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August 19, 2009

Training Camp Notebook 4

Following Tuesday afternoon's workout---the midway point of training camp for the Tar Heels---UNC head coach Butch Davis broke down several topics.

"We're basically halfway through training camp, and we've pushed this football team pretty hard, both from a physical standpoint and certainly from a mental standpoint," said Davis. "We've probably worked on the execution of more things this training camp than any of the ones previously, and there are two reasons for it."

"One, we've got to get a lot of young guys an awful lot of knowledge and some experience early, and the second part is that we've got enough experience with the veteran guys that they know more, that they can actually go out and execute more things," Davis added. "They've got a greater base of knowledge of our offense, defense and special teams. We're still in the process of trying to identify guys that are going to have significant roles on this team, but for the most part practice has gone really well."

DEALING WITH THE HEAT

The Tar Heels had relatively mild weather to practice in during their two practice sessions on Monday, but the heat came back in a big way on Tuesday, with temperatures in the ballpark of 93 degrees for the team's afternoon workout.

"It's clearly the dog days of August," said Davis. "We got a little bit of a break with the weather the last couple of days, but today it (the sun) popped out again, and it was good and hot, and I think that's good. It forces your team to have to play hard."

The Tar Heels had better get used to playing in the hot sun, with upcoming games against Connecticut and East Carolina in September that have noon kickoffs.

"The first month (of the regular season) of September, all of our games, it's going to be hot, whether they're home games or on the road," Davis said. "With two games with 12:00 kickoffs, it's one of the reasons that we've kind of chosen to go on the days that we go one practice, we're going at 1:30 in the afternoon. We're being smart about the breaks, but we've got to get used to dealing with the mental aspect of playing in the heat."

The Tar Heels were originally scheduled to engage in another round of two-a-days on Wednesday, but the UNC coaches elected to give the players the morning off. The team will return to practice Wednesday evening , where the temperatures should be a little more manageable.

O-LINE DEPTH REMAINS CRITICAL

With injuries and attrition crippling the depth along the offensive line over the past couple of weeks, one of the key components of training camp for the Tar Heels is figuring out which guys can be depended upon in the two-deep rotation up front.

"We're going to have to develop some depth," said Davis. "There's no two ways about it. Obviously one of the things was a move that we made in the spring time when we moved Greg Elleby from the defensive line to the offensive line. He's really made strides because of having the opportunity to go through spring practice."

"Greg's a good athlete, and any time you're a former defensive lineman going to the offensive line, you bring a tough mentality," he added. "You probably are maybe a little bit faster than some of the other offensive linemen, so his athletic ability certainly helps him there."

"The other aspect of it is we're playing some true freshmen in the offensive line in the second and the third group. And they're getting challenged," Davis continued.

"We're giving them maybe, actually, to be honest with you, we might give them a few more reps than we normally would have given players a year ago. In a typical period drill where they might get six (before), they're sometimes getting seven, and sometimes they're getting eight, so that they get that extra rep or two. If it's not a mental rep, at least they're seeing something."

In addition to getting guys extra repetitions in practice, the Tar Heels are getting its linemen used to playing multiple positions, such as Jonathan Cooper learning both center and left guard, and Elleby learning both left guard and left tackle.

In addition, junior Alan Pelc is settling into a starting job at right guard after playing left guard exclusively a season ago.

"Jonathan Cooper has done some of that (playing two positions) a little bit," said Davis. "Alan Pelc is playing a different position than he played last year, so he has already been challenged with the versatility of learning more than one position."

While the various losses in the trenches has been disconcerting to say the least for Tar Heel fans, Davis indicated that it's not unlike what NFL teams have to go through during the regular season once their rosters have been trimmed down.

"In all honesty, this is somewhat like what you're faced with in the National Football League," he said. "They only allow you, when you've got a 53-man roster, you might only carry only eight offensive linemen all year long. So you've got your starting five, and one of those five may have to show some versatility that he could immediately go from one position to another, and you plug in the sixth guy or the seventh guy."

"Until we can kind of grow some depth and grow some experience, that may the situation that our football team is in," Davis added.

STARTING JOBS BEING CHALLENGED

While the Tar Heels are in a much more desperate position to build up its depth offensively than defensively, Coach Davis indicated that freshman linebacker Kevin Reddick is making a strong push for major playing time this season.

"When you look at it, obviously we've got nine returning starters on offense, but by the same token, we're replacing seven starters on offense, so it's a mixed bag," Davis said. "Defensively we've got some guys that are certainly challenging for playing time."

"We've got a pretty good battle going on for the 'Will' linebacker position with Zach Brown and Kevin Reddick," he added. "That's pretty hotly contested. Those are two really good players. They're good tacklers. They've got speed. Both of them are young but they've got really good instincts."

While Da'Norris Searcy appears to have the inside track to the starting job at strong safety, Davis mentioned that he's getting pushed as well.

"We're still looking at the possibility of who's going to be the heir apparent to Trimane Goddard in the secondary. Da'Norris Searcy has been getting a lot of the looks and is doing a good job, but he's been challenged with Jonathan Smith. We want depth. We want to try to have good, solid backups in those positions as well."

TURNOVERS CONTINUE TO BE EMPHASIZED

Despite the fact that UNC ranked 11th out of 12 schools in the Atlantic Coast Conference in total defense in 2008, the Tar Heels won eight games and were in position to potentially play in the ACC Championship Game as late in the season as mid-November.

The reason, quite simply, is that the Tar Heels were almost always on the right end of the turnover margin last season.

Heading into his season, turnovers---both getting them on defense and avoiding them on offense---remains a central focus of the team.

"One of the reasons that they (the defense) are good at it (getting turnovers) is that they're always trying to create turnovers in practice," said Davis. "They're always trying to punch the ball out, strip the ball, go for balls at high points on interceptions, and it forces the offense to really protect the ball."

"In a 10-year study in the National Football League, 77 percent of the games were won by the team that committed the fewest turnovers," the UNC head coach added. "That's anal stats, but that's the truth of it, that if you want to win games, you need to do a great job of protecting the football and creating turnovers."

Offensively, the running backs and receivers work every day on protecting the ball once it comes into their possession, and on how to tuck the ball away quickly.

"Yeah, we do drills. They (the running backs and receivers) run through 'gauntlet' drills, where guys are punching them with bags and guys are trying to strip the ball. They do those things every single day," Davis said. "Sometimes it's two hands on the ball if you're running through the initial line of scrimmage. Sometimes it's holding the ball high and tight."

"It's being fast and quick with the reception and not being lazy about tucking it and putting it away," Davis added. "A lot of the strips, balls that get dropped, are not necessarily because the receiver has bad hands. He was just lazy in his ability to catch the ball and then immediately tuck it away, that allows one of the defenders to get their hands in there. So we're working on those kinds of things, and we keep harping on it."

DAVIS PLEASED WITH SELLOUTS

North Carolina officials revealed earlier this week that the Tar Heels have sold out their allotment of tickets for the first three home games of the season, which naturally makes Coach Davis a happy man.

"Well, first off it makes me very proud of our fans that have stepped up there and bought those tickets," he said. "Obviously I think people have great passion for the program. I think they're excited about the football, the direction we're headed."

Particularly in light of the country's economic condition, it's a good thing for UNC to see that the fans are eager to return to Kenan Stadium. In Davis's eyes, college football---and all sports in general---are great ways for citizens to engage in a wholesome family activity to briefly get their minds off some of the problems in the world.

"I think that football and sports, a lot of times---and we saw this happen at 9-11---that sports can sometimes serve as an unbelievable emotional lift for people when they're going through difficult and challenging times," said Davis. "9-11 was a horrific time for our country. We're (now) going through a tough economic time, and it's a great way for families, pretty inexpensively, to have a whole Saturday experience. Bring your kids, come, tailgate, picnic, go to the football game. It's about as healthy and wholesome of a thing as you can do as a family, and I'm glad that they're turning out."

SEVERAL OPTIONS AT PUNT RETURNER

The Tar Heels are currently entertaining several possible options at punt returner, as a handful of veterans, along with a rookie, are getting lots of repetitions.

While Searcy has stepped up tremendously at this particular position in recent days, it's not a done deal that he'll be the starting punt returner.

At least, not yet.

"I think he (Searcy) has done a good job," said Davis. "He's one of a couple of guys we're very closely at. We're looking at Charles Brown, Kendric Burney. We're looking at Jheranie Boyd---some guys that have had the experience of catching the ball in the air. But I think Da'Norris has done a good job. He's shown poise back there. His fundamentals and mechanics are getting better every day."

"A punt returner is somebody that---and I think I mentioned it last week---the most important trait that they can have is dependability and the ability to catch the ball," Davis added. "Everything after that is a bonus."

One of the biggest things according to Davis in figuring out the best option at punt returner is finding the guy that can not only consistently catch the ball, but also finding someone who has confidence in the team's punt coverage unit, and is not worried about the possibility of getting laid out by an opposing player.

"Their ability to track the ball and to kind of disregard the coverage---you can't have guys that are looking at the coverage, looking at the ball, looking at the coverage---they've got to focus (on the incoming ball)," he said. "They've got to know that we're going to do a great job protecting them, keeping people off them. Just secure the catch and then they'll do the return, whatever it is we're trying to do."

KENAN STADIUM LIGHTING UPDATE

As the days dwindle down to Saturday, September 5th's season opener against The Citadel, the various construction projects currently going on inside Kenan Stadium, including the new West End Zone addition and the new lighting, are rapidly coming to completion.

"They're on time. I think they've made remarkable strides," said Davis. "They're actually, to be honest with you, and barring any unforeseen things, they're probably about a week ahead of schedule. They're starting to clean up in the front and getting ready to where they can repave and do all of the stuff that they've got to do to allow people onto the concourse to get into all of the concession stands."

"The lights, I mean that was remarkable how fast and quick they were able to get all of those lights up," Davis added.

Later this week UNC officials will give the new lighting system a 'dry run,' keeping the lights turned on for a period of two full days, and then they will start the process of arranging the lights to make sure every single inch of the playing field is adequately covered.

"Friday, I think we're going to actually turn the lights on, I believe," Davis said. "I think they have to burn for 50 hours. I think they turn them on and leave them on non-stop and they've got to get used to running. Then they'll have to tweak the direction and make sure that the field is covered properly."

Once the lights are properly aligned, the Tar Heels will have to spend some time preparing to play under them by working punt and kickoff returns, along with normal offensive and defensive things, to make sure the players are properly adjusted to them.

"One of the things that we need to do as a football team, because we're going to have some night games early in the year, we need to get out and catch underneath those lights, because it really is something that if you've never been back there catching punts and kickoffs and the ball goes into the lights, sometimes you might not be able to track it and see it," said Davis. "You've got to see it fall it out of the lights a little bit and see if there are any issues with that. That's something that we hope to try to do probably next week."







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