NOTE TO basketball coach Roy Williams: Should you come up short of point guards, it wouldn't be a bad idea to check out the Tar Heels' trio of hyperquick linebackers. All have the wheels to run your frenetic fast break, and Bruce Carter, a 6'3", 225-pound junior who played a little hoops in high school, has serious hops. He blocked a school-record five kicks or punts in 2008.
After playing running back, quarterback and safety at Havelock (N.C.) High, Carter was signed as an all-purpose athlete and arrived in Chapel Hill in January 2007. Coach Butch Davis, who had been hired just two months earlier, immediately moved him to linebacker. Eight months later Carter blocked a punt in a season-opening win over James Madison and wound up starting seven games as a freshman, playing in all 12. "Bruce has a knack for getting off the ball," says Davis. "And he's a good enough athlete to work his way through little cracks to give himself a chance to get to it."
Joining Carter at linebacker—he works the strong side—will be junior Quan Sturdivant, in the middle, and sophomore Zach Brown, on the weak side. Sturdivant (6'2", 230) had a team-high 87 solo tackles in 2008, while Brown (6'2", 220) is the fastest of the three, having run a 4.28 40 in the spring. "You need speed," says Davis, who has rebuilt the defense in the mold of the fleet-footed ones he had at Miami, first as the line coach (1984 through '88) and then as head coach (1995 through 2000). "Middle linebackers don't make 20 tackles a game these days. Football isn't as much of a smashmouth game."
With nine starters back on defense, Davis figures to lean heavily on that unit to buy time for the young offense. The Tar Heels passed for 21 of their 39 offensive touchdowns last year, but they lost their top three wide receivers to the NFL and there will be three new faces starting on the line.
North Carolina is coming off its first winning season (8--5) since 2001, and four losses were by three points or less. Carter believes the Tar Heels are better prepared to finish off opponents. "This year's going to be our turning point," he says.
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AS HE DID AT MIAMI, DAVIS BUILT HIS DEFENSE ON SPEED.
COACH: Butch Davis (3rd year)
2008 RECORD: 8--5 (4--4 in ACC)
FINAL AP RANK: NR
RETURNING STARTERS: 15
Offense 6, Defense 9
5 The Citadel
12 at Connecticut
19 East Carolina
26 at Georgia Tech
10 Georgia Southern
22 Florida State
29 at Virginia Tech
21 at Boston College
28 at N.C. State
On the road against one of the teams to beat in the Coastal Division, the Tar Heels' ACC opener should go a long way toward showing whether they are indeed capable of challenging for the division title or they're still a year away.
North Carolina plays consecutive Thursday night games against Florida State and Virginia Tech—two teams against whom the Tar Heels are a combined 1--17 since the two joined the ACC in 1992 and 2004, respectively.
DALE ZANINE/US PRESSWIRE
Carter needs only a crack to squeeze through to chase down the passer or smother a kick on special teams.