Recruiting Wars

“Run Gio Run” has become a constant chant that builds and builds each Saturday as we anticipate Gio Bernard accelerating through a hole and with one cut, he’s off to the races.  So it wasn’t too surprising when the Hurricanes of Miami saw up close “Run Gio Run.”  Many times.  A monster performance in Gio’s homecoming (he grew up in Fort Lauderdale and went to nearby St. Thomas Aquinas High School) propelled the Heels to a gutty 18-14 win while knocking Miami from the ranks of the ACC unbeatens (Canes are now 3-1 in league). 

“Gio the Great” rushed 27 times for a grinding as well as electric 177 yards (a 6.6 average) and registered two first half touchdowns.  Additionally, he caught four passes for 36 yards, including a 16 yard, shoe string grab on 4th and 6 that would make even Jerry Rice proud.  That catch kept the momentum going on a key drive and led UNC Coach Larry Fedora to say, “Gio’s a complete player.  Whether it’s pass blocking on protections, catching the ball or running, he’s going to do whatever he can to help us win.”  Coach Fedora calls him complete – I call him the most dynamic player in the ACC this year.  He is running behind an offensive line that ESPN NFL gurus Mel Kiper and Todd McShay have called the best O line in the country so there is a growing chemistry working where the boys up front have Gio’s back and he has theirs. 
Other Florida products wearing the Tar Heel blue made their presence felt on Saturday as well:  LB Tommy Heffernan (Miami, Florida) came up huge with a big time sack on Miami’s final drive and continues to be a new fan favorite with his underdog story and tough play; Tre Boston (Fort Myers, Florida) had a huge game and highlighted great Tar Heel secondary play with one pick and another one called back due to a questionable pass interference call.  Boston is one of three UNC defensive backs from the great state of Florida with the final spot being occupied by Virginia product Tim Scott.  Boston knew what to expect when he said, ”South Florida boys can run, and that’s exactly what I am,” and indeed our defensive skill players were stride for stride with Miami’s running backs and receivers.
So as trilled as I am by getting our first road win in Miami, I’m also excited about what this does for the game within the game.  W’s like this help give Coach Fedora and his staff an upper hand when it comes to the game of recruiting.  Coach Fedora has stated on record very clearly that his first and foremost goal in recruiting is to put a barbwire fence around the state of North Carolina and make sure that the most talented prospects from this state commit to the flagship University in North Carolina where they will have the opportunity to experience what I did six years ago – the magic of being a Tar Heel and everything that it stands for.  I am 100% on board with this strategy but, at the same time, you cannot ignore the hot beds of talent that sit in close proximity to us in Florida and Virginia respectively.  With two great back-to-back wins over perennial Coastal Division  juggernauts Virginia Tech and Miami, Fedora and his staff will have a great selling tool and recruiting momentum when they enter the living rooms of high school prospects this off-season to sell them on the dreams of where this program is going.  The culture change of Carolina Football has been front and center the last two weeks in the ACC and people are taking notice.  You can see below that our current starters have a strong Virginia and especially Florida background and I know we will build on this going forward.   
LT – James Hurst (Plainfield, IN)
LG – Jonathan Cooper (Wilmington, NC)
C – Russell Bodine (Scottsville, VA)
RG – Travis Bond (Windsor, NC)
RT – Brennan Williams (West Roxburry, MA
TE – Eric Ebron (Greensboro, NC)
QB – Bryn Renner (West Springfield, VA)
TB – Giovani Bernard (Fort Lauderdale, FL)
WR – Erik Highsmith (Vanceboro, NC)
WR – Sean Tapley (Jacksonville, FL)
WR – Quinshad Davis (Gaffney, SC)
DE – Kareem Martin (Roanoke Rapids, VA)
DT – Sylvester Williams (Jefferson City, MO)
NT – Tim Jackson (St. Petersburg, FL)
BANDIT – Dion Guy (Washington, D.C)
WILL – Travis Hughes (Virginia Beach, VA) / Tommy Heffernan (Miami, FL)
MIKE – Kevin Reddick (New Bern, NC)
RAM – Gene Robinson (Memphis, TN)
CB – Jabari Price (Pompano Beach, FL)
SS – Tre Boston (Fort Myers, FL)
FS – Sam Smiley (Jacksonville, FL)
CB – Tim Scott (Fredericksburg, VA)
Next stop:  Duke under the lights, protect the Victory Bell at all cost!!
Smart. Fast. Physical.

Art's Angle: A Win For Losing


A lot has happened since Carolina last won a football game before Saturday’s 27-6 victory over East Carolina.
UNC lost its chief fund-raiser, a former star quarterback who flew the coop with the mother of the school’s most decorated basketball player.
UNC lost a chancellor, who resigned effective at the end of the school year over the distractions his embattled office was causing.
And UNC hoped not to lose, even for a single practice, its beloved basketball coach, who had one of two tumors removed from his kidneys.
While all this was going on, UNC had lost its best football player with whom the Tar Heels would not have avoided all of the above but might have won two games and be standing 4-0 today instead of 2-2.
It’s been one helluva a fortnight.
All is certainly not right with the world after Carolina shook off its third straight sluggish start and put away the Purple Pirates from down east with its third straight shutout third quarter and improved second half performance.   
But with Giovani Bernard back at tailback and Bryn Renner continuing to leapfrog other quarterbacks in the UNC record books, the Tar Heels are in a position to peel the winless Idaho potatoes this week and be ready for their “white out” effort against big, bad Virginia Tech on October 6, both games in Kenan Stadium.
Coach Larry Fedora’s first team remained undefeated at home by trying to get Gio and his healed knee back in shape despite the Pirates loading up the box with as many as nine defenders. It lead to a ho-hum first half in which both teams had trouble scoring points and subdued the sun-baked crowd of nearly 60,000 hoping for a continuation of Carolina’s sensational second half at Louisville last week.
The first 30 minutes ended with Casey Barth, UNC’s record-setting placekicker who owns the most field goals in UNC history and would eventually set the new PAT mark as well, missing a chip shot from 34 yards right in front of the moaning Tar Pit students. It was Barth’s first miss of the season after 16 makes.
Fedora denies that he delivers a Rockne rendition at halftime, but the Tar Heels again came out to dominate both ends of the field, scoring two touchdowns that put the game away and improve UNC’s aggregate score in the third quarter to 52-0 on the season. They added a field goal in the fourth, running their summative second-half to 79-10.
Bernard was not Elonesque, but he did have 102 total yards and two touchdowns without returning a single punt. The real story of the game was Carolina’s special teams that backed up the Pirates throughout the second half, recording seven sacks of ECU’s young QB Shane Carden, and Renner finally burning the encroaching ECU defense and going over the top to finish with 321 yards and moving into third place on UNC’s all-time touchdown pass list even though he’s only played in 17 games. At this rate, he’ll surpass in two full seasons what T.J. Yates took four to accomplish. And Renner had more than 100 yards of passes dropped, including a bomb that slipped through the hands of WR Erik Highsmith, who had his man beaten down the left side (he had eight others that he caught).
Renner, who entered the game leading the nation in touchdown passes, can be called a masterpiece (instead of work) in progress. He’s still learning Fedora’s fast-break offense, making mistakes as he goes while accumulating amazing stats. He’s really a pro-style passer trying to adjust to the so-called “Fed Spread” and looks destined to be playing in the NFL someday. Saturday, at least, he just looked like a damn good college quarterback.
As long they as they keep score, especially in this worrisome period of untimely departures at UNC, a boring win is always better than an exciting loss.

Let's Commit

Above each locker in the UNC football locker room, there is a nameplate. Beside each nameplate there is a sign that reads either “resistant,” “existent,” “compliant,” “committed,” or “compelled.” These labels were derived for each player based on coaches’ evaluations of their level of effort shown in pre-season workouts and practices. The titles are pretty self-explanatory: a player who has shown a dedication to self-improvement and has contributed to the collective progress of the team is deemed “committed” or “compelled”, while a player who has shown little or no work ethic is given a less flattering designation.
In watching Saturday’s game at Louisville, I could only wonder what these evaluations would look like if they were to be updated for the halftime locker room based on the day’s performance. For much of the game, the Heels looked as if they could barely be considered “existent.”

Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and the Cardinals’ offense seemed to score at will, averaging nearly ten yards per play in the first half. The Tar Heel secondary was ripe with missed defensive assignments, allowing Bridgewater to find more than his fair share of open targets. This was only ameliorated by the fact that the defensive line appeared entirely disinterested at the prospect of having to shed their blockers in order to make a tackle. Describing Carolina’s defense as porous would be a drastic understatement. The UNC offense was little better, putting up just seven points in the first thirty minutes of play.  

Of course, those of us who demonstrated the intestinal fortitude to continue watching into the second half saw a completely different story begin to unfold.

In stark contrast to their lethargic first half performance, the Heels began to make plays. The defense came alive, swarming to the ball and shoring up what had earlier been gaping running lanes for Louisville. In stopping the run and putting greater defensive pressure on the quarterback, Carolina was able to hold the Cardinals to just 3 second half points.

In a similar fashion, Bryn Renner and the Tar Heel offense finally began to resemble the cohesive unit that was on display September 1st against Elon. Renner finished the game with 5 touchdown passes and tailback Romar Morris played like a man on fire, earning ACC Receiver of the Week honors for his 202 all-purpose yards, 2 touchdowns, and block of a Louisville punt.

In the end, however, it was just another tale of too little too late. Watching as Renner’s fourth-and-goal pass was wrenched from Erik Highsmith’s outstretched hands, I, along with everyone else, could only wonder where this Carolina team had been in the first half. Where was this intensity? Where was the passion? Better yet, where was the commitment?

This was still in the forefront of my mind as I walked past the Old Well on my way to class Monday morning. I didn’t think twice when I passed the news van parked in front of South Building: in the midst of the media circus of recent months, rarely a week has gone by without at least one news crew adding to congestion on Cameron Avenue. Little did I know this particular van would come to represent the close to a tumultuous chapter for the Carolina family.

I was in Spanish class when the news officially broke that Chancellor Thorp would be stepping down.  And so now, it seemed, the purge of the former system was to be complete. From Butch Davis, to Dick Baddour, and now to Holden Thorp, the situation had come full circle.

Without getting into the politics of the matter (and believe me, there’s one heck of a discussion to be had), it’ll suffice to say that the slate has been cleaned. It’s been incredibly disheartening to see a place that I love so dearly to be ravaged by scandal, but I refuse to allow my opinion of this institution to be permanently swayed by the dishonest actions of a few. The damage has been done and now we must move forward.

If we are to right our wrongs (both athletic and academic) as a University, it will take a concerted effort. As I hope Larry Fedora explained to his team at halftime on Saturday, it is not enough to be simply “existent” or “compliant.” True progress requires more than mere compliance: it necessitates commitment. Whether we like it or not, we have our clean slate. I’m confident we know how to keep it that way.

'Go, Romar, Go!'

Let’s discuss what happened in the first half Saturday at the Papa John’s Pizza Palace in Louisville.

Either the Tar Heels were still hung over from their disappointing loss last week at Wake Forest (which by the way got waxed by Florida State 52-0 earlier Saturday) and hurting by not having Gio B. and J. Boyd on the team plane to Kentucky.
Or defensive coaches Dan Disch and Vic Koenning out-schemed themselves by attacking the explosive Cardinals so hard that the Tar Heels ran right by the Louisville blockers, runners and receivers and let them build up a 36-7 lead at halftime.

“We made some adjustments and simplified some things,” head coach Larry Fedora said after the game, not going any further in his explanation. He could have meant that his defenders were less aggressive, contained their respective areas and knocked anybody down who came by. Who knows about such coach speak anyway?


Fedora did allow what was obvious to anyone watching — that energy, effort, passion and execution were lacking and that he asked everyone in uniform to play as hard as he possibly could on every down in the second half. Of course, he added, that’s what they should have been doing on every play in the first half.

To Fedora’s credit, his team did not throw in the towel, got some early momentum in the third quarter and turned the game around so dramatically that the Louisville players who had swaggered through the first 30 minutes spent the last few anxiously watching the clock while Carolina scored touchdowns, blocked kicks and forced fumbles to crawl within one TD of the greatest comeback in UNC history.
Everything is still not settled in Fedora’s first year of the fast-break offense and attacking 4-2-5 defense. And it probably won’t be through much of the season. But the team that hung its collective head leaving Winston-Salem last week had no reason to do so boarding the plane home this week. And my guess is East Carolina will be worse off for it when the Tar Heels take the field again this Saturday.
Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater entered the game completing 82 percent of his passes and improved that number by hitting 23 of 28, including three touchdowns in the first half when the uncontested Cardinals scored on all six of their possessions to send the third-largest crowd in Louisville history out for more pizza and beer.
But by game’s end, Bridgewater was the second-best quarterback on the field, with Carolina’s Bryn Renner connecting for five TDs and more total yards as the Tar Heels made linguini of the Louisville defense to win the second half 27-3.
With Giovanni Bernard (bad knee) and Jheranie Boyd (bad foot) not making the trip, the Tar Heels made full-fledged stars of freshman Romar Morris, who caught TD passes, ran the ball like a bullet and blocked a punt when Carolina had to have it; and walk-on weak-side linebacker Tommy Heffernan, who looks like a long-haired hippie from the 70s but played more like Clay Matthews on this day with 12 tackles.
Morris, in fact, was so brilliant with the ball after he caught it that Tar Heel Sports Network play-by-play man Jones Angell was yelling, “Go, Romar, Go!” on his 50-yard TD scamper with Renner’s short pass. Angell may have coined a phrase that will be echoing off the pines at Kenan for years to come. “Go, Romar, Go!”

It was great to see whatever Fedora and his staff said and/or did at halftime work to the point where a contested two-point conversion could have brought Carolina within three points. And despite a bad snap from center and a false start on the very last drive, it still came down to UNC’s final, fourth-down play. At halftime, the game was so lost that viewers and listeners must have turned off their devices by hordes and most of the home crowd was still having a slice and a Coke when someone said, “Holy, pepperoni, we could blow this one!”

After Erik Highsmith stretched but could not hold Renner’s last pass, and the Louisville players who won 39-34 looked like they had lost, the outcome completed an upside down day in the week that Notre Dame left the Big East for the ACC. Louisville’s victory was the third Big East-ACC game that went the way of the Irish’s old league while they beat Michigan State of the Big Ten, the conference that wouldn’t take them without their football team. What all that means, only the leprechaun knows, but here’s a suggestion for Carolina if we’re changing the natural order of things anyway.
Beginning next week against the Purple Pirates of Greenville, play the second half first. The Tar Heels have outscored their first three opponents 61-10 after halftime. With that kind of head start, even the pizza delivery guy won’t be late.

Heartbreak Heels

Larry Fedora got his first taste of the ACC, playing on Tobacco Road and, unfortunately, the culture that has dogged Carolina football for a long time. It may take him three cans of Red Bull to help him swallow all of it.
Sure, the Tar Heels withstood an hour storm delay in a small visitors’ locker room, sat out Giovanni Bernard with a still-sore knee and played with a dinged up center and ding-donged quarterback after Bryn Renner had his bell rung in the second quarter of the 28-27 loss at Wake Forest.
But despite uneven play all afternoon that included eight penalties and a bunch of other miscues, they still had the game in hand and could not finish the job. That has happened to so many Carolina football teams over the last 15 years that the Tar Heels have not won more than eight games in any season since 1997. And, if you watch the NFL, you know how many players they have sent into pro football during that span.
Man, this one was a heartbreaker for a new coach trying to help us forget old reminders. Fedora’s team mangled his mantra by playing not so fast, TOO physical at times and not very smart at all. Hopefully, this can be one giant teaching moment for Fedora and his staff because if you can truly learn from defeat this was the mother lode of losses.
Carolina actually played gallantly for much of the afternoon in Winston–Salem, taking the lead on Eric Ebron’s acrobatic TD catch in the first quarter and shutting down the Deacons for all but the last five minutes of the second half. But when it came down to making the drive-sustaining or drive-stopping plays, the Heels were as imperfect as they looked perfect last week against little ol’ Elon.
In the second quarter, with a 7-point lead, cornerback Jabari Price made a great tackle for loss that set up a third-and-long for the Deacons. Wake’s lefty QB Tanner Price, who proved sensational all day, hit his favorite receiver Michael Campanaro over the middle for a gain that was short of the first down.
The 5-11 Campanaro, Wake Forest’s Wes Welker who finished with 13 catches for 164 yards, begged the officials for a horse-collar penalty on the play and got it. A few downs later, Price picked up a dribbled snap and took the broken play in for the tying touchdown.
The Tar Heels went back in front on a drive, ironically, that could have cost them the game. Renner ran right and a saw a seam to the end zone. But his teammates did not hold their blocks long enough and the Deacons pan caked Renner into what looked like a concussion. He, in fact, waved to the bench for help right after going down. Marquise Williams came in on fourth down and gave it to A.J. Blue for the score. The converted quarterback ran for 106 yards starting for Bernard
After Wake tied the game again, a woozy Renner returned for the next series and while getting hit from behind lost the ball, which Wake turned into a touchdown that provided a 21-14 lead at halftime. The Deacs even obliged the Heels by missing two tries at a field goal as the half ended.
“We really didn’t do anything different at halftime,” a perturbed Fedora said after the game. “It was more of an attitude adjustment. Just go out there and play.”
Play better. And they did, dominating the third quarter with 13 unanswered points and a hundred-yard advantage over the declining Deacs. After freshman Romar Morris, who had 70 yards subbing for Blue, tied the game, the Heels were back in the red zone twice and could only come away with field goals. If either were a touchdown, Wake could not have won.
In fact, after Tim Scott’s interception of Price’s only mistake on the day, the Heels were inside the five when WR Erik Highsmith grabbed the man he was blocking and was called for a holding penalty that pushed Carolina back 10 yards.
So Casey Barth tied his brother Connor for the most FGs in UNC history. When he surpassed him with his next kick, it gave the Tar Heels a six-point lead and their fans who know about Wake Forest at home a stomach ache because the Deacons were still within a touchdown of winning. Wake Coach Jim Grobe has won 61 times on his team’s last two possessions, and he is now 13-2 at home against his three Tobacco Road rivals.

Thrice Carolina got the ball back with that six-point lead and had to punt it away each time. The defense stifled the Deacs, as well, and it looked like the Heels would hang on to go 2-0 on the season.

But then came boners that will have Fedora chewing on his Red Bull can, like the facemask penalty that helped Wake keep its 93-yard winning drive going after Tommy Hibbard’s punt and Kevin Reddick’s tackle pinned the Deacs at their own seven with 5 minutes to play.
And, after Wake scored to go ahead, the personal foul penalty on the kickoff that pushed Carolina back from its 25 to its 12½. From the 25, Renner had a decent shot of picking up the 40 or so yards to put Barth in range to try the winner. But in the shadow of his own goal line, Renner was target practice for the blitzing back shirts.
The Tar Heels were good aggressive for much of the game, sending a number of Wake players to the sideline including star nose guard Nikita Whitlock. But they weren’t always fast enough against a confusing Deacons’ defense and, clearly, not smart enough to avoid the critical penalties, missed tackles and botched blocks.
“You can’t cry over it,” Fedora said, “ you’ve just got to get ready for the next one (at 23rd ranked Louisville Saturday) and hope you learn from your mistakes.”
We can cry over this one, coach, because we’ve seen the ending before.

Smart. Fast. Physical.

“Understand that if you go up to get a drink, you just missed a Tar Heel touchdown” is what Head Coach Larry Fedora promised the Tar Heel faithful when he took the helm last December, and, boy, did his Heels deliver on Saturday with a dominating 62-0 winning performance against Elon. 

Coach Fedora and his staff have given us a peek at his aggressive offensive scheme and it’s exactly what Tar Heel Nation has been starving for.  The Heels set an ACC punt return yards record with 260 yards, which were split among dynamic playmaker Gio Bernard, track star Roy Smith and the senior leader of the group, Erik Highsmith.  Add these 260 yards to the dominating 524 total yards of “basketball on grass offense,” and it was a long, hot day for the Phoenix at beautiful Kenan Stadium. 
As a player, there is nothing better than opening up the season in front of your home crowd, running through the Tar Pit section and knowing that you are about to square off with another guy for 60 minutes.  The feeling of confidence and knowing that you are going to be successful against an inferior opponent makes it all that much sweeter, especially in such a violent game like the one so many of us love to play or watch!  There is no better feeling than to look across the line of scrimmage and know that your opponent is too tired to compete with you, too worn down to get off your block, too slow to cover your route or too fatigued to tackle you. 

As they look to their sideline for a substitution, your sense of pride can almost beat right through your chest and shoulder pads.  While there have been some brief conversations from non-UNC media outlets about whether or not the Heels ran the score up on Elon, as a former player, the “foot on the gas mentality” is the mindset that must be embraced from the moment you enter a program and it instills confidence in players, coaches and fans alike.   

Sylvester Williams put it perfectly when he stated after Saturday’s game that “As a whole unit, we put in a lot of work over the summer. Coach always told us, ‘You put money in the bank (over the summer), then on September 1st you take it out.”’ – ( UNC Athletics Communication). 

With temperatures in the mid 90’s and reports of 20 incidents of heat related issues at Kenan Stadium, there would have been plenty of opportunities for the Heels to “turn it down” (quit playing) with a huge early lead and an overwhelmed opponent.  Instead, the Heels continued to run the “NASCAR” type offense and the attacking style defense which we all hope will show the fan base that we are here to play in 2012 amidst all of the dwindling outside controversy.  By doing this, they sent a message to the country, to the ACC and, most importantly, to the teams on our schedule, that playing the Tar Heels this year is not something to look forward to. 
Smart. Fast. Physical.  This is Coach Fedora’s blueprint for success, and the new era of a great football program has officially begun…

You better stay in your seat; it’s going to be a great ride with a lot of Touchdowns!