Young Heels get their chance

North Carolina will be missing 13 players tonight when the Tar Heels open a much-anticipated but tempered season in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff in Atlanta.

staff writerSeptember 4, 2010 

— The organizers of the Chick-fil-A Kickoff used North Carolina's preseason depth chart when they printed flip cards for the media for tonight's game against Louisiana State. They won't be able recoup the value of the paper.

Thirteen players will miss the game, decimating UNC's depth chart - the defense has only four available starters from the August projection. Seven players were ruled ineligible for tonight's game for violating NCAA and/or team rules. Another six players were withheld from traveling while investigations continue, and on Friday night two others were cleared to make the trip.

Members of the football team have been under scrutiny for possible improper contacts with sports agents and possible academic misconduct.

Out for tonight, and perhaps even longer, are seven seniors from a group that has been playing regularly since coach Butch Davis' first game in 2007.

Three of the players - defensive end Robert Quinn, defensive tackle Marvin Austin and safety Deunta Williams - ranked by ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. as among the best NFL prospects at their respective positions, did not travel with the team on Friday.

UNC will be missing nine of the 23 players on its preseason defensive depth chart and a total of 163 career starts.

So who does that leave?

Defensive tackle Tydreke Powell, end Quinton Coples and linebackers Kevin Reddick, Bruce Carter and Quan Sturdivant are the only returning starters eligible. Carter and Sturdivant did not travel with the team but were cleared to join the team on Friday night and play in the game.

On the defensive line, Coples moved to defensive tackle at the start of camp to replace Austin, who has been at the center of the NCAA investigation into sports agents and was suspended indefinitely on Thursday for violating team rules. Quinn's absence opens up an opportunity for young, highly-recruited but inexperienced players to get their first starts. End Donte Paige-Moss was the prize of the 2009 recruiting class but was slowed by discipline problems as a freshman and stuck behind veteran talent. Freshman Kareem Martin will likely get the start at the other end in his first college game.

The ends will need to provide pressure on the quarterback because in UNC's 4-3 scheme, the team doesn't like to blitz. That could change without Quinn, who led the team with 11 sacks, and Austin, who occupied blocks so others could pursue the quarterback.

The secondary is completely revamped, but sophomore corner Mywan Jackson is one of the best athletes on the team and was a star with two interceptions in the spring game. Sophomore safety Gene Robinson is the type of athlete Davis used to regularly produce at Miami. They're stepping in for two players - cornerback Kendric Burney and Williams - who have 76 career starts between them.

On offense, gone for this game are leading receiver Greg Little (62 catches, 724 yards) and leading rushers Ryan Houston (713 yards, nine TDs) and Shaun Draughn (567). Little, like Austin, had been phased out of the starting lineup because of the investigation which meant more first-team reps for sophomores Erik Highsmith and Jheranie Boyd.

But both Boyd and Highsmith are downfield receivers more capable of making the big play than the tough catch over the middle. That will mean an expanded role for tight end Zack Pianalto, who had 33 catches last season in nine games.

The running game will have to rely on Johnny White, a senior, and Hunter Furr, a sophomore. White, who was consistently praised for his outstanding training camp, had a 40-yard touchdown run in the regular-season finale but also has had issues with fumbles.

A bigger task for the offense is how its role changes in the bigger picture. UNC was a defense-first, defense-last team in 2009, allowing less than 20 points in seven of its eight wins. Without that experience and talent on defense, UNC is going to have to win games with its offense, which ranked 108th last season in total yardage.

That's a new formula, with a new cast of players, that UNC will essentially have to master overnight. Against an SEC team? That's a tall order.

jp.giglio@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8938

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