Near-wins motivate Heels

At the time, North Carolina quarterback T.J. Yates says, he really would have preferred to be blown out by East Carolina, Virginia, Virginia Tech, South Carolina, N.C. State and Georgia Tech last season – rather than lose by 3, 2, 7, 6, 4 and 2 points, respectively.

But these days, as the Tar Heels prepare for their Saturday opener against McNeese State, the sophomore can see all the down-to-the-wire losses as a positive. Sort of.

“We were just so close – to a winning season, to a bowl ... to doing something really special,” Yates said. “And the memories of that, of not wanting to make those same mistakes again, really motives us this year.”

Indeed, losing so many tight games has helped feed optimism in Chapel Hill even though the Tar Heels finished 4-8 last season.

Playing in the ACC's weaker Coastal Division, the Tar Heels are expected to post their first winning record since 2001 in coach Butch Davis' second season. In all, 18 starters return.

But if there is one driving force that inspires the returning players, it's the desire not to repeat the nail-biting miscues of the past.

Davis said the close games at least led to attention-getting teaching moments.

“Because you can go back to each one of those games,” he said, “and dissect it and say, ‘This is why we tell you that kickoff coverage is important' and ‘This is why it's so important to cover punts, or protection, or third-down conversions.'

“Everything that we talked about in the spring time, we can relay it back to a missed opportunity (last year).”

What the Tar Heels have going for them this season is learning from those missed opportunities. With only 11 seniors on the squad, they're still young. But guys like Yates (runner-up for ACC Rookie of the Year last season) and safety Deunta Williams (ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year) are more like upperclassmen than sophomores, thanks to their starting roles last season.

Still, the Heels will need to improve in some key areas to reach their goals of competing for an ACC title (which they haven't won since 1980) and being invited to a bowl (which hasn't happened since 2004):

After finishing 10th in the league with 99.2 rushing yards per game last season, the ground game must improve. That begins with sophomore Greg Little, who recorded UNC's only individual 100-yard rushing game last season.

They must force more turnovers, after finishing tied for 96th in the NCAA in turnover margin. Cornerback Kendric Burney, for one, has already set the goal of snagging six or seven interceptions – by himself.

They need to find a consistent kicker after the graduation of four-year starter Connor Barth. Redshirt freshman Jay Wooten appears to be the leader, but he's competing with Barth's younger brother, Casey.

And they must find a way to win on the road. The Tar Heels were 0-6 away from Kenan Stadium last season, and they haven't won a game outside the state since 2002.

“We've got to eliminate the self-inflicted things: the penalties that we control, the turnovers that we control, the ability to run the ball, give up a big play,” Davis said.

Davis, who has often said he's trying to rebuild UNC into a national contender, said recently that he's not feeling any extra pressure to win this year than he usually feels, despite the financial commitments the athletics department has made to him and the program.

Athletic director Dick Baddour said he worries about fans expecting too much this season, but is thrilled about the excitement around campus and knows the program is going in the right direction.

“I've always believed that Butch Davis could get it done at North Carolina; that's the reason we would hire him in the first place,” he said. “I don't have doubts that the program is going to develop and improve and be successful. In my heart, I know that that's going to happen.”

And the Tar Heels have a chance to make that progress happen this season – especially if they can win the close contests.

“Games like that, they hurt a lot more than the games where you just get crushed,” offensive lineman Garrett Reynolds said. “We can't have any more of those.”