THE SCHEME: The Tar Heels run a pro-style offense that usually includes one-back sets with an H-back at the line of scrimmage.
STAR POWER: Junior wide receiver Hakeem Nicks set a single-season school record with 74 catches last season and also compiled 958 receiving yards – the third-highest total in school history – to earn first-team All-ACC honors from Rivals.com. Nicks ranked second in the ACC in receiving yards per game and should lead a talented and deep receiving corps again this season.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Tailback Jamal Womble could see immediate playing time as a true freshman. The former four-star prospect from Sierra Vista, Ariz., rushed for 1,787 yards and 21 touchdowns on 170 carries in his senior year at Buena High School. North Carolina doesn't have too many experienced tailbacks, so Womble should avoid a redshirt and play a backup role if he capitalizes on his opportunities.
IT'S HIS TIME:Greg Little began his career as a wide receiver last season, but he really started to thrive after moving to tailback. Little rushed for 89 yards against Georgia Tech and gained 154 yards against Duke in the final two games of the season. He heads into his sophomore season as the starter and looks poised for a 1,000-yard season.
STRONGEST AREA: North Carolina may have the deepest receiving corps in the ACC. Nicks, Brooks Foster and Brandon Tate return after teaming up to catch 138 passes for 1,854 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. Throw in the return of H-back Zack Pianalto (24 catches for 208 yards last year) and fullback Bobby Rome (16 catches for 183 yards), and the Tar Heels return their five leading receivers for last season. The sixth-leading receiver was Johnny White, who has moved from tailback to cornerback.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The Tar Heels still have to find someone who can consistently get the ball to those talented receivers. After getting off to a promising start last season, sophomore T.J. Yates struggled down the stretch and had offseason shoulder surgery that caused him to miss spring practice. Yates' injury could give redshirt freshman Mike Paulus and junior Cam Sexton a chance to prove they deserve a shot at the job, though Yates remains the likely starter.
OVERVIEW: North Carolina certainly has experience on its side. The only player not returning after starting the majority of the Tar Heels' 2007 games on offense is center Scott Lenahan, who was a senior. But the Heels didn't exactly light up the scoreboard: North Carolina ranked 106th in the nation in total offense and 108th in rushing offense a year ago. North Carolina's running game should get a boost now that Little will be in the backfield all season. Little also ought to benefit from running behind a line that returns All-ACC candidates Garrett Reynolds at tackle and Calvin Darity at guard. North Carolina should score more points this season, but this offense remains a work in progress that won't reach its potential until the Tar Heels get more consistency from their quarterback.
QB T.J. Yates threw nine touchdown passes with only three interceptions in the first three games last season. He threw 15 interceptions with only five touchdown passes the rest of the season.
THE SCHEME: The Tar Heels' base set is a 4-3. The new coordinator is Everett Withers, who spent last season at Minnesota – which had the worst defense in the nation. Before that, Withers spent six seasons as secondary coach of the NFL's Tennessee Titans.
STAR POWER: While this defense features no true superstars now that first-round draft pick Kentwan Balmer has moved on to the NFL, free safety Deunta Williams probably has the greatest upside of anyone on this side of the ball. Williams earned first-team freshman All-America honors from Rivals.com last year after picking off three passes and recording 57 tackles.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Defensive end Quinton Coples is more experienced than your typical true freshman after spending last year at Hargrave (Va.) Military Academy. The former four-star prospect should play right away as a third-down pass rusher and could emerge as a starter by the end of the season.
IT'S HIS TIME: Linebacker Quan Sturdivant made five starts and recorded 47 tackles as a true freshman last year. For his sophomore season, he will move from the strongside to the weakside, where he will try to replace Durell Mapp (second in the ACC with 132 tackles last season). North Carolina's defense is set up to allow the weakside linebacker to make plenty of plays, so a 100-tackle season for Sturdivant isn't out of the question.
STRONGEST AREA: While it's tough for any defense to replace a first-rounder, UNC looks to have developed so much depth at defensive tackle that the position should remain a strength even without Balmer. Aleric Mullins, former five-star prospect Marvin Austin, Tydreke Powell, Cam Thomas and Tavares Brown should allow the Tar Heels to rotate players at that spot all game long.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Youth and a lack of depth could prevent North Carolina's defense from living up to its potential. The Tar Heels could open the season with a half-dozen sophomores starting on defense. Depth is a particular concern at middle linebacker. Senior Mark Paschal is the clear-cut starter, but the Heels don't have any other scholarship players at that position who saw any game action last season.
OVERVIEW: UNC loses only three full-time starters, but those three guys (Balmer, Mapp and end Hilee Taylor) were the Tar Heels' most productive players on that side of the ball. The Heels still have plenty of young talent on defense, but inexperience and lack of depth are major concerns. The Heels can't afford major injuries on defense because they don't have many experienced backups. But you still have to like the potential of a unit that was 35th in the nation in total defense a year ago. If North Carolina emerges as the surprise team in the ACC this season, it will be because of the defense.
UNC must find a new kicker to replace four-year starter Connor Barth, who left campus as the school's career leader in field goals. Redshirt freshman Jay Wooten has the edge at the moment, though Casey Barth – Connor's younger brother – could compete when he arrives as a walk-on this fall. The Tar Heels also have to break in a new snapper and holder. Terrence Brown returns as the punter after ranking sixth in the ACC with an average of 41.4 yards per attempt last season. Tate already owns ACC career records for kickoff returns (98) and kickoff-return yards (2,383).
Davis seems to have North Carolina headed in the right direction. UNC played 28 freshmen last season, which bodes well for the Tar Heels' future, even though they lost two-thirds of their games in Davis' first season at the helm. The major change on the staff involves Withers, who was hired as coordinator after the NFL's Baltimore Ravens plucked Chuck Pagano from the Heels' staff. Withers is expected to maintain the attacking style of defense that Pagano had employed last season. Defensive line coach John Blake – the former Oklahoma coach – received much of the credit for helping Balmer mature into a first-round pick. Offensive coordinator/quarterback coach John Shoop faces a major challenge this season as he tries to get Yates to recapture the promise he showed early in his freshman season.
North Carolina State
North Carolina's schedule could allow the Tar Heels to make a major move up the ACC Coastal Division standings. The Tar Heels avoid Clemson, Wake Forest and Florida State – the likely top three teams in the Atlantic Division. North Carolina should discover in a hurry whether it has a legitimate chance to contend for the Coastal Division title. The Tar Heels open their ACC schedule Sept. 20 with a home game against defending conference champion Virginia Tech and have a road game with Coastal Division foe Miami the next week. UNC opens its season with a cakewalk against Division I-AA McNeese State, but its other three non-conference tests (Rutgers, Connecticut and Notre Dame) are challenging games that could go either way.
If you're looking for a potential breakout team in the ACC, North Carolina is as good a choice as any. Once you get past Virginia Tech, the rest of the Coastal Division is pretty much up for grabs. Georgia Tech is in transition after a coaching change. Miami is coming off back-to-back subpar seasons. Virginia suffered some major offseason losses. Duke is Duke. Frankly, even the mighty Hokies could slip a notch after losing Vince Hall, Xavier Adibi and Brandon Flowers from their defense. No wonder optimistic Tar Heels fans are wondering if their team could make a surprising run at a conference title. We're not that optimistic – the Tar Heels have too little experience and too many quarterback questions – but we could see them finishing as high as second or third in the Coastal Division and earning a bowl bid.