As North Carolina begins classes and breaks training camp, what are some of the hot topics surrounding the program? Take a closer look in another of our 'Training Camp Notebook' editions.
SPECIAL TEAMS EMPHASIZED
Following this past weekend's scrimmage, head coach Butch Davis indicated the need for the Tar Heels to continue developing across the board in special teams prior to September 5th's season opener against The Citadel.
One area in particular where the coaches are still examining possibilities is at punter, where the Tar Heels have a former walk-on and a true freshman battling it out for the job.
"We're still working on some of the special teams, obviously with breaking in a brand new punter. We've got some pretty good competition going on with Grant Schallock and C.J. Feagles," he said.
While both Schallock and Feagles have shown they can get it done on any given punt, Davis and the rest of the coaches are looking for consistency.
"Both of them have shown really strong legs. They've both shown the ability to really hang the ball well, but we're looking for consistency," Davis said. "I don't want a 55-yard kick one time and a 29-yard kick the next time. It's all about being consistent."
One of the other things special teams-wise that has arisen in recent days is the competition to replace Matt Merletti, a 2008 special teams captain, on his various roles in the coverage and return units.
"From a defensive perspective, I think that one of the things, we took a big hit losing Matt Merletti to the ACL," said Davis. "You hate it, because he's basically a starter on almost all four of the 'big four' special teams, so you hate that part of it."
Even though the loss of Merletti is a big one for the Tar Heels, Davis does believe that the team is much more capable of overcoming it this year than in the past, when the depth wasn't nearly as talented.
"I guess two years ago it would have been catastrophic," he said. "You don't like it for him (Merletti), but I think that we're in a better position to try to deal with that kind of adversity today than we were two years ago."
POSITION BATTLES AMONG SECONDARY, LINEBACKERS
While most of the starting positions in North Carolina's offense and defense are settled, Davis mentioned that there are a few position battles still taking place this August, especially among the linebackers and in the secondary.
"We're kind of having auditions and stuff with our nickel backs," he said. "We've taken a look at some guys. Melvin Williams is one of them (along with) some of the young incoming corners, Gene Robinson, Terry Shankle, those guys, Mywan Jackson. We're taking a look at some of those guys."
While the nickel back typically replaces an outside linebacker when he comes into the game, the Tar Heels are also exploring the possibility of keeping weak-side linebackers Zach Brown and Kevin Reddick on the field when opposing teams have multiple wide receiver sets because of their speed and overall ability.
"There's always the possibility, and this is kind of the way in which we built defenses at every place I've been in the past, at the weak-side linebacker when I was with the Dallas Cowboys it was Darrin Smith, and when we were at Miami it was Dan Morgan, but a lot of times, you may not even want to take your weakside linebacker (out of the game) if he's got enough speed and athleticism," said Davis.
"Zach Brown has clearly got enough speed and he's fast enough that it doesn't necessarily mean that just because the other team goes three wide receivers that you automatically have to match up (with a nickel back)," he added.
At cornerback, the Tar Heels are not only rotating in some of the freshmen in the backup positions, but they are also still looking at who is going to wind up taking the starting position on one side between Charles Brown and Jordan Hemby.
"I think it's too close to call (between Brown and Hemby)," Davis said. "I think it's very similar to the 'Will' linebacker position with Kevin Reddick and Zach Brown. They're battling every day. One of those guys, it may be that right now we may only have three corners---that one may be the backup to both sides and go in and play a significant amount."
"I think they (the defensive backs) have had a very good camp," Davis added. "The thing that you have to judge them against is where are they in comparison to where they were in the spring time, and then where are they in comparison to where you feel like that they can be. What is the potential for them?"
"And I will tell you that I think that every one of them are better football players than they were at the end of the spring," Davis continued. "Charles Brown has been very, very good at fundamentals and techniques. I think Jordan Hemby has improved. Kendric Burney has improved, Deunta (Williams) is playing good. So we're pleased with the way the secondary has played thus far."
In addition to focusing on special teams and specific offensive and defensive schemes during training camp, another focus has been working on specific game situations such as two-minute offense and two-minute defense, along with short-yardage and goal line.
"(Monday) we had probably our sixth two-minute drill during training camp," Davis said.
"We found ourselves in a lot of ball games last year that we successfully executed either the defensive phase of it or the offensive phase, as we did against Notre Dame and won the game, and then against Virginia where we didn't come up as good," he added. "So we've tried to an emphasis in that particular area. We're working on some of those situations."
"I think that's there's a couple of areas that we've still got to work on," Davis continued. "We're still trying to emphasize a tremendous amount on some of the special situations that come up in ball games---short yardage, red zone, goal line, two-minute drills."
O-LINE SEES GROWTH
While much has been said about the overall lack of depth along North Carolina's offensive line, Davis said that he's pleased with the way that the first unit has progressed this summer, and he also likes the development of the second unit.
"I think our first offensive line has had a really solid camp, and I will tell you that our second offensive line has made really significant growth," he said. "They've kind of put their nose to the grindstone. They've worked very, very hard."
With the starters, Davis is naturally happy that the projected starters have stayed mostly healthy this summer, and while depth could prove to be a concern over the course of the season, right now the front five is gaining continuity and confidence with each passing day.
"I think the best thing is that they (the starters) have stayed healthy," he said. "So now you get a chance for those five guys to get some continuity of talking to each other. We've got a veteran guy next to a young guy, and that helps on each side of the ball, where they get a chance to talk to somebody that can actually help them with front identifications and stuff."
"We still need two more weeks to get ready, and they still need to get some more opportunities during the season," he added.
D-LINE HELPS CREATE IDENTITY
In the eyes of Davis, a former defensive lineman in college and a long-time defensive line coach before becoming a head coach, the front four on the defensive side of the ball, in so many ways, is the face of a football team.
"I've always been kind of somewhat of a firm believer than the personality of your football team is reflective of your defensive front four---that they have a chance to really kind of carry the message for the whole defense," he said.
"There's a lot of expectations on those guys, and they've pushed themselves," Davis added. "They've run. They've lost a lot of weight, and I think that they're right where they need to be."
The good news for UNC is that its 2009 defensive line is a veteran unit with some outstanding leaders, including a pair of battle-tested seniors.
"I think that they (the defensive linemen) have gotten really good leadership," Davis said. "I think that Cam Thomas and E.J. Wilson have done an excellent job of pushing all those guys to not just rest on their laurels."
While also working to help themselves out in terms of development, the defensive line has also been pivotal in helping challenge the offensive linemen and bring out the competitiveness in them as well.
"They've got a chance to set the tone to help your offensive line and tight ends as far as blocking against those guys," said Davis about the D-line. "Just from a tenacity standpoint, you want to be able that every time that ball is snapped, to have four guys that are playing at a high level, just great intensity, flying around making plays, and carrying the mantra that they're going to play well, as the whole defense."
ELLEBY, RAMSAY DRAW PRAISE
When asked about some of the UNC players that have made moves this summer in terms of legitimately competing for a spot in the two-deep, Coach Davis mentioned a fourth-year junior who has converted from defense to offense, and a third-year junior who has had some injury problems but is now starting to bring everything together.
"A very pleasant surprise, and we are so thankful with Greg Elleby, that we moved him over to the offensive line a year ago," he said. "He's getting close to the point that you'd say, 'You know what? He deserves to go in and play sometime with the 'ones.''"
"He's a good athlete. He's got long arms. He's got good feet," added Davis about Elleby. "He feels confident enough with all the line calls, so I would say that he's somebody certainly that has come on and done a nice job for us."
"Devon Ramsay at fullback has done a very nice job," Davis continued. "He's a 245-pound kid that runs a 4.5 (second 40-yard dash). We've been waiting on him to kind of emerge a little bit, and I think he's done that."
"He's showed some toughness, some physicality," Davis added. "He's helping on special teams. He's catching the ball out of the backfield, so I think that's been a pleasant surprise."