UNC defense, running game, can help compensate for loss of receivers

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

North Carolina coach Butch Davis took a major step in bringing the program back to relevance last year after he led the Tar Heels to an 8-5 record, their most wins since 2001. He managed to double UNC's win total from 2007, and he did it without standout receiver/kick returner Brandon Tate and starting quarterback T.J. Yates, who were injured for most of the season.

Last season was proof that Davis can win even when short-handed, and considering he has to replace his top three receivers, that's exactly how he'll begin the 2009 season.

The Tar Heels will be starting from scratch at wide receiver as they return to spring practice today, but lost in the shuffle of how much work they have to do in the passing game is how much potential they have in the running game and on defense. Those two factors should help carry the Heels until some of the younger receivers develop.

Nobody in the ACC returns more starters on defense (nine) than North Carolina, and the Tar Heels made a habit of scoring non-offensive touchdowns in 2008 with six. Six of the starting front seven return, including defensive ends E.J. Wilson and Robert Quinn, defensive tackles Marvin Austin and Cam Thomas, and linebackers Quan Sturdivant and Bruce Carter. Carter made a name for himself last season when he blocked four consecutive punts during a two-game span, and he was one of four players who returned an interception for a touchdown last year. UNC held its opponents to just 21.15 points per game last year.

Only six starters return on offense, but three of them -- tackle Kyle Jolly, guard Alan Pelc and center Lowell Dyer -- are on the offensive line. UNC's running game wasn't particularly impressive last year, nor was it consistent, but it should be better this year. Tailbacks Shaun Draughn, who didn't start until the seventh game at Virginia, and Ryan Houston, who was used mainly in short-yardage situations, return along with fullback Bobby Rome, a strong blocker.

While there's no question Davis faces a challenge in taking the program one step further this season and doing it with rookie wide receivers, overall UNC returns far more than it lost from 2008.