certain drills in practice sessions.
"I think we're getting in an awful lot of very, very physical practices," he said. "If you're watching our practices, our inside run drills and our team drills, with the exception of the ball carrier (not) going to the ground, if we said it was Saturday and it was game day it couldn't be any more physical at the point of attack."