This post should be prefaced by three basic assumptions: a) Mock drafts are frequently fool's errands at any date on the calendar; b) A mock draft published a full year ahead of the actual event, with an entire season to play, is an inherently absurd exercise (even if it turns out to be remarkably prescient); and c) Todd McShay, specifically, doesn't necessarily know what he's talking about. (Seriously, Fili Moala as the No. 1 pick?)
But McShay's first stab at a 2011 mock draft ($) is prescient in one sense: The expectations for North Carolina's defense this fall – and subsequently for the entire team – are going to be through the roof. By McShay's count, the Tar Heels have four first-round prospects back – linemen Robert Quinn and Marvin Austin, linebacker Bruce Carter and safety Deunta Williams – and a fifth, linebacker Quan Studivant, as one of the top players on the fringes of the first round. Sports Illustrated's Andrew Perloff is less enthusiastic about the whole lot, but confirms Quinn and Austin as top-20 prospects, at worst.
Of course, that's telling ACC fans what they already knew: UNC led the ACC in total defense and finished in the top 15 nationally in every major category last year, when Quinn, Sturdivant and Williams were all voted first-team all-conference and Austin and Carter came in on the second team. If you're going to hitch your wagon to any defense this fall, statistically and personnel-wise, this is the one.
Whether that translates into a serious run at the ACC championship will largely depend on the rock-bottom offense's ability to deliver enough oomph to get over the hump in close games – of Carolina's five losses in '09, the last three came by a combined six points against Florida State, N.C. State and Pittsburgh, all games the Heels led in the fourth quarter – and also serve as a kind of referendum on the direction of the program under Butch Davis, whose heretofore successful rebuilding job since 2007 (beginning with the surprising top-20 recruiting class prior to that season) has been aiming toward a breakthrough campaign this fall almost from the moment he was hired. The best of the '07 class, namely Austin, Sturdivant and top receiver Greg Little, are entering their final seasons, with a four-year starting quarterback (T.J. Yates) among 17 returning starters overall. The much-hyped 2009 class, Davis' highest-ranked crop to date, should begin to come of age and has already contributed a badly-needed deep threat in Jheranie Boyd, who averaged almost 18 yards with four touchdowns on just 12 catches as a true freshman. Most importantly, of course, the defense is a stone killer with five veterans who have early-round potential.
If that doesn't amount to at least an Atlantic Division crown, I'm not sure what will at a basketball school that hasn't won a conference championship since 1980. Four years in, the wave of optimism Davis has ridden to refreshing success over the last two seasons (back-to-back eight-win seasons, best at UNC since Mack Brown used a 21-3 run in 1996-97 as a springboard to the Texas gig) is approaching a breaking point: Is there a next level here, a 10/11-win run with serious BCS potential, or is UNC destined to top out in the Gator Bowl for the foreseeable future? If the former is within reach – and the draft love, along with last year's close calls, suggests it is in an always wide-open ACC – Davis may not get a better opportunity than 2010 to cash in.