CHAPEL HILL — Between the records and SportsCenter highlights, receiver Hakeem Nicks was the face of North Carolina football by the end of the 2008 season.
With Nicks now in the NFL, the first-round pick of the New York Giants, the Tar Heels need a new identity, and it's probably going to be on the other side of the football.
The defense returns nine starters, including four NFL prospects, and it will likely take center stage for the 21st-ranked Heels this season, starting with Saturday's opener against The Citadel. That's a responsibility the defense welcomes, senior defensive end E.J. Wilson said.
"If need be, we have the talent, we have the depth, and we have the experience to carry this team," Wilson said.
Wilson is one of four starters back on the defensive line, which also returns all four backups and adds highly touted freshman end Donte Paige-Moss.
Safety Deunta Williams, cornerback Kendric Burney, linebacker Bruce Carter, linebacker Quan Sturdivant and Wilson are entering their third season together as starters.
Williams, Carter, Sturdivant and defensive tackle Marvin Austin are all high enough on scouts' draft boards to be NFL prospects. The talent is there, UNC coach Butch Davis said, but there's one piece that's missing.
"Consistency," Davis said. "At any given time there were pieces of the defense that played brilliant. We've got to put those [pieces] together for 60 minutes."
In the statistical categories that matter most to Davis -- points allowed and take aways -- UNC's defense improved last season. But in terms of yardage allowed, the unit ranked near the bottom of the ACC and bottom half of the national rankings.
The Heels were 32nd nationally in scoring defense, allowing 21.2 points per game, and 20th in takeaways, forcing 29 turnovers.
The yards allowed were more plentiful, particularly on pass defense. The Heels ranked 84th nationally and 11th in the ACC in passing yardage, giving up 226 yards per game. The passing yardage knocked their total defense numbers down to 64th in the country and 11th in the ACC with 365.4 total yards per game.
The passing numbers don't necessarily bother Davis, a defensive coach by trade. For example, Notre Dame threw for 383 yards, the most UNC allowed last season, and lost. Virginia Tech and Maryland threw for only 141 yards, and both beat the Tar Heels.
The secondary must replace strong safety Trimane Goddard, who was among the national leaders with seven interceptions. But Davis doesn't blame all the passing yardage on the defensive backs.
"We've got to do a better job rushing the passer," Davis said.
UNC registered just 22 sacks last season, which ranked 11th in the ACC and 80th nationally.
One reason for the relatively low number is Davis prefers to generate pressure with the four defensive linemen, instead of a multitude of blitzes.
The other factor is the defensive line didn't react well to mobile quarterbacks. N.C. State's Russell Wilson threw for 279 yards and two touchdowns in a 41-10 victory. West Virginia's Pat White rolled up 332 yards and three touchdowns in UNC's 31-30 bowl loss.
Both of those big-yardage games came at the end of the season, which Wilson said has served as motivation this offseason.
"It's more mental than it is physical," Wilson said. "We have the athletes, and now we have the experience; we have to do the mental things it takes to be a great defense."
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