When quarterback Oscar Davenport was named MVP of the Gator Bowl
in January, Chris Keldorf, the Tar Heels' regular signal-caller,
was among the first to congratulate him. Never mind that Keldorf
had led the Tar Heels to their regular-season record of 9-2 or
that he had been the first Tar Heels quarterback in two decades
to be named All-ACC. What mattered most to Keldorf, who sat out
the 20-13 victory over West Virginia because of a fractured and
dislocated left ankle suffered in the regular-season finale at
Duke, was not that he'd had to miss the final game of his finest
season but that his team had exceeded nearly everyone's
expectations and won the Gator Bowl trophy.
As for that other trophy, the one earned by Davenport for his
14-for-26, 175-yard passing performance? "Oscar deserved it,"
Keldorf says without a trace of envy.
Nearly eight months later, after ankle rehab and surgery to
remove a pair of ruptured discs in his back, Keldorf, 6'5", 227
pounds, has thrown aside the crutches and resumed his role as
Carolina's starting quarterback. The words "Heisman hopeful"
have even been bandied about in Chapel Hill. Not bad for a guy
who enrolled at three schools (one of which tried to turn him
into a tight end) before finding his niche in baby blue. Not bad
for a guy who a year ago was one of the team's biggest question
marks after he transferred from Palomar Junior College in San
Marcos, Calif. "If the young guys in our areas of concern this
year perform as well as Chris Keldorf did last year, we'll have
another good football team," says Tar Heels coach Mack Brown.
But North Carolina is aiming for more than "good" this year.
It's thinking national championship. The Tar Heels have 17
starters back, including nine from a defense ranked first in the
country. Senior end Greg Ellis is one sack away from breaking
the school record set by current Tampa Bay Buc Marcus Jones.
Cornerback Dre' Bly, who snagged 13 interceptions (two in the
Gator Bowl) last season, tops in the nation, has fans and
teammates asking, Can he do it again? "I think so," Ellis says,
"but I would hope quarterbacks would know enough not to throw
The area of greatest concern for Brown is his offense. Although
Keldorf is healthy, the backfield was decimated by the
departures of tailbacks Maurice McGregor and Leon Johnson, the
ACC's alltime leader in all-purpose yardage, and fullback Chris
Watson. Seniors Mike Geter and Jonathan Linton will attempt to
fill the void at tailback after rushing for a combined 295 yards
on 79 carries in '96. Sophomore fullback Deon Dyer has carried
the ball only four times, for 58 yards.
"Can we step up when we're behind in a football game?" Ellis
wonders. "Can we bounce back?" Last year the Tar Heels couldn't.
They disintegrated at Virginia, squandering a 14-point lead in
the final 10 minutes. That loss, coupled with a 13-0 defeat at
Florida State, knocked Carolina out of the running for a berth
in one of the Alliance bowls. This year the Tar Heels play the
Cavaliers and the Seminoles--as well as a dangerous Stanford
team--at home and can expect to have record crowds behind them:
The expansion of Kenan Stadium by 8,000 seats, to 60,000, is a
testament to Carolina's continuing emergence as a football power.
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT ROGERS THE NEVER-SAY-DIE KELDORF (15) IS A BIG REASON THE TAR HEELS WILL CONTEND FOR THE TITLE [Chris Keldorf in game]
10 Points per game allowed by the Tar Heels defense last season,
the fewest in the nation.
TWO GAMES TO WATCH
SEPT. 13 vs. STANFORD The Tar Heels will let the country know
whether they're a national contender.
NOV. 8 vs. FLORIDA STATE North Carolina looks for its first win
in nine tries against the Seminoles.
Passing Chris Keldorf Sr. 201 comp., 338 att.,
2,347 yds., 23 TDs
Rushing Jonathan Linton Sr. 200 yds., 0 TDs
Receiving Na Brown Jr. 52 catches, 534 yds.,
Tackles LB Kivuusama Mays Sr. 112
Interceptions CB Dre' Bly Soph. 11