When North Carolina's football program begins training camp a week from now, they will have the benefit of some seasoned wide receivers in the mix, which will help ease the burden on the team's crop of young quarterbacks.
"You don't want to put too much on the kid's shoulders," transplanted quarterback Joe Dailey said in regards to the team's new batch of signal-callers. "The quarterback, he is going to have a one-two-three read. Coach (John) Shoop said, 'Get the ball to the freaks and let them do what they do best.'
The Tar Heels figure to have plenty of 'freaks' among its receiving corps in 2007, and while the group has several young players and true freshmen, it is actually a position where the Tar Heels have several veterans.
Dailey, who considered leaving the UNC program after last season, has found a new home at wide receiver, and the former Nebraska transfer finds his college football career reborn.
As he has made the transition over the last several months from the guy throwing the passes to the guy catching the passes, Dailey has an entirely new appreciation of what it takes to make plays downfield, and having a quarterback that can get him the football.
"Now I appreciate ball location and a guy who can throw it on the spot," Dailey said. "I've had the experience where I had to bite my tongue and think, 'I was the guy throwing that ball before.'"
Dailey, who projects as one of North Carolina's top three to four receivers heading into the 2007 season, is ironically the only senior in the group. In addition to being on the field extensively when the Tar Heels are in three-wide sets, Dailey also figures to see time in short-yardage situations when the team needs a sure set of hands.
"He loves football," fellow senior Hilee Taylor said of Dailey. "He studies football every day. He's going to give it all he's got. Joe is real good. You would think he had played receiver with his speed and his hands. He catches the ball. It's very rare he doesn't catch the ball."
While the transplanted Dailey is one of the more interesting storylines regarding North Carolina's wide receivers heading into the new season, Hakeem Nicks is the program's true prize at the position. The difference-maker stepped into the Tar Heel starting lineup from day one last year, and heads into this season as one of the ACC's top emerging young offensive players. As a rookie, Nicks set North Carolina single-season freshman records for receptions (39) and yardage (660), while ranking third in the ACC in receiving yardage per game (60.0).
"He has that swagger," Taylor said of Nicks. "He came from (Charlotte, N.C.) Independence. They have been state champions forever. That swagger is what everybody needs, and he works hard. When you have that combination, you're going to be a hard guy to stop."
While Nicks is practically assured of a starting lineup and a prominent role within the UNC offense heading into camp, several players will be battling for the coveted No. 2 spot within the receiving corps. The Tar Heels will have multiple experience candidates for the spot, including juniors Brandon Tate and Brooks Foster, and sophomore Kenton Thornton.
While Tate may not have the possession skills of Nicks, or the route running skills of Foster, he is the fastest of the three players, and is arguably the most athletic player on the entire UNC roster heading into the new season.
"That boy is quick," Taylor said of Tate. "He does a little head fake, and when he does that, you will go for it. He got me. It's just amazing what he can do with that head fake, and he is real quick."
One of the ACC's top kickoff and punt returners, Tate is going to get the chance this season to do more within the framework of the offense. With his undeniable speed, Tate will get the chance to get downfield and make things happen for the Tar Heels, and with his experience combined with Nicks, the unit has the potential to stretch opposing defenses and extend the field.
"They are savvy individuals," Dailey said of Nicks and Tate. " They understand the wide receiver position better than most people do because both played it as young guys, and they've played it in the ACC and have been successful. Hakeem, the guy has great hands. If he gets his hands on a ball, it's going to be a catch. And Brandon Tate is going to make somebody miss. You could put him in a phone booth, and he would make somebody miss getting out. Those two guys are dynamic players for us."
Foster, who finished the 2006 season just one catch behind Nicks for the UNC team lead with 38 receptions, is another seasoned veteran, having gone from a sophomore with no career receptions in last year's training camp to one of the team's more productive players. A technically sound player, Foster runs efficient routes and isn't afraid to go across the middle.
Thornton, who participated in eight games last season as a redshirt freshman, is another dynamic athlete. The 6-4, 225-pounder provides a large target for his receivers, and during spring practice he was using his speed and elusiveness to find seams in the defense and make things happen. Thornton may very well wind up being a less-noticed weapon in the Tar Heel arsenal, the type of player that can catch an opposing team off guard and hit them unexpectedly with a big play.
While there won't be a ton of pressure for them to come in and be contributors right away, the Tar Heels also welcome several true freshman to the mix, including Greg Little, Rashad Mason, and Charles Brown.
Little, who arrived at UNC in peak physical condition earlier this summer, has looked strong in the weight room and in voluntary preseason workouts, and as training camp looms, he may stand a chance of getting reps at both receiver and tailback for the Tar Heels. He clearly stands the best chance among the true freshman of playing right away.
Mason, who recovered remarkably from a near-fatal car accident his junior year of high school to become a four-star prospect, is another big target with the potential to create major matchup problems for smaller cornerbacks.
Brown, an undersized burner with track speed, is a precise receiver who has shown an advanced ability to learn the UNC offense and know where to be and when to be there. He has impressed the UNC staff with his mental acumen, along with his impressive athletic ability. While it remains to be seen whether or not he will contribute immediately, Brown's presence, along with that of Little and Mason, projects a bright future for the Tar Heels at the position.