Thursday, July 28, 2011

Impact of Butch Davis being fired on this football season

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Last week I began working on a UNC 2011-2012 season football preview post.  I wrote from the angle that because of all the hoopla surrounding the NCAA's investigation, people were somehow ignoring a team that could build on the previous season's success and compete for an ACC title.  Included in what I had written last week was this quote:

Also, despite the cries by some media members for Butch Davis's head, I think his job is safe at least for this season.  Despite all of the allegations Davis still has plausible deniability, regardless of whether John Blake was doing some pretty devious stuff.  Also if UNC was going to fire Davis they would have done it already.  It would make no sense to fire Davis with only a little over a month before the season kicks off. 

Fast forward to Wednesday evening at about 5:00 PM.  Over the last 24 hours Butch Davis was suddenly fired without any real warning (unless you believe Art Chansky has a huge pull on Holden Thorpe) and UNC Athletic Director Dick Baddour basically fell on his sword, announcing that he would step down as AD as soon as his replacement was found.  My immediate reaction to all of this?

Lest you think this overstatement, remember the state of UNC football before Butch Davis was hired.  UNC was bringing in mediocre recruiting classes and putting together 3-11 seasons (trust me I was there for it my first two years at Carolina).  Given how this went down and the NCAA allegations cloud still ominously looming over the football program, UNC fans shouldn't expect any blockbuster hire.  UNC's recruiting, which Davis helped elevate to a level of competing for (and actually gaining commitments from) 4 and 5 star prospects, is about to take a serious nosedive.  UNC also is liable to lose some of their better young players to transfer.  Ultimately, even if Carolina can come away with a surprising hire, the Tar Heels are almost guaranteed a few lousy years in the not too distant future, and if things go wrong they could end up in the same place NC State basketball has been over the past 5 years.

Consequently, the current season could be a last hurrah for what looked only a little more than a year ago to be such a promising future for the UNC football program.  The Blue Zone has been completed, but if things go poorly this season the sight of the sparsely filled seats of the massive expansion in the east end zone could simply add salt to the already festering wounds of the UNC fanbase.  At least for one season it is IMPERATIVE that the seats be full, and for that to happen Carolina is going to need to go out with a bang. 

While no one would really fault this year's team if this firing coupled with the NCAA investigation ultimately proved to distracting to allow success on the field, the fact remains that even minus a head coach UNC has a pretty talented roster.  Defensive Coordinator Everett Withers has been promoted to head coach and it is conceivable that Davis' firing may not have too much of an impact on in-game play calling given that Withers and Offensive Coordinator John Shoop remain in place.  There is always the possibility that the NCAA comes down hard on UNC in October, delivering a postseason ban and ending any hope for "one last run," but my guess is they will avoid that particular punishment now that everyone associated with the scandal has resigned, graduated, been deemed ineligible, or been fired.  Now with regards to the actual football team...

Renner's play will dictate how good UNC is on offense
On the offensive end of the ball, the Tar Heels will have a (relatively) new face at quarterback with Bryn Renner set to take over after a couple years of waiting in the wings.  Renner has received almost unanimously positive reviews while at Carolina, and going into last season some expected him to usurp the starting position from TJ Yates.  That said, Renner remains an unproven commodity and the Heels will go as far as he takes them this year.  Renner with be facing the biggest uphill battle mentally given that in addition to the pressures of any new started, Renner also has to deal with the distractions of the looming NCAA investigation and the firing of his head coach a week before camp.  Luckily for Renner he is surrounded by a strong supporting cast on offense.  Dwight Jones really broke out during the second half of last season and could be one of the best receivers in the nation in 2011.  Erik Highsmith and Jhay Boyd have both shown flashes of brilliance in their first two seasons but could really help the team out by becoming consistent threats.  The backfield is not as deep as last season, but has talented experience with Devon Ramsay and Ryan Houston.  Not surprisingly Renner's play will be the real tipping point here.  If he struggles Carolina will be mediocre at best on offense.  If he plays to the flashes of brilliance he has shown in the past two springs UNC could have a dangerous offense.

On the defensive side of the ball, Carolina will field what could be the nation's best defensive line with leas season's breakout star Quinton Coples at one end position and another potential breakout star in Donte Paige-Moss at the other.  At the tackle positions Tydreke Powell, Jordan Nix, and newcomer Sylvester Williams make up a pretty fearsome trio.  The next level of the defense should also be strong with Zach Brown and Kevin Reddick returning at linebacker.  While standouts Quan Sturdivant and Bruce Carter graduated, both Brown and Reddick looked ready to step in and be stars last season and will likely be joined by sophomore Darius Lipford.  The secondary is much more of an area of concern after the departures of Duanta Williams, Kendric Burney, and Da'Norris Searcy.  Charles Brown returns after missing last season due to suspension as a result of the NCAA investigation and he will be joined at the cornerback spot by sophomore Jabari Price who showed flashes last season in a few starts.  At safety Jonathan Smith will be joined by either Tre Boston (moved from CB) or Brian Gupton.  Carolina's success on defense will be contingent on solid play from some young players in the secondary combined with the ability of the defensive line to create constant pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

Ultimately the future of UNC football that seemed to shine so brightly only slightly more than a year ago has been replaced by anger, frustration, and perhaps what is worst of all, the threat of slipping back to irrelevance.  Writing those last two paragraphs gave me hope that perhaps a memorable season can be salvaged from all this wreckage.  A lot of that is contingent on how much the players are able to distance their thought from these massive distractions and focus on football.  One way we as fans can help is to show up to games and give the team the unyielding support they will need.  All the online threats of wanting season tickets back and boycotting the program/administration is understandable but ultimately detrimental to the players and the program we love.  Kenan Stadium should be packed and as loud as ever as we cheer on what still could be a very exciting team.  Hell it may be the last chance for us to do so for a long time.

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