Tue Jun 08 07:05pm EDT
Sizing up the fall's most intriguing players, in no particular order. Today: Senior North Carolina receiver Greg Little.
• Typecasting. Little was a classic "athlete" out of high school, a versatile 'tweener whose 6'2", 210-pound frame projected to safety or linebacker, but who was too dynamic with the ball in his hands for a team in desperate need of offensive playmakers to stick on defense. Three years in, he's still liable to line up just about anywhere on any given snap: As a freshman, he started as a receiver before picking up a few carries at midseason, eventually breaking out with 243 yards on 40 carries over the last two games. His stint as the starting tailback lasted all of four games into 2008, when he found himself abruptly buried on the depth chart and shuffled between positions for the rest of the year.
Little seemed to finally settle into a "receiver with benefits" role last year, quickly emerging as the team's most reliable target in the anemic passing game, but also commanding multiple carries from a variety of positions down the stretch to ensure more touches without the dicey prospect of actually putting the ball in the air.
The Tar Heels return 10 starters and more than 99 percent of last year's total yardage on offense. But that outfit was so bad (108th nationally in total offense, 83rd in scoring), even the staggering accumulation talent returning from the ACC's best defense is keeping UNC on the fringes of the conference title debate going into the season. Little is the one returnee on the offense who's displayed enough consistency and explosiveness to get the attack out of the doldrums – at least far enough to get the first-rate D over the top in true breakout fashion.
• Best-case. Little has a little quickness and good instincts in the open field, but as his size indicates, his best asset as both a runner and receiver is his physicality: He's tough to bring down with the ball, and has developed a knack for positioning himself to out-leap smaller defenders for jump balls in traffic – see, most memorably, the first of his two touchdown catches against Pittsburgh in last December's Car Care Bowl (above), probably the most spectacular grab of the past season somehow not available on YouTube.
The combination of coordinator John Shoop's NFL-bred conservatism and quarterback T.J. Yates' mediocre arm has rendered Carolina's passing game a bland, frustrating melange of crossing routes and ineffectual misdirection, reflected in the lowly numbers. But the offense was never better last year than on a 10-play, 80-yard drive on its first possession against Florida State, on which Little provided the spark with three catches for 53 yards and the exclamation point on a five-yard touchdown run en route to his best game of the season:
Little is probably the best runner on the team. But going into the FSU game, he'd only earned five carries for six yards over the first six weeks of the season; after going for 48 yards on four carries against the Seminoles, he logged 20 carries for 112 yards over the last six, including gains of 23 yards in a Thursday-night upset of Virginia Tech and 31 yards against Pitt.
More importantly, though, he seemed to be finding his place as a receiver at the same time, bringing in 35 passes for just shy of 500 yards and four touchdowns over the second half of the year. The season-ending efforts against N.C. State (6 catches, 159 yards) and Pitt (7 catches, 87 yards) were the best receiving games of his career and should propel him towards serious all-conference consideration on preseason ballots. (And if ACC voters aren't interested, the NFL certainly will be next April.)
• Worst-case. It's not entirely fair to dismiss Little as a deep threat in this offense, with this quarterback – North Carolina was the only offense in the conference whose top three receivers all averaged less than 12 yards per catch – but suffice to say he is not a burner: His 40-time is generally listed in the high 4.5 range, which keeps him firmly in the "possession" category.
Little's longest gain last year was a 62-yard catch-and-run to the N.C. State 10-yard line; only four other receptions went for longer than 25 yards, and none for more than thirty-four. Almost as many of his catches (28) were stopped shy of the sticks as went for first downs (34), slightly below the ACC average for all receivers; for a team leader, it was lo-fi to the extreme.
• (Moderately) Fun Fact. Little joined the Carolina basketball team as a freshman, totaling five points, five rebounds, two assists and three personal fouls in 15 minutes of game action during the Heels' Final Four run in 2008. Even in that brief appearance, he managed to shoot 1-6 on three-pointers, or .182, next-to-last on the team. At least we know from Little's MySpace page that he could totally dunk back in high school:
• What to Expect in '10. With the most talented defense in the country, UNC doesn't need an All-American game-breaker to put out a BCS-caliber attack; a big play or two per game and a couple clutch catches to move the sticks on key possessions could be worth a couple extra wins for a veteran outfit that lost three games last year by a combined six points, all of which they led in the fourth quarter.
The first key will be finding ways to get its best skill player the ball more often. Little averaged just shy of eight touches per game last year, including kickoff returns; optimally, that number will hit double digits this fall on offense alone. He can attack a defense from any number of angles, and given enough opportunities, he's the one player who can keep Carolina fans from covering their eyes when the offense is on the field.
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Previously (alphabetical by school): Marcell Dareus, Alabama. ... Armon Binns, Cincinnati. ... Andre Ellington, Clemson. ... Ahmad Black, Florida. ... Anthony Allen, Georgia Tech. ... Martez Wilson, Illinois. ... Tandon Doss, Indiana. ... Sean Spence, Miami. ... Aldon Smith, Missouri. ... Nate Irving, N.C. State. ... Jared Crick, Nebraska. ... Mike Adams/J.B. Shugarts, Ohio State. ... DeMarco Murray, Oklahoma. ... Kenny Rowe, Oregon. ... Stephon Gilmore, South Carolina. ... Devon Kennard, Southern Cal. ... Janzen Jackson, Tennessee. ... Christine Michael, Texas A&M. ... Akeem Ayers, UCLA. ... Warren Norman, Vanderbilt. ... Jermaine Kearse, Washington.
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Dr. Saturday is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.