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August 15, 2011Following the first of two practices on Monday, North Carolina head coach Everett Withers talked about his team and where he thinks the team is at a week and a half into training camp.
Withers spoke highly of Saturday's scrimmage, which was played in rainy conditions that allowed the team to get quite a bit of unique work.
"I thought Saturday was really productive," Withers said. "One of the things that was really good about Saturday was we got some weather---some wet weather. It forced us to do a good job of holding the ball. I think we only had one ball on the ground."
"It forced us to kick in the rain, and it gave us an opportunity to work on some things that sometimes you have to manufacture, and we didn't have to do it," he added.
The scrimmage was scripted play-by-play and the ball was placed at strategic locations, and the primary goal was to evaluate the team's roster.
"We scripted the downs and distances, and we wanted to see what we wanted to see," Withers said. "It's more of a personnel evaluation than a scrimmage to see how your offense and defense is doing. It's more of a personnel evaluation."
"All we're doing right now is evaluating," Withers added. "We're just trying to figure out who the guys are just so we have a good pool we can use. We're going to need a lot of them during the season. We're just trying so evaluate them daily."
One of the players that made a significant impact on Saturday was redshirt freshman Giovani Bernard, although he suffered another minor setback in the process.
"Gio was awesome in the scrimmage. it was great to see him carry the ball in live action and watch him make plays. What we have to do now is be smart and take care of him," he said.
A UNC official confirmed Monday morning at practice that Bernard had suffered a non-displaced fracture of his left hand on Saturday, requiring a cast but no surgery and no significant time lost.
"He (Bernard) hurt it in the early part of the scrimmage," Withers said. "If we had to play in a game, Gio could play in a game. Right now he has a non-displaced fracture of that hand. But if he had to play, he could play."
"I'm sure of the length on it, but I just know if we had to play a game, he could line up and play. We'll have to use some protective padding on it, but he'll be able to play," he added.
Bernard and senior Ryan Houston were both seen at Monday morning's workout in orange 'no contact' jerseys, and were being held out of live portions of the session.
"I think Ryan Houston is progressing just like we need him to. We need to take care of Ryan and Gio the same," Withers said. "I know one thing---both of those guys will be better players because of them being on our football team."
With Houston and Bernard both out of the live portions of Monday's practice, the repetitions with the first and second team were going to guys like A.J. Blue, Travis Riley, and Romar Morris.
"What it does (with Houston and Bernard limited), it gives us an opportunity to work some other guys and get some other guys well," Withers said.
"Travis has done a great job. Travis is one of those guys that gives us a bigger body back there running the ball. He's learning and growing every day, and we're excited about Travis."
"I've been really impressed with A.J.," Withers continued. "A.J. is what I remember from a couple of springs ago, when we had him at tailback. He's just learning."
"When you're a quarterback and you move back to tailback, you've got to learn to run with your pad level down and those type things, but he's been working his tail off, and we've been excited."
Although Bernard and Houston aren't taking live shots in practice this week, they are both moving with full activity in certain drills and are taking collisions without being fully tackled to the ground.
"I believe the way we practice, we practice everything but going to the ground," Withers said. "So they get 'thudded' in practice. They get hit at practice. So ball security is an issue every day they go into practice. They're used to holding and grasping the ball. I don't think it's an issue once you go into the game."
"The only difference is they're not laying on the ground and getting up off the ground."
The Tar Heels have welcomed back defensive end Donte Paige-Moss to practice after a brief absence last week, and they're also getting true freshman safety Brandon Ellerbe up to speed after he missed the first week awaiting NCAA clearance.
"Yeah, Donte had a couple good practices this past week. He did some good things in the scrimmage," Withers said.
"Donte is just a guy we have to keep going, keep going. He's a talent, and we need him on our football team."
"Brandon just got here. He's growing. He's got a long ways to go. He wasn't here this summer, so he's farther behind than some of the other guys, but I think he'll pick it up and I think he'll be a good factor on this football team," Withers said.
"It's just a matter of him getting in the fold and learning what to do. Any time you're not here in the summer with the rest of your teammates, it's tough when you come back for two-a-days. But he'll catch up fast."
One way Ellerbe can catch up fast is by following the example of a player like junior defensive tackle Sylvester Williams, who continues to get high praise for the way he comes to practice and works.
"Just his everyday work ethic---Sylvester is one of those guys that comes to work every single day," Withers said. "I've been around many guys that come around and play consistently and work hard."
"Not that he (Williams) does everything right every time, but he does them with an intent and a purpose, and I think it impresses the rest of our football team."
Shifting to offense, Withers talked about the situation at tight end and the progression of true freshman wide receiver T.J. Thorpe.
Although he's getting pushed by a bevy of players---including a couple of true freshmen---junior Nelson Hurst is holding his own, and with each passing day it appears he'll be the starter for UNC at tight end when they take the field September 3 against James Madison.
"I think Hurst is our 'one.' (at tight end)," Withers said.
While Nelson is staking his claim as the starter, it appears a certainty that several other Tar Heels are going to get snaps at tight end and H-Back depending on the formation John Shoop employs on a given play.
"The thing I like about that group, there's three or four talented guys. You talk about Sean Fitzpatrick, Christian Wilson, Eric Ebron just keeps showing up."
"What we've got to do is get those guys a role and get those guys something that they can do that they can do fast, and they can help our football team," Withers said.
Thorpe is currently working with the second team at wide receiver, and he's one of several players getting a look at punt and kickoff returner.
A former star specialist in high school who tied the NCHSAA state career record for kickoff returns for touchdowns, Thorpe stands a good chance of helping UNC out in a lot of ways this fall.
"I think he (Thorpe) has got an opportunity (to play)," Withers said. "It's all about evaluation and how things shake out this week, and then we (the coaches) will start putting together a depth chart, and hopefully T.J. can be a part of that and help us on teams."
In the past UNC has relied heavily on its secondary and linebackers on special teams---and they will again this fall---but Withers says that he's looking to find guys among the wide receivers that can help as well.
Guys like Thorpe.
"With the wide receiver group, I challenged those guys that we need more wide receivers on our special teams. That's going to be a big, big thing. We're going to need those guys to help us on teams," he said.
Withers concluded Monday morning's discussion by talking about the recent decision to hire David Thornton, former Tar Heel linebacker and longtime NFL veteran, as Carolina's Director of Player Development.
Withers first worked with Thornton when they were both with the Tennessee Titans five years ago, and is excited to see what he'll do to help the Tar Heels this fall.
"Here's a guy that's been around this program. He's played here. He came here as a walk-on, earned a scholarship, struggled academically early, got his academic situation in hand, was drafted, played in the NFL."
"He's done what all these guys are trying to do," Withers said of Thornton.
"So we're going to use him in ways with player development, with being a mentor to some these guys that have that same kind of (NFL future) path working for them. We'll use David in a lot of different ways."