Questions about possible academic impropriety in the program raised last week could sideline any number of players, both on a defense that once appeared capable of being one of the best in the country and on offense. Both investigations continue, and Davis has conceded that some players might not be cleared by school officials until Saturday, if not just before the 8 p.m. kickoff in the Georgia Dome.
T.J. Yates, a senior, had to fight off the charge of Bryn Renner, a redshirt freshman, to keep his starting job at quarterback, but that is now the least of his problems, given the uncertainty that hangs over the program.
“We’re all just kind of waiting for it to be over with,” Yates said. “We’re waiting to move on with the whole thing, so we don’t have to keep seeing it in the papers and on television and on ESPN every day.
“There’s nothing we can really do to help the situation, so we’ve got to keep focused on football and not worry about it.”
Before the investigations started, UNC was considered capable of contending for the ACC’s Coastal Division title and securing a spot in the ACC championship game. Now, anything might happen.
“Nothing is more important than the character, the integrity and the reputation of this university and this football program,” Davis said. “I’m committed to this football team, and to our players.
“Our coaching staff has an obligation to every player on this team, regardless of the players involved or not involved in the investigations, to give them our full and total devotion to prepare them for this football season.”
If the defense can remain intact, it could carry UNC through the season. Junior Robert Quinn is one of the quickest defensive ends in the ACC. Bruce Carter and Quan Sturdivant are talented senior linebackers, and the secondary returns four starters, all seniors.
The defense, however, appears to be in jeopardy of missing many projected starters because of the academic investigation, and the unit could be adversely affected for the opener.
Most of the big questions unrelated to possible suspensions are on offense, starting with the line. Injuries kept the line in constant flux last season, and that hindered blocking for the running game and protecting Yates.
Guard Alan Pelc and tackle Mike Ingersoll, both seniors, will anchor the line. Sophomore Jonathan Cooper has moved from guard to center. Veteran Carl Gaskins, a junior tackle, is back after missing last season because of a knee injury, and freshmen James Hurst and T.J. Leifheit, both tackles, could help immediately.
Yates said that Renner pushed him in every practice and made him a better quarterback. Yates doesn’t expect to make the same poor decisions that hampered his play last season, and he’ll try to improve upon his career totals of 5,959 yards and 39 touchdowns passing, which both rank No. 2 in school history.
Last season’s receivers were young. Davis is confident they’ll be better with the year’s experience. The running game needs consistency despite the returns of seniors Shaun Draughn and Ryan Houston. Draughn is returning from a fractured shoulder blade that knocked him out of the last five games.
The backfield could get a boost from Johnny White, a well-traveled senior who is back at tailback, the position he played as a freshman. Davis said that no UNC player has worked harder for playing time.
School officials acknowledged last week that the extent of the academic impropriety isn’t known and that the investigation could last beyond the first game. The season won’t start problem free, but Ryan Taylor, a senior tight end and H-back who is returning from a knee injury, is confident that it can end in strong fashion.
“I hope it does,” Taylor said. “We’re pushing for something special this season. If we keep our heads on straight, we can do that.”