by Jacob Swiger
UNC started preseason practice Friday, officially beginning the 2009-10 season -- the third season under head coach Butch Davis.
Carolina ended last season with an 8-4 record and finished third overall in the Coastal Division with a .500 record in league play. The Tar Heels enter the season ranked No. 20 in the USA Today Coaches' Poll, despite many holes in the offense, a tough schedule and an improved ACC.
Here are a few questions leading up to the first game Sept. 5 against the Citadel.
Will the receivers step up? Frankly, the Tar Heels are probably tired of hearing it, but the loss of one of the nations' top receiving corps from last season -- which included Brooks Foster, Hakeem Nicks and Brandon Tate -- leaves the talent level severely depleted. Greg Little is the only player returning with more than 10 receptions. Little and a slew of freshman and underclassman will have to take the pressure off the rushing game if UNC hopes to move the ball on offense.
Little has the tools to be a great receiver and showed flashes of brilliance in his freshman campaign but being bounced around from receiver to running back in his first two seasons robbed him of any flow to his game. After Shaun Draughn outplayed him to earn the starting job at running back, Little had to quickly adjust back to receiver despite the extra weight he'd put on in the offseason.
With no excuses after an offseason of preparing to be the primary receiver, Little must evolve into a consistent threat in order for the Heels to move the ball.
Can Draughn hold onto the ball and turn out a 1000-yard season? Fumbles became a serious problem for the junior, especially after the brilliant idea of lathering Vaseline caused Draughn to fumble twice against N.C. State. This combined with two more fumbles in the Heels' last two games makes holding onto the ball a priority for Draughn. The Heels thrust Draughn into a starting role last season -- a decision that helped Carolina stay afloat after T.J. Yates and Tate went down with injuries early in the season.
With a full season under his belt and a better understanding of the position, Draughn should easily improve upon his 866 rushing yards and crack the 1000-yard milestone.
Can Da'Norris Searcy fill the void left by Trimane Goddard? Deunta Williams certainly believes so. The junior safety told Inside Carolina that there won't be a drop off with Searcy filling in.
“But when you talk about being physical and being so fast, Da’Norris Searcy is definitely the guy that jumps out in everybody’s mind," Williams said. "He’s probably one of the fastest and strongest DB’s."
Williams might be confident Goddard won't be missed but I'm not so sure. Goddard forced two fumbles and picked off seven interceptions last season -- part of the reason why the Heels secondary was among the best in the country at picking off passes.
Without the ball-hawking Goddard, Carolina will need the defensive line to get more pressure on the quarterback so the secondary isn't left playing one-one-one coverage.
Will Donavan Tate and Donte Moss see the field? Tate -- the third overall pick in the MLB draft -- must sign with the Padres by Aug. 17 or will have several options, including the option to play both baseball and quarterback at UNC. Tate is currently attending training sessions with the team, keeping his eligibility for football open.
With the injury prone Yates so entrenched with the starting job at quarterback, Tate could be relied upon for backup duty or in select packages to take advantage of his athleticism.
Another of Davis' top recruits, defensive end Donte Moss, faces a deep depth chart before seeing action on the field. Moss -- who was recently charged with simple assault for fighting with a teammate, according to the N&O -- is the top defensive end ranked by Scout.com in the incoming freshman class.
Moss must battle senior end E.J. Wilson and sophomore end Robert Quinn for the starting job. With Davis saying Tuesday that Moss will be punished internally, don't expect him to beat out the veterans for playing time just yet.
Can UNC win the Coastal Division? If the defense is as good as advertised, UNC has a good chance to knock off Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech for the division crown. Linebackers Quan Sturdivant, Bruce Carter, who led the nation last season with five blocked kicks, and Zach Brown, who reportedly clocked a 4.28 40-yard dash, should give opposing quarterbacks fits throughout the season.
The key will be the offensive development. With Yates healthy, an improved Draughn and only a shallow drop off in the receiving corps, UNC could be poised to earn the No. 20 national ranking.
That's a lot of "ifs," though.