CHAPEL HILL — Butch Davis sounds like a coach when he talks about turnovers.
"It's the one, greatest, biggest difference between winning and losing," Davis said.
North Carolina has reason to listen to its coach when he starts preaching on the topic. In 2007, UNC finished with a minus-6 turnover margin and a 4-8 record. In 2008, the Heels improved to a plus-6 and finished 8-5.
The turnover discrepancy is even more revealing in UNC's wins and losses in 2008. The Heels were plus-18 in their eight wins and minus-12 in their five losses.
Safety Deunta Williams said the defense listens to Davis when he talks about turnovers.
"We get the big picture," said Williams, who had three interceptions last season.
The Heels' defense finished with 20 interceptions last season, nine more than in 2007. Departed safety Trimane Goddard accounted for seven interceptions, which tied for the ACC and national leads.
On a defense with nine retuning starters, Goddard's strong safety spot is one of the few holes. Junior Da'Norris Searcy will bring a different dimension to the secondary, Williams said.
"He's very physical, a lot more physical than Trimane," Williams said. "He brings his hat."
At 6 feet, 210 pounds, Searcy is an inch taller and and 15 pounds heavier than Goddard.
Junior Matt Merletti had been getting reps at both strong safety and nickelback, but he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during Tuesday afternoon's practice and will miss the season. Junior Jonathan Smith of Durham Hillside will step up into that role.
Davis is confident this year's defense can duplicate the number of takeaways (29) from last season, even without Goddard in the secondary.
"One of the reasons they're good at it is because they're always trying to create turnovers in practice," Davis said.
The flip side of the turnover margin is taking care of the ball on offense. UNC's three quarterbacks combined to throw 12 interceptions in 320 attempts. Starter T.J. Yates threw just four picks in 135 attempts.
Fumbling, especially late in the season, was more of a problem. UNC lost 11 fumbles, four by running back Shaun Draughn in the final three games.
Draughn has been working in practice on holding onto the ball. The extra drills alone won't cut down on the turnovers, Draughn said.
"It's a mentality," Draughn said. "You have to want to hold onto the ball. You can't put your team in a bind."
The Heels reduced their giveaways from 28 to 23 last season. That number can be lowered, Davis said, with better decision making and conscious effort to protect the ball.
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