While tending the full-service pumps at the Eastgate BP gas
station in Chapel Hill this summer, North Carolina quarterback
Oscar Davenport got used to hearing two phrases. "Fill 'er up"
was the first. Davenport would promptly flip on the pump and
offer to check the customer's oil while Tar Heels linebacker
Brandon Spoon washed the vehicle's windows. Both players then
waited for the driver to lean out the window and yell, "Hey,
when are you guys going to beat Florida State?"
Talk at the pump is generally brief, but a more pertinent
question would have been, "Hey, how are you guys going to deal
with losing your coach and an ACC-high 14 starters, including
three defenders who were taken in the first round of the NFL
draft, most of your offensive line, your only 1,000-yard rusher
and your tight end?"
The play of the 6'4" Davenport, a fifth-year senior who is in
his first season as the full-time starter, may provide the best
answer to that question. Despite a fractured right fibula that
kept him out of the final two games of the regular season and a
42-3 romp over Virginia Tech in the Gator Bowl, he was the
team's offensive MVP last year and is equally dangerous as a
passer (his 63.7% career completion rate is the best in school
history) and a scrambler. To help avoid the nagging injuries
that have hampered him throughout his college career, Davenport
pumped plenty of iron as well as gas this summer. He will start
the season at 210 pounds, 20 more than last year.
With mostly unproven underclassmen behind him in the backfield
and just one returning starter in front of him on the offensive
line, Davenport must remain healthy if North Carolina, which is
coming off its highest final ranking since 1948, is to stay
within striking distance of perennial ACC champ Florida State.
"We've won a lot of games because our defense has been one of
the best in the country," says Davenport. "It's time for the
offense to step up to a new level."
Under new coach Carl Torbush, who was promoted from defensive
coordinator after Mack Brown left for Texas, the Tar Heels plan
to open up their offense. Davenport will call more audibles to
isolate his deep and talented receiving corps led by seniors Na
Brown (107 catches in the past two years) and L.C. Stevens (45
catches in '97). But will Davenport have enough time to throw?
After tight end Alge Crumpler blew out his knee in the spring,
junior guard Mike Gimbol was left as the only returning starter
from a line that was arguably the team's weak link (36 sacks
allowed) last year. "Without a doubt," says Torbush, "the
biggest key to our season is getting guys to step forward on our
Rebuilding the defense will require a similar commitment.
Torbush lost seven starters from the 1997 unit, which ranked
second in the country in total defense and held opponents to
zero or negative yardage half the time. However, one of the
returning first-teamers is two-time All-America cornerback Dre'
Bly, the most dominant defender to wear Carolina blue since
Lawrence Taylor. In his two seasons in Chapel Hill, Bly has
intercepted 16 passes, one short of the ACC career record held
by five players. This fall he vows to be an even more forceful
presence. "This is my team now," he says. "I can't wait. All
I've ever wanted to do is lead this team and be the Man. My job
is simple: After last year we have no choice but to go 12-0."
No choice? With all the turnover on the North Carolina roster,
it's more like no chance.
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Carolina glue Davenport is being counted on to hold the inexperienced offense together. [Oscar Davenport in game]
1997 record: 11-1 (7-1, 2nd in ACC)
Final ranking: No. 6 AP, No. 4 coaches' poll
1997 Averages OFFENSE DEFENSE
Scoring 27.8 13.0
Rushing Yards 117.1 77.9
Passing Yards 261.8 131.4
Total Yards 378.9 209.3
Quarterback Oscar Davenport set the school record last season
for most consecutive passes without an interception (154)....
Defensive end Ebenezer Ekuban could see double duty as a tight
end, covering for Alge Crumpler, who will miss the season due to
a severe knee injury.... Cornerback Dre' Bly will double as a
kick returner--not as a wideout, as had been rumored.
Schedule strength: 40th of 112
Oct. 31 at Florida State The Tar Heels have not scored a
touchdown against the Seminoles in their last two matchups.
Nov. 14 at Virginia Under George Welsh, the Cavaliers have
dominated North Carolina in Charlottesville, winning all eight
The Bottom Line
The Tar Heels have established themselves as a top program, but
a lack of depth makes a serious challenge to Florida State