In his first meeting with the media since the break of training camp and the start of classes, UNC head coach Everett Withers talked about his team's focus now that they're a little more than a week away from the season opener against James Madison.
"Yeah, we started (practicing against JMU) the other day. We started working on them a little bit," Withers said Thursday afternoon. "A little bit of it has been going on throughout training camp."
"We've had some periods of offense and defensive service and working on James Madison. So the process has started, but it will get more heavy here the next couple of days."
"Obviously offensively and defensively we want to finalize game plans. We want to get game plans done and focus on what we want to do offensively, defensively, and special teams and finalizing what we want to do there," Withers continued.
"I think we're right on schedule with what the plan has been. We're looking forward to next week, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and just getting after it."
UNC's practice focus this week has gradually shifted away from a training camp routine that focuses more on personnel development to an in-season routine that is more geared towards fine-tuning the offense and defense and getting specific preparation for that week's opponent.
"We'll be a little more scout team each day (now)," Withers said. "We'll try to add a little bit more scout team work every day and acclimate the guys that will be on the scout teams to how we run the scout teams."
"That's what this week has been a little bit, is to help those guys get acclimated to it. And then we'll be obviously more into JMU and getting ready for them."
Withers doesn't know what his emotions will be when he takes the field at Kenan Stadium for his first-ever game as a head coach September 3.
"I usually go day to day and work on what's happening today. On gameday I'll hopefully manage the game like it should be managed as a head coach, and let the players play and the coaches coach, and hopefully stay out of the way and not mess it up for them," he said.
"I'll always be excited, you know. One thing, in the press box, you have to be a little bit more subdued in the press box, and now I get a chance to be down there with the kids. So I'll be excited, but I'll be more focused on trying to help them be in the right spots and helping the football team win," he added.
Withers was satisfied with the way the team came along during the two-and-a-half week grind of training camp.
"I was (pleased with training camp). I thought it went well," he said.
"Training camp is one of those deals where you have some bumps and bruises, and I think as we progress to next week we'll get back the majority of the guys with bumps and bruises."
It looks like the Tar Heels are going to get back running backs Ryan Houston and Giovani Bernard just in time for the season opener. Both players have been wearing orange 'no contact' jerseys through the summer, but both have been engaged in more and more in terms of work during practices lately.
"I think they're right on schedule to be ready to go next week," Withers said of Houston and Bernard. "And we're excited about them. They came through this thing fine, and I think we'll be full speed next week."
While both Houston and Bernard figure to get some run against James Madison, it's also highly likely that A.J. Blue will get several chances as well to show what he can do out of the offensive backfield.
"He (Blue) is going to be in the numbers, you know. He's going to be in the mix. And like we've said earlier, we've had four that have had to play (running back). So he's going to get his shots at it," Withers said.
"How many (carries)? I don't know. But we'll try to get that feel as we get to the first ball game."
One of the top performers for the Tar Heels this summer has been senior receiver Dwight Jones, who has been impressing both in practice and in the scrimmages.
"Just route running, consistency in catching the ball, Dwight has obviously always been a talent. His leadership, his maturity. I think he's helped a bunch of the young guys improve, and that's been a big issue," Withers said.
Jones has helped bring along young teammates like Sean Tapley and T.J. Thorpe, and when asked about which players had been pleasant surprises for him this summer, Withers mentioned those two youngsters and a few others.
"Those receivers, the young receivers, I think give us a chance to add depth there. Sean Tapley, T.J. Thorpe, those guys have shown up during camp and worked hard, and we're excited about them," Withers said.
"The two defensive tackles have played well, Shawn Underwood and Devonte Brown. So they provide us depth at those positions that will help us down the road in the season," he added.
UNC's rookie defensive backs have also impressed Withers over the past three weeks.
"They're all talented, and I said this earlier. I think we're more talented athletically than the other three years I've been here. It's just a matter of experience," Withers said about the young cornerbacks.
With the two projected cornerback starters Jabari Price and Charles Brown out for James Madison---Price is injured and Brown is suspended---the Tar Heels will have some newcomers at the position against the Dukes.
"The starting corners? Probably Tim Scott and Tre Boston are two leaders right now at that position, but we've still got some days to go," Withers said.
It's pretty obvious that Scott won't be redshirting, and it also appears likely that other rookie corners like Alex Dixon might play immediately.
Kameron Jackson will likely redshirt as he comes off a knee injury, while Sam Smiley fractured a finger this week and will miss approximately two weeks of action.
"If we can afford to get them in the game and play them, then I don't see why not," Withers said about the freshmen. "We won't throw one in there just to throw him in there, but if he can help us win a game, then we'll definitely consider that."
Withers also spoke about the players that he thinks are going to be in position to help the Tar Heels in the all-important kickoff and punt return game.
"We've got a number of guys back there who can help us. Sean Tapley, T.J. Thorpe, Todd Harrelson, and when we get Charlie (Brown) back, he'll be back there. So we've got some guys back there that can return it," he said.
The first-year head coach is hopeful that this unit can give the Tar Heels a spark that hasn't been there since a future NFL playmakers was getting it done for UNC.
"I think we've got more big play ability than any other time I've been here except for Brandon Tate," said Withers.