Monday, April 30, 2012

Did program's disarray cost Tar Heels in NFL draft?

The NFL draft concluded on Saturday after only two of North Carolina’s prospects – defensive end Quinton Coples and linebacker Zach Brown – were selected. Dwight Jones, the wide receiver, ended the draft on the outside looking in. So, too, did cornerback Charles Brown. And defensive tackle Tydreke Powell. And Donte Paige-Moss, the defensive lineman who left school early to enter the draft.

Even Coples and Brown went lower than they likely expected they would – Coples at No. 16 overall to the New York Jets, and Brown in the second round, at the 52nd overall pick, to the Tennessee Titans. If you followed the draft at all, you know that NFL personnel types shared similar concerns about Coples and Brown, both. In fact, you could have learned that simply by reading the NFL’s official website. broke down just about every player, anywhere, who had the potential to be selected in the draft. The profiles included an overview and a paragraph of strengths and weaknesses for each player. How strange is it that for both Coples and Brown, the word “disappear” showed up under both players’ listed weaknesses?

For Coples, the first couple sentences explaining his weaknesses read like this: “Coples' motor was the only question mark throughout his collegiate career. At times, he disappeared from the action.”

For Brown, the first couple sentences explaining his weaknesses read like this: “Despite his talent, there are questions surrounding other aspects of Brown's game and life. He has shown a tendency to disappear for long stretches.”

Both players possessed first-round talent. And at one time, Coples was projected as a top-10 selection. But neither Coples nor Brown went as high as their ability suggested they could – or should – have gone.

Questions about each player’s motivation and consistency helped to push them down in the draft. Both players had their share of dominant games during their years with the Tar Heels. But those games were mixed in among others in which they took plays off or disappeared for long stretches.

It’s not a reach to suggest that UNC’s coaching transition didn’t help Coples and Brown. Amid all the uncertainty that surrounded the Tar Heels in 2011, it makes sense that players might not have been as motivated after Everett Withers took over on an interim basis for the fired Butch Davis. On a deeper level, though, the slide of Coples and Brown in the draft could be evidence of issues that might have plagued the program under Davis. Coples and Brown didn’t learn to take plays off until their final seasons, of course. They learned the habits that cost them positioning in the draft under Davis’ watch.

And what does it say, too, that none of UNC’s other draftable players were drafted? Jones, the receiver who caught 85 passes for nearly 1,200 yards, was once seen as a likely second- or third-round pick. Yet he fell completely out of the draft. Paige-Moss, a talented but inconsistent player who left school early, never heard his name called. Ditto for Brown and Powell.

Some of UNC’s undrafted players have already signed as free agents with various teams. The list:

WR Dwight Jones – Houston Texans

C Cameron Holland – Kansas City Chiefs

CB Charles Brown – Baltimore Ravens

S Matt Merletti – Indianapolis Colts

DT Tydreke Powell – Minnesota Vikings

But the lack of Tar Heels’ draftees speaks to a program that had been in disarray for a long time. It can’t be argued that some of UNC’s undrafted players are as talented as many of those drafted in the fifth, sixth and seventh rounds on Saturday.

NFL teams, though, like prospects who come from respected and reputable college programs. And sure, if teams thought that UNC’s former players were good enough to be drafted, they would have been. But the instability that hung over the Tar Heels for two seasons didn’t help. And that likely cost the Tar Heels on draft day.

-- Andrew Carter

Monday, April 23, 2012

Tudor: Ex-UNC coach Butch Davis may have important role in Tampa Bay's draft picks

It'll be interesting to see if Butch Davis' fingerprints turn up on Tampa Bay's selections during this week's NFL Draft in New York.

Fired as head coach by UNC in July of 2011, Davis was hired by new Bucs coach Greg Schiano as a special assistant in February.

Most of the analysts predict Tampa (4-12 in 2011) will take defensive back Morris Claiborne of LSU with the fifth overall pick during Thursday's opening round, but there's hardly an area in which the Bucs are blessed with top personnel.

Schiano, who coached Rutgers for the past 11 seasons, and Davis have had more recent exposure to college players than anyone on the new staff.

That staff includes former ECU running back star Earnest Byner (who was hired to replace ex-ECU head coach Steve Logan) and Fayetteville native Jimmy Raye.

In the same NFC South Division with Carolina, Atlanta and New Orleans, the Bucs have a glaring need for more wide receiver production.

Among the top 10 or so rated wide-outs are Stephen Hill (Georgia Tech) and Chris Givens (Wake Forest). Lower-rated Dwight Jones (UNC) , T.J. Graham (N.C. State) and Danny Coale (Virginia Tech) are prospects with whom Davis is familiar.

On defense, the ACC has at least 20 players likely to be selected during the seven rounds. Davis has coached against almost all of those candidates.

-- Caulton Tudor

Monday, April 16, 2012

NFL draft: N.C. State LB Terrell Manning's status slips

With the NFL draft less than two weeks away (April 26-28, New York), Terrell Manning's decision to leave N.C. State after the 2011 season is beginning to look somewhat risky.

While most of the draft analysts still see the 6-foot-3, 237-pound outside linebacker as a likely pick, Manning's status has slipped some during the past month.

Once assessed as a second-rounder, Manning has slipped into the fourth- to fifth-round range in several of the projections. A couple of those even think he might wind up in the big post-draft pool of free agents.

Manning's decision to go pro no doubt was swayed in part by a knee injury he sustained last season. After surgery he was able to return two weeks later and played a key role in the Wolfpack's strong finish, 8-5 record and bowl win over Louisville.

It's not completely impossible that three State linebackers will be drafted. Inside LB Audie Cole is generally projected to go in the third or fourth round. Dwayne Mattox, an outside LB, has a some chance of going late.

UNC's Zach Brown has a shot at being the first outside linebacker picked. The first ACC player to go could be Boston College inside LB Luke Kuechly.

The ACC probably will not have a quarterback to get picked _ unless you want to count Russell Wilson of Wisconsin by way of State.

-- Caulton Tudor

North Carolina's spring football game: What we learned about Larry Fedora's Tar Heels

North Carolina coach Larry Fedora watches quarterback Bryn Renner (2) direct his fast-paced offense in Saturday's spring game. Gerry Broome/Associated Press
CHAPEL HILL - North Carolina held its annual Blue vs. White spring football scrimmage at Kenan Stadium on Saturday. The Blue team defeated the White, 44-7. Well, actually, the final scoreboard read 44-21 – but that includes 14 points that the White team received at halftime to make the game a bit more competitive.

Of course, the final score of a spring scrimmage doesn’t mean much. And it’s difficult to read too much into the Tar Heels’ spring game, anyway, because it was, you have to remember, UNC’s 14th practice in the completely new, completely different offensive and defensive system that first-year coach Larry Fedora and his assistants are installing. A lot will change between now and September.

Even so, the spring game provided us some insight and some lessons. Here are some of them:

Bryn Renner seems to be adapting well to the new up-tempo, no-huddle spread offense.

Renner completed 23 of his 28 attempts for 295 yards and two touchdowns for the Blue team on Saturday. Not bad. Renner played in a more up-tempo, spread offense during his high school years, but because Renner more fits the mold of a traditional drop-back passer, some wondered how he’d fit into Fedora’s scheme. For those UNC fans who had doubts, Renner’s performance on Saturday had to be comforting.

Marquise Williams has some work to do to make this a true quarterback competition.

Fedora and his staff have often said that every position is open – even quarterback. Williams, a former standout at Charlotte’s Mallard Creek High, made some strides this spring and, by all accounts, he’s a lot more comfortable now than he was in UNC’s old pro-style offense. Even so, Williams has some work to do to push Renner for the starting job. Williams had some nice moments on Saturday and his final statistical line – 17-for-32, 123 yards, one touchdown, one interception – wasn’t bad. But, like Renner, Williams is still learning the new offense. The difference is that Renner entered with more experience, anyway, and he started at a more advanced point. Williams has the physical tools to succeed in Fedora’s offense, in time.

The defense faces a steep learning curve, too.

Much of the focus throughout UNC’s spring practice has been on the offense. That’s understandable given that Fedora’s coaching background is on the offensive side of the ball. But the Tar Heels’ defense faces just as much of an adjustment to the new 4-2-5 scheme that features those two hybrid positions – the bandit and the ram – that help make the defense more versatile. Take out the second quarter, when the Blue scored three offensive touchdowns, and both defenses played well. In fact, the biggest defensive play of the game came in the second quarter, too, when Tim Scott intercepted a pass and returned it 35 yards for a touchdown.

The Tar Heels seem to have some quality depth at running back.

Giovani Bernard gained 36 on five carries on Saturday before leaving the game after suffering a cut on his head. He could have returned, had it been an actual game, but sat out the rest of the way. In his absence, A.J. Blue, a rising junior, played well. He gained 98 yards on 15 carries. Romar Morris, a freshman who spent last season redshirting, also looked good. He scored three touchdowns – two receiving, one running – and gained 75 yards combined, running and receiving. On his first touchdown, which came on a 17-yard pass from Renner, Morris flashed some breakaway speed.

Welcome back, Casey Barth.

Barth missed most of last season with an injured groin but was granted a fifth year of eligibility. His return means good things for UNC’s kicking game. Barth was responsible for the first two scores of the spring game – a 40-yard field goal, and then a 33-yard field goal. They both came in the first quarter.

UNC’s final practice of the spring will be today. Stay tuned in the weeks ahead for a position-by-position wrap-up of the spring, with a look ahead to the start of fall practice.

-- Andrew Carter

Saturday, April 14, 2012

O'Brien says Pack 'got better' in scrimmage

The touch of a smile on the face of N.C. State football coach Tom O'Brien may have been a tipoff Saturday.

After a Wolfpack scrimmage at Carter-Finley Stadium, O'Brien sounded generally pleased, saying, "I think we got better today. A lot of guys got better and individually improved.

"We played faster today, I think, on a lot of levels and that's what we were looking for. I'm happy with the progress we made this Saturday from last Saturday."

Again, there were no individual statistics released from the controlled scrimmage. O'Brien said the overall totals were: 38 rushes for 26 net yards; 23-of-48 passing for 234 yards for four interceptions and two touchdowns; 12 tackles for a loss for 47 yards; seven sacks for 34 yards.

The Pack was two-for-three on field goals, converting from 44 and 42 yards and missed a 42-yarder.

O'Brien said he was not concerned about the rushing total, noting the tackles for losses accounted for a chunk of the lost yardage and adding, "It's all about who's rushing and when they're rushing."

O'Brien didn't mention a lot of names but noted freshman wide receiver Hakeem Flowers "stood out" in the scrimmage and made some plays. He said backup quarterback Tyler Brosius was getting better and taken some good strides forward."

O'Brien praised the play of the offensive line, saying, "As a whole it's performed at a better level than they have at any point since we've been here." He said quarterback Mike Glennon has not been sacked much, even though there have been 19 sacks in the two scrimmages.

O'Brien noted there had been a lot of changes among the front seven defensively during the spring, adding, "We're not anywhere close to being set with any type of rotation -- it's a lot of guys fighting for jobs."

Asked to name a couple of players who have been surprises in the spring, O'Brien mentioned defensive end Forrest West and defensive tackle A.J. Ferguson.

O'Brien, with another smile, said he heard assistant coach Jon Tenuta "say something good" on the field today about linebacker Rickey Dowdy today -- a rarity. More seriously O'Brien said of Dowdy, a junior, "He needs to step up and play for us. It's his time to play."

O'Brien said there were no injuries at today's scrimmage.

-Chip Alexander

Friday, April 13, 2012

What to watch in North Carolina's spring game

CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina coach Larry Fedora wouldn’t mind another 25, 30 practices or so this spring. Maybe by then, he said earlier this week, the Tar Heels would be able to accomplish all they need to accomplish before heading into the off-season conditioning program.

But there will not be 25 or 30 more practices for Fedora and UNC. NCAA rules limit teams to 15 spring practices, and UNC’s final one comes on Saturday at 3 p.m. at Kenan Stadium, where the Tar Heels will play their annual spring scrimmage (admission free, game televised at

Here are some things to watch:

The pace of the offense

UNC has a long, long ways to go before it understands the dynamics of Fedora’s fast-paced, no-huddle, spread offense. So reading too much into individual performances or statistics on Saturday could be a fruitless endeavor. Instead, take a more big-picture approach.

Fedora and his offensive coordinator, Blake Anderson, want to maximize the number of plays for the offense. And to do so, of course, the Heels have to operate at a quick pace. Pay close attention to the time between plays. There shouldn’t be much lag time.

UNC’s defense is further along than the offense at this point, and that’s not a surprise. It’s easier to react and make a play – which is what the defense is doing – then to perfectly execute a new system designed to exploit whatever holes might exist in a defense.

So defensive success is likely to be expected on Saturday. How well UNC does playing at a fast pace on offense, though, should provide a good indication of how far the Heels have come during the past few weeks of spring practice.

The new 4-2-5 defense

Fedora has completely revamped the offense, of course, but the defense is also a lot different than it was. Under new defensive coordinator Dan Disch, the Tar Heels are running a 4-2-5, which features a couple of hybrid positions. Those hybrid positions are better known as the “bandit” and the “ram.”

Now, what are the bandit and the ram? (As an aside here, I think “The Bandit and the Ram” could be the title for a really quality 1890s Western-themed sitcom of some sort, likely featuring a couple ne’er do well, bumbling masked criminals … OK, back to football.) The bandit and the ram are, in essence, outside linebackers that can shift around and play in different positions on the field. Sometimes one will play close to the line of scrimmage, while the other plays back towards the secondary. Sometimes they’ll blitz, other times they’ll provide more pass coverage.

The 4-2-5 allows UNC some flexibility, and you can expect some moving parts. It is, as coaches love to say these days, a defense that allows a team to be “multiple.” Sometimes UNC will appear to be in a 4-3. Other times a 3-4. It’s all part of the multiplicity of the 4-2-5.

Quarterbacks Bryn Renner and Marquise Williams

Renner is the clear first-team quarterback at this point, as you’d expect. He played well, for the most part, during his sophomore season, and he is the more experienced, tested player. And by all accounts, he has adapted well to Fedora’s fast-paced, spread offense.

But Williams is an intriguing player because UNC’s new offense so seems to fit his natural skill set. He was among the nation’s top-rated “dual-threat” quarterbacks during his senior season at Charlotte’s Mallard Creek High, but then he came to UNC to play in a pro-style system that didn’t necessarily fit his style of play.

Williams, according to some of his teammates, didn’t appear all that comfortable in the old offense while he spent last season redshirting. But he has made strides this spring in UNC’s new fast-paced spread, which is similar to what Williams ran in high school.

Though the coaching staff has said the quarterback competition is an open one, it still seems like it’s Renner’s job to lose. But an impressive performance from Williams in the spring game could make things interesting headed into the off-season conditioning program, and into the start of fall practice in August.

-Andrew Carter

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Duke dismisses reserve WR Tyree Watkins

DURHAM  -- Junior wide receiver Tyree Watkins has been dismissed from Duke’s football team for conduct unbecoming a member of the program, Blue Devils coach David Cutcliffe announced today.

No other details were released.

A reserve wide receiver from Camden, N.J., Watkins played in 28 games over the past three seasons, totaling 24 career receptions for 152 yards.

-- Lorenzo Perez

Could Mallard Creek's Marquise Williams win North Carolina's starting quarterback job?

Marquise Williams, the redshirt freshman quarterback at North Carolina and a former standout at Mallard Creek High in Charlotte, came to UNC for a couple of reasons: One, his cousin played for the Tar Heels years ago. And two, Williams formed a bond with former UNC offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach John Shoop.

At Mallard Creek High in Charlotte, Williams was an adept passer and runner. In his high school’s offense, he was asked to do both, and he usually managed to do so with great success. Still, Shoop convinced Williams he could thrive in UNC’s traditional, pro-style offense – an offense in which Williams would have spent most of his time under center. So Williams took it hard when Shoop and the rest of UNC’s old staff cleared out.

By January, Williams had been at UNC for less than six months. Yet he was already learning how to work with his third head coach. First there was Butch Davis, whom UNC fired days before the start of practice for the 2011 season. Then interim head coach Everett Withers. And then Larry Fedora, whom UNC hired in December.

Fedora brought in a completely new coaching staff, and a completely new offensive (and defensive) philosophy. And as it turns out, Williams might have the most to gain out of anybody from the coaching transition.

Before the coaching change, Williams was attempting to fit into an offensive system that was unlike the one he thrived in during his high school years. He had never before been in a pro-style offense. Fedora’s system, though, might better utilize Williams’ diverse skill set.

The quarterback competition between Williams and incumbent Bryn Renner is open. “Wide open,” as both Fedora and offensive coordinator Blake Anderson put it earlier this week. Fedora was sure to mention, too, that some people might not believe it’s an open competition. But he insists that it is.

(Read today's story from the Observer about the quarterback competition and Thursday's scrimmage at Mallard Creek here.) 

Renner has plenty of advantages. He started 13 games a season ago, and he usually played well. He passed for 3,086 yards and twice as many touchdowns (26) as interceptions (13). But Williams’ athleticism – and the fact that his physical skill fits well into Fedora’s scheme – gives him an advantage over Renner.

Asked to evaluate Williams’ performance in spring practice so far, Anderson said this:

“[I’ve seen] just marked improvement – just daily improvement. Still got a long way to go but the last three to four days, I’ve seen signs of improvement and he’s definitely competitive. He’s spending time studying. You find him in there in the office, watching tape on his own a good bit. Which is a sign of a guy that’s trying.

“It’s a whole lot to process in a really short period of time. And him, and really all the quarterbacks, are still struggling with it. But I’ve been pleased with what we’ve gotten from him to this point.”

-- Andrew Carter