Senior Tailback Kelvin Bryant of North Carolina—KB, the Tar Heels call him—is a powerful, slashing runner with 9.3 speed, a nose for the goal line and a state full of boosters who are dying for him to win this year's Heisman Trophy. "I just want to play as well as I can," he says softly, "...and be healthy." When Bryant injured his left knee in the fourth game of last season, he'd already rushed for 520 yards and scored an astounding 15 TDs. Devout Carolinians went into bumper-sticker shock: IF GOD IS A TAR HEEL, WHY'D HE LET KELVIN GET HURT?
Actually, North Carolina's injuries last fall went far beyond Bryant's torn cartilage, which kept him out of four games and limited him to spot duty in two others; eight other starters—including Quarterback Rod Elkins, sprained ankle—missed at least one game, too. When Elkins and Bryant both were ailing, the Tar Heels lost 31-13 to South Carolina and 10-8 to Clemson. Those were the only defeats in a season that included a 31-27 Gator Bowl victory over Arkansas. "You torment yourself if you go back to what-ifs," says Coach Dick Crum. "Last year was a great year. It just wasn't meant to be any greater."
Or perhaps the Big Tar Heel in the Sky was saving the best for this season. Bryant, who wound up with 18 touchdowns and 1,015 yards rushing, is one of eight returning starters from an offense that averaged 31.3 points and 415.7 yards a game. Carolina has a corps of fine receivers and such depth at tailback that the reserves, Tyrone Anthony and Ethan Horton, had single-game rushing highs of 224 and 144 yards, respectively, last season. Elkins, a senior, concentrated in spring practice on throwing to secondary targets and reading defenses. "The best thing he does is win for you," says Crum. Elkins' record as a starting quarterback in high school and college is 20-2.
Some say Elkins is best when handing off to Bryant. "We try to get the ball back as fast as possible, just so we can watch Kelvin run with it," says Tar Heel Defensive Back Walter Black. One of 10 children of a Tarboro, N.C. janitor, Bryant was a veritable North Carolina sports legend while still in high school. He won state titles in the long jump and 100-and 220-yard dashes and once held Dominique Wilkins, this year's first-round draft choice of the Utah Jazz, to six points in a basketball game before fouling out early in the fourth quarter. Bryant's high school football jersey—No. 44—was retired. As a 10th-grader he asked the varsity football coach to return him to the jayvees so he could help his friends win the conference title. "I can't think of a single bad thing to say about him, or anything he's ever done," says Elkins. That's more or less the consensus. Even though Bryant had to share playing time with Amos Lawrence (now with the San Diego Chargers) until last season, he never complained—and he rushed for 1,039 yards, to Lawrence's 1,118, in 1980.
Bryant's running tends to overshadow the stout play of North Carolina's swarming defense, which last fall gave up only 11.2 points per game, the fifth-fewest in the country. Tackle William Fuller, one of seven returning starters on defense, made 22 tackles behind the line of scrimmage to tie a team record held by Lawrence Taylor, who in '81 was All-Pro in his rookie year with the Giants. Bolstering the Heels' 5-2 alignment are Mike Wilcher, who replaced Taylor as Carolina's "attack" linebacker, and defensive backs Black and Greg Poole. Black, who's so small—5'10" and 171 pounds—that Army once wanted him for its 150-pound team, blocked two kicks and intercepted six passes last fall. A business major attending Carolina on an academic scholarship, Black blocked a field goal at Georgia Tech after memorizing the Yellowjackets' snap cadence. Poole, a former running back, is as adept at punt returns as at pass coverage; his 12.0 average was ninth in the nation in '81.
Kicking is Carolina's only concern. Last year the Tar Heels ranked eighth in the country in net punting; this season, without all-conference punter Jeff Hayes, who graduated, they'll be happy with just an adequate job from any of three walk-ons. On placements, Brooks Barwick is accurate—he converted six of eight field-goal attempts in '81—but only at short range. For longer three-point attempts Crum may turn to freshman Lee Gliarmis, a 49-yarder at Fike High in Wilson, N.C. Gliarmis is one of seven Parade All-Americas recruited by North Carolina. The best prospect among them is 6'3", 235-pound Tight End Arnold Franklin of Cincinnati, who could start by midseason.
If the Tar Heels kick up and beat Pitt on Sept. 9 in their Thursday night opener at Three Rivers Stadium, they'll almost certainly coast into Clemson, S.C. on Nov. 6 unbeaten. A victory there would put North Carolina in solid position for its first major bowl bid since 1950, with a perfect season and even the national title at stake. The Tar Heels have never achieved either of those last two. For that matter, they've never had a Heisman Trophy winner. All that could change in '82.
With Bryant sound again, Crum doesn't have to couch his optimism.