As North Carolina wraps up its final week prior to game week preparations for The Citadal, UNC head coach Butch Davis spoke before Friday's practice about several topics, including the freshmen and Saturday's 'Mock Game.'
MOCKING THE SEASON OPENER
Coach Davis indicated that the Tar Heels will engage in a 'Mock Game' on Saturday, which will be a virtual simulation of an actual game. The team will engage in approximately 100 plays in all phases.
"We're going to go through a whole game as if it was quarters, changing (sides of the field), (and) halftime," said Davis. "We're going to go through a dress rehearsal for pre-game, so it's kind of a little 'mock' next Saturday."
While it won't be exactly like a real game, due to the fact that the coaches want the players to work on a lot of different special teams scenarios, the 'Mock Game' is designed to prepare the team for whatever may come up once game day arrives.
"What it amounts to is the offense and defense just has a collective series of three-and-out and kicking situations, three-and-out and kicking situations, and basically we've got 30 different scenarios in kicking," Davis said. "We'll run plays like we would practice against The Citadel, but the whole game is to (prepare for) all those bizarre things that might not ever come up until Week Seven but you better be prepared in Week One, that if it does happen, the kids don't want to be looking at the sidelines like, 'Coach, what do we do now?'"
One important thing to note is that Davis doesn't use the terminology 'scrimmage' when talking about Saturday's 'Mock Game.' In his words, Saturday's situation is not a scrimmage, and the team is actually done scrimmaging this training camp.
"We are done (scrimmaging)," he said. "We had a pretty significant scrimmage last week on Saturday, and we'll continue to have physical practices during the course of the week, but we don't anticipate having any further scrimmage opportunities until the first game."
UNDER THE LIGHTS
On Thursday, the Tar Heels had their first collective opportunity to practice under the new light towers that have been erected on both the North and South sides of Kenan Stadium.
Naturally, since the season opener will be played at night, it's absolutely critical that the Tar Heel players familiarize themselves with the brighter lights and get used to catching passes and punts in the face of what could be an imposing glare, depending on the angle at which they are looking at the ball.
"We had our first opportunity last night (Thursday) to practice under the new lights," said Davis. "That was something that we've always done is try to schedule a night practice, just because the kick returners, the punt returners, the receivers, to see the ball, if there's actually any kind of a conflict once the ball goes into the lights and as it comes out of the lights."
"Clearly one of the things that was noticeable is that you don't want to stare at those lights. They're extraordinarily bright," Davis added. "And if you look at the lights---which you shouldn't if you're actually playing in the game---you shouldn't be looking at the lights, because if you look back you could possibly have a problem in losing the football.
Davis is pleased with the way in which the new lights seem to illuminate the entire playing surface, and particularly the end zones, which he didn't feel were as adequately lit in past years as they are now.
"They (the lights) did a great job. They really lit up the field. I think it's significant," he said. "One of the things that we were concerned about last year and in previous years were the corners of the end zones didn't light up as much as maybe you would have liked for them to, and certainly this new lighting system has clearly fixed that issue. It was a lot brighter, and I think it will certainly enhance the night games that we have this year. I think it will make it a good environment."
BLUE SETTLING IN AT RUNNING BACK
Another rookie that is almost certainly going to play right away for the Tar Heels this fall is A.J. Blue, who is going to find use not only on special teams, but as a backup running back.
While Blue's potential as a quarterback is a tantalizing prospect for UNC from the standpoint that he might be able to run the 'Wildcat' offensive formation, Davis reiterated that the Tar Heel coaches still see Blue primarily as a tailback.
"I think one of the things is as Bryn Renner has come into the program, he's a lot more athletic of a quarterback, and so I certainly don't think there's necessarily as big of a need to have a specialist that can do strictly that (run the 'Wildcat' offense)," Davis said.
"It's something that we've looked at a little bit with A.J., but I think his No. 1 priority for us is to learn to be a tailback," he added. "I think that's what we recruited him as. That's where we think that he'll have the greatest opportunity to have an impact on this team, certainly in the short run but definitely in the long run."
While the UNC coaches are still seeing Blue mostly as a running back, Davis conceded that the 'Wildcat' formation has helped evolve the sport of football from the standpoint of helping an offense get its most capable playmakers all on the field at the same time.
"I think what that offense has done is it's allowed people to get playmakers on the field," he said. "I think it's something that clearly we're going to face on other teams, and it's something we've tried to incorporate in our own offense to have. A couple of years ago we did it with Greg Little, and we're always looking for somebody that might have the ability to do something like that.
GETTING INTO THE CITADEL
We actually made a transition getting into The Citadel probably in Wednesday's practice. We felt like at that stage it was time to start having segmented practice sessions against things that we expect (The Citadel will run).
We felt like 10 days out from the game is usually the magic date that we try to target and say, 'Okay, let's turn our attention to the opponent.'
What we wanted to try to do is try to replicate next week's practice schedule this week. We'll have a Tuesday practice and a Wednesday practice and a Thursday practice, and we'll go back next week and have another Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday practice.
The way in which we segment our practice, Tuesdays are kind of the 'run (and) play action' days, Wednesdays are kind of the 'nickel' days, the red zone days. Thursdays are kind of short yardage, goal line, and then there are different phases on special teams each of those days. So that basically kind of gives us two weeks of actual work towards our first opponent.
UNCERTAINTY REMAINS AT SPECIFIC POSTIIONS
While the Tar Heels are pretty much locked in at the majority of their two-deep positions offensive and defensively, Davis indicated that there is still a competition battle brewing at 'Will' linebacker, where Zach Brown and Kevin Reddick have waged an epic battle this summer.
"At the linebacker position with Zach Brown and Kevin Reddick, that's still an issue where those two kids have had a great camp," Davis said. "They've worked extremely hard. We're still not 100 percent certain as to who is going to be the starter, but I suspect that both of those guys are going to get an opportunity to play."
Uncertainty also remains at many of the backup offensive line positions, as position coach Sam Pittman has been working some of his second-team players on both sides of the ball, and at both guard and tackle.
"Certainly the backup offensive line, to try to create some depth, one of the things that we've been doing this week is taking the three or four really solid backups and using their versatility, playing them on the right side, the left side, the inside and the outside," said Davis.
SPECIAL TEAMS RUNDOWN
With Matt Merletti out for the season with a torn ACL and Ryan Taylor out until mid-September at the earliest with a sprained knee, the Tar Heels have had to make some key adjustments in their special teams rotations, which has provided an opportunity for some other UNC veterans to make their mark this summer.
"Some guys that didn't play significantly huge roles previously (on special teams), guys like Bobby Rome, guys like Anthony Elzy, that played minor roles on some of the special teams, now they're taking a bigger piece of all four of the major roles," Davis said.
In addition, some of the younger players are also making an impact.
"I think all those young linebackers, Zach Brown, Kevin Reddick, Herman Davidson, Linwan Euwell is somebody that we think has got a chance to be a really good special teams player, Curtis Byrd, who is a backup fullback, is another guy."
While they naturally have to work around him during his injury, Davis is optimistic that Taylor, one of the team's biggest special teams standouts the last three years, will be back in the not-too-distant future.
"We're still optimistic that Ryan Taylor will make it back at some particular time. We have guarded optimism that may in fact actually happen," he said.
EXPERIENCE TO HELP WITH ADJUSTMENTS
With the veteran experience on this UNC roster, particularly on defense, should come the ability to make better and quicker adjustments during the game and during halftime.
"I think it's probably going to be easier to make sideline adjustments and halftime adjustments with kids that have been battle-tested and have been in games," said Davis.
While it may more of a struggle at first for the less-experienced offense to make such adjustments, Davis says the players on that particular side of the ball have to work a little bit harder to make sure they're all on the same wavelength.
"The flip-side of that is offensively, as young and inexperienced as we are it's certainly going to put a premium on coaches' ability on the sidelines to be able to fix some things as the game goes along," he said. "You can't wait until halftime. You may get four or five possessions in the first half, and at the end of each one of those it's really critical that everybody is on the same page, that they're all talking the same language. I think that's where the bigger issue would lie as opposed to the defense."