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August 30, 2009

Game day is almost here

For many die-hard Carolina football fans, the anticipation of UNC becoming a legitimate power again has not stopped building since Butch Davis took the job as head coach in November of 2006.

"I've been pleasantly surprised and pleased at the passion and enthusiasm of the fans," Davis said. "We've had sellout crowds two years in a row."

Watching the players respond so positively, even in a 4-8 season to start the Davis era, to watching the team overcome what should have been devastating injuries a year ago to finish 8-5, to the recruiting and spring practices in which the excitement has been fed by the promise of more talent and experience, fans have eagerly devoured every bit of news and looked ahead to yet another season.

"The recruiting has gone well," Davis said. "We've had players who have come in and bought into the system. The kids we inherited … they wanted to be winners. They wanted to go out winners. That really helped us accelerate the pace."

As Davis said, most fans have responded with a great show of support. This year, the first three games are sold out, and the excitement has been obvious throughout training camp. Now game day is almost here.

Carolina will open the season at home at 6 p.m. on Saturday against The Citadel.

Davis is an intelligent man. He knew about the talk that Carolina was a basketball-only school, and there is no doubt he's had to work on revitalizing the football family at UNC after the program had been hammered into the ground for 10 years.

But he has also discovered there are a lot of people who love Carolina football and want to see the Tar Heels win big in this sport as well.

"We're all faced with changing the culture of your building," Davis said, "creating an atmosphere that it is about winning. It's about having the type of football team that you want to have. We had some significant hurdles to overcome.

"We were dramatically under-talented in 2007, and two recruiting classes later we're a little bit better."

The question that hovers over this team like a sky full of clouds is how much better? The defense appears to be potentially dominant. The offense is littered with unknowns.

The dominance on defense should begin with a line that really ought to match any team's in the country this side of Norman, Okla, Gainsville, Fla., Los Angeles or Austin, Texas.

"They have a chance to carry the message for the whole defense, to set the tone and to help your offensive line and tight end by having to block against those guys," Davis of his defensive line. "They've pushed themselves. They've run. They've lost a lot of weight. I think they are right where they need to be."

As a former defensive line coach himself, Davis believes that group should beone of the cornerstones for any great team.

"From a tenacity standpoint, you want four guys who are playing at a high level, flying around, making plays, carrying the mantra that they are going to play well as the whole defense," Davis said.

The players insist this defense is for real. Just ask starting quarterback T.J. Yates, who has to play against those guys every day in practice, especially early in training camp when the first-string defense faces the first-string offense more often than during the regular season.

"Our defense is so much better than they were last year," Yates said. "We have so much team speed. Our defensive line, they have like three starting lines. It's definitely a challenge each day to go against them."

One constant in the first two seasons under Davis is win or lose, the Tar Heels usually play close games. So many have been decided by less than touchdown, often a field goal or less.

Turnovers, whether forced, such as against Notre Dame last season, or given away, such as the critical fumble against West Virginia, have made a huge difference.

There is no reason to believe this team will not find itself in many of those same situations. Down the road, as the Tar Heels recruit better and better athletes, and they gain even more experience under Davis and his staff, Carolina may be able to win more games by greater margins. For now, though, everyone concerned will settle for winning, even the fans who have so eagerly awaited the arrival of a national power wearing Carolina uniforms.

"We're still trying to emphasize the special situations that come up in ball game, short yardage, red zone, two-minute drills," Davis said. "We found ourselves in a lot of ball games last year in which we successfully executed the defensive phase of (the two-minute drill) or the offensive phase, such as against Notre Dame where we won the game and against Virginia where we didn't come up as good.

"We've tried to put an emphasis in that particular area."


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