2008 North Carolina Preview - Offense
North Carolina WR Hakeem Nicks
North Carolina WR Hakeem Nicks
Posted May 9, 2008

CollegeFootballNews.com 2008 Preview - North Carolina Tar Heel Offense

North Carolina Tar Heels

Preview 2008 - Offense

- 2008 CFN North Carolina Preview | 2008 UNC Offense
- 2008 UNC Defense | 2008 UNC Depth Chart
- 2007 CFN UNC Preview | 2006 CFN UNC Preview 

What you need to know: If not for Duke, North Carolina would be home to the ACC’s worst offense over the last two seasons. The Heels made modest progress in John Shoop’s first season as coordinator, yet still averaged only 21 points a game. Part of the problem can be traced to having a freshman under center and losing presumptive starting RB Barrington Edwards before the season ever started. Neither will be issues in 2008. Carolina welcomes back record-setting QB Yates, who’ll have to cut back on his mistakes to hold off hard-charging Cam Sexton and Mike Paulus. Whoever gets the ball will enjoy throwing to a stocked receiving corps that’s led by Hakeem Nicks, and handing the ball to Greg Little, a sophomore on the verge of a breakthrough season.

Returning Leaders
Passing: T.J. Yates
218-365, 2,655 yds, 14 TD, 18 INT
Rushing: Johnny White
95 carries, 399 yds, 0 TD
Receiving: Hakeem Nicks
74 catches, 958 yds, 5 TD

Star of the offense: Junior WR Hakeem Nicks
Player who has to step up and become a star
: Sophomore RB Greg Little
Unsung star on the rise
: Sophomore TE Zack Pianalto
Best pro prospect
: Nicks
Top three all-star candidates
: 1) Nicks  2) Senior WR Brandon Tate 3) Senior T Garrett Reynolds
Strength of the offense
: The receivers
Weakness of the offense: The offensive line, consistency at quarterback


Projected Starter: Sophomore T.J. Yates already owns the school single-season record for passing yards and completions, but numbers alone won’t earn him another season at the controls. Instead, he’ll need to raise the level of his game after throwing 18 interceptions to go along with 14 touchdown passes and those Carolina-best 2,655 yards. Still somewhat raw in his development, Yates only played two years of high school ball and missed the spring to recover from shoulder surgery. At 6-3 and 205 pounds, he has a nice pocket presence, adequate arm strength, and the footwork needed to play behind the Heels’ sketchy offensive line.            

Projected Top Reserves: Yates’ absence in March and April allowed more reps for junior Cam Sexton and redshirt freshman Mike Paulus to impress the coaching staff. Unlike Yates, Sexton had a rough freshman season in Chapel Hill, throwing twice as many interceptions as touchdowns as a part-time starter. He hasn’t recovered since, but did have a great off-season that included spending time with passing guru Tom Martinez, Tom Brady's personal quarterback coach.  The athletic, 6-1 and 190-pounder is the former starter who’s pushing to get back now, and not just be the No. 2 man in the mix.

Paulus was one of Butch Davis’ first blue-chip recruits of 2007, a 6-5, 215-pound pro-style quarterback that moves surprisingly well when flushed out of the pocket. Blessed with a fantastic arm, he has the physical tools needed to excel in the ACC, but has a lot of ground to make up on two players who have the obvious edge in experience.        

Watch Out For ... somewhere other than Yates to start the opener. The opportunity is there for either Sexton or Paulus to steal the job away from the incumbent.  Sexton has attacked the offseason as if he plans to get the ball when McNeese State visits August. 30, and Paulus has the most upside and physical ability of the three competitors.
Strength: Competition. There isn’t a ton of separation between the three quarterbacks, which means they’ll be pushing each other hard right up until the opener. Collectively, the Tar Heel quarterbacks must improve, and the presence of competition will only hasten the process.
Weakness: Turnovers. Over the last four seasons, North Carolina has thrown a ridiculous 60 interceptions, including 18 by Yates a year ago. If the Tar Heels are truly a program on the rise, it’s imperative that the quarterbacks begin slashing their number of bad reads and forced throws.
Outlook: Although Yates is the guy for now, he won’t be handed the job, especially after getting shut down throughout the spring with the shoulder injury. He’ll have to take it up a notch to stay ahead of hard-charging Sexton and Paulus.
Rating: 6.5

Running Backs

Projected Starters: This time last year, sophomore Greg Little was a rookie wide receiver trying to avoid a redshirt year. Today, he’s the Tar Heels’ feature back and on the verge of a big season. Little switched positions last November, responding with 247 yards and two touchdowns as a starter in the final two games. At 6-3 and 210 pounds, he’s a tremendous all-around athlete that has Butch Davis drawing comparisons to a young Willis McGahee. A thoroughbred who can grind out the tough yards or bust through the line for big plays, Little will also factor heavily into the passing game because of his experience as a receiver.

Strictly a lead blocker that’ll catch the occasional pass out of the backfield, 5-11, 250-pound junior Bobby Rome returns as the starting fullback. A decent blocker that’ll get leverage on his man, he’s had 23 receptions over the past two seasons compared to just seven carries.     

Projected Top Reserves:
Last year’s second-leading rusher, Anthony Elzy, is moving to fullback, where he’ll back up Rome, and provide more of a threat as a runner. The 5-10, 210-pound sophomore ran for 321 yards and five touchdowns on 92 carries, showing good power between the tackles and the hands needed to mimic the H-back in John Shoop’s offense.    

Providing relief to Little will be a pair of pile drivers, 6-2, 255-pound sophomore Ryan Houston and 6-2, 240-pound redshirt freshman Devon Ramsay. Houston saw action as a rookie, rushing for 145 yards and a score on 44 carries, flashing plenty of potential as a short yardage option. If the sophomore is to earn an increased role, he must maintain his fluctuating weight and improve his stamina. Ramsay used his time with the scout team wisely, impressing the staff and getting bigger and stronger in the weight room. Capable of playing fullback as well as handling the carries, he’s also a potential threat to Rome’s playing time.     

Watch Out For ...
an end to the running back by committee that persisted last year. Davis is looking for a workhorse that can handle 20-25 carries a game, a role that’s going to be handled by Little.
Strength: Big backs. None of the Tar Heels’ primary runners are less than 210 pounds, or the type of backs that are going to dance in the hole. Little, and especially Houston and Ramsay, are north-south battering rams that’ll soften defenses and be tough to push back near the goal line.
Weakness: Experience. Little has loads of upside, but he also has just a pair of starts to his name. Elzy is the graybeard, and he’s just a sophomore who’s being moved to fullback.
Outlook: The running game has to make strides after finishing 107th nationally, and failing to produce a 500-yard back. Johnny White and Richie Rich have been shifted to the defensive backfield, a clear signal that the coaching believes Little is ready to be the every-down back, and Houston and Ramsay can provide reliable support in backup roles.
Rating: 6.5


Projected Starters: All but two of last year’s 220 receptions are back in Chapel Hill as the Tar Heels are loaded depth and experience. Holding the banner for the wide receivers is junior Hakeem Nicks, a rising star in this offense and a returning member of the All-ACC Second Team. A physical 6-1, 210-pounder with good deep speed, he had a school-record 74 catches for 958 yards and five touchdowns. If opposing defenses try to double Nicks, seniors Brandon Tate and Brooks Foster will make them pay. Interchangeable parts of the rotation, they’re a pair of field-stretching veterans who can play the role of No. 1 if necessary.

The 6-1, 195-pound Tate, who doubles as one of the ACC’s better return men, caught a career-high 25 passes a year ago for 479 yards and five touchdown catches. Foster was second the team with 29 receptions for 417 yards and a pair of scoring catches. At 6-3 and 205 pounds, he’s the biggest of the primary targets, and a former basketball star who can outleap most defensive backs.

When North Carolina uses a traditional tight end, they’ll call upon
Richard Quinn, who made four catches in eight starts last year. The 6-4, 260-pound senior has decent hands, but has more value to the offense as a third guard in the running game.

Conversely, when the offense inserts an H-Back into the lineup, 6-4, 240-pound sophomore Zack Pianalto will come off the bench. An eight-game starter as a true freshman, he excelled in the Tar Heel passing game, catching 24 passes and earning some Freshman All-America honors.    

Projected Top Reserves: Junior Kenton Thornton has mostly played on special teams the last two seasons, catching eight passes for 87 yards, but will be fighting in the offseason to get on the field in four-wide sets. At 6-4, 230 pounds, he’s built like a tight end, yet moves like a receiver who can make catches in traffic. 

Thornton’s competition for the second unit will come from massive redshirt freshman Rashad Mason, one of the Heels’ prized recruits of 2007. Still looking to improve his technique and route running, he’s a 6-5, 220-pound long ball threat that factors prominently into the future at wide receiver for Carolina.

Watch Out For ... Pianalto. After scratching the surface of his potential as a true freshman, Pianalto is ready to make even better use of a field that’ll be spread out by a dangerous collection of Tar Heel wideouts. A former target of now USC backup Mitch Mustain’s at Springdale (Ark.) High School, he’s an ace pass-catcher that could double his production in 2008.
Strength: Depth at receiver. In Nicks, Tate, and Foster, the Tar Heels have three receivers good enough to start and be the guy at times. Nicks provides star power, while Tate and Foster are outstanding complements who prevent defenses from doubling No. 88.
Weakness: Too much of a reliance on one player. It’s a luxury having a player of Nicks’ caliber, but Carolina still needs to spread out the production in order to keep defenses from stacking one side of the field. After Nicks’ team-high 74 receptions, the next busiest Tar Heel only had 29 grabs.
Outlook: Provided it gets more consistency from the quarterback, this corps of receivers has the potential and experience to be among the best ever in Chapel Hill. Nicks will again be the playmaker on the outside, while Pianalto emerges as a steady drop-off in underneath routes.
Rating: 8

Offensive Linemen

Projected Starters: The Tar Heels lose just one letterman from a group that was overmatched throughout much of the 2007 season. The strength of the unit is on the right side, featuring returning starters Calvin Darity and Garrett Reynolds at guard and tackle, respectively.

After missing time in 2005, Darity has started 24 consecutive games, grading out at 74% with 27 knock-downs as a junior. At 6-3 and 310 pounds, he’s a solid run blocker, but still needs help in pass protection. 

The 6-7, 310-pound Reynolds is coming off the best season of any Carolina lineman, posting a grade of 88% and 51 knock-downs, both team-highs. Blossoming at the right time in his career, he has the potential to close out his senior season on the All-ACC team.

The biggest void is in the middle, where Scott Lenehan ran out of eligibility. The favorite to step into the lineup is junior Lowell Dyer, a heady 6-3, 280-pounder that started six valuable games when Lenehan was injured. More athletic than he is powerful, he’ll struggle against at the point of attack against some of the league’s bigger defensive tackles.

Anchoring the left side of the line is junior tackle Kyle Jolly, a 6-6, 300-pounder who sat out spring to nurse a broken foot. A 12-game starter as a sophomore, he posted a 78% blocking grade to go along with 31 knock-downs. A former tight end with good footwork and athletic ability, he still has work to do before becoming a complete lineman. 

The battle at left guard got interesting when last year’s starter, junior Aaron Stahl, was moved further inside to compete with Dyer. The staff feels Stahl is a better center than guard, which prompted the switch. One option to succeed Stahl is last year’s backup Bryon Bishop, a 6-3, 300-pound senior, who only saw action in two games, and will be pressed hard for playing by a wave of bigger underclassmen with more upside potential.

Projected Top Reserves: At tackle, depth will come from a pair of untested underclassmen, redshirt freshman Carl Gaskins and sophomore Mike Ingersoll. Ingersoll is 6-5 and 295 pounds, and is further along in his development after earning a letter and playing in six games a year ago.  Gaskins has yet to play a down, but also at 6-5 and 295 pounds, has the frame and the athletic ability that has the coaching staff raving about his upside potential. 

Bishop is vulnerable at left guard, meaning there’s an opportunity for sophomore Alan Pelc and redshirt freshman Kevin Bryant to win a job with a strong summer camp. Pelc is a massive, 6-6, 325-pounder that appeared in three games as a rookie. A tenacious blocker who gets a good push on running plays, he brings physicality to the Tar Heel line that’s been sorely lacking. As hard as it is to imagine, Bryant is even bigger, coming in at 6-7 and 350 pounds. A mauler with incredible upper body strength, he’ll be impossible to keep off the field once he gets in better shape and hones his fundamentals. 

Watch Out For ... the kids. While there’s only a jump ball at left guard, the underclassmen, such as Pelc, Bryant, and Ingersoll, are prepared to storm the depth chart and become fixtures on the B team. The coaches love the potential of their neophytes, and won’t be afraid to use them if the first unit underperforms again.
Strength: The right side. The Tar Heels would be wise to do the majority of their running to the right of center, where Reynolds and Darity are evolving into competent blockers on the brink of becoming all-league type players.
Weakness: Consistency. The Carolina line had moments a year ago, but still allowed way too many sacks, while not opening up enough holes for the backs. If the offense is going to have a chance in 2008, this unit has to be markedly more consistent than it was in 2007.
Outlook: If the Tar Heels are going to improve on last year’s mealy 21 points and 325 yards a game, it’ll be up to the line to gel and begin winning a few battles in the trenches. Reynolds is poised to make some noise in his last year, but needs a lot more help from the rest of the unit.  Ideally, the veterans get the job done, while the kids earn letters and valuable reps coming off the bench.
Rating: 6