The new lights at North Carolina’s stadium should be about 150 percent brighter than the ones from last season. The team expects to shine a lot more, too.
The 21st-ranked Tar Heels hope their play can match those revamped fixtures as they open the season at the freshly illuminated Kenan Memorial Stadium on Saturday night against The Citadel.
In its second year under coach Butch Davis, North Carolina broke a shroud of losing in 2008 with an 8-5 finish, doubling its victories from the previous year and recording its first winning season since 2001.
The Tar Heels fell short of reaching the ACC title game, however, losing two of their final three conference games and finishing one behind Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech in the Coastal Division. They also just missed their first postseason win in seven years, falling 31-30 to West Virginia in the Meineke Bowl in Charlotte.
North Carolina was picked to finish third in the division again behind the Hokies and Yellow Jackets, but it could beat expectations if an inexperienced receiving corps performs well.
“We’re going to play a few wide receivers to see who truly wants to be the starter,” Davis said. “(Saturday’s game) will be an opportunity for those guys to gain some confidence, play well and separate themselves from some of their teammates.”
The Tar Heels lost their three top receivers from a year ago, including New York Giants’ first-round pick Hakeem Nicks. Greg Little is their top returning receiver after catching 11 passes for 146 yards last season, but he also played some running back, with 339 yards and three touchdowns as a rusher.
Quarterback T.J. Yates returns after missing nearly half of last season with an ankle injury. Yates had 1,168 yards and 11 touchdowns in seven games after throwing for 2,655 yards and 14 TDs in 2007.
“His comfort level with our offense is very good,” Davis said. “One of the things we’ve asked him to do is a great job in the pocket, moving and keeping plays alive so he can look for receivers who will come open.”
Shaun Draughn also comes back after rushing for 866 yards - the most by a Tar Heels player in 11 seasons. Fellow junior Ryan Houston ran for eight touchdowns, most of which were in short-yardage situations.
The Tar Heels have four of their five starting offensive linemen from a year ago, including three seniors.
While six starters return on offense, North Carolina brings back an ACC-best nine on defense. Quan Sturdivant led the nation with 87 solo tackles and moves from weakside to middle linebacker this season.
Defensive tackle Marvin Austin and cornerback Kendric Burney joined Sturdivant as the Tar Heels’ only representatives on the All-ACC preseason team.
“We need consistency this year,” Davis said. “I think during last season, we had pieces of the defense that played brilliant. There were games where we created turnovers, played extraordinarily well against the run and played extremely well against the pass. We just have to put those kinds of games all together.”
The Citadel lost seven of its final eight games last season to finish 4-8, its 10th losing record in 11 seasons.
Despite being predicted to finish sixth in the Southern Conference, the Bulldogs return 16 starters and one of the Football Championship Subdivision’s best players in senior receiver Andre Roberts.
The second team All-American is The Citadel’s all-time leader in catches (208) and receiving yards (2,951) after posting a school-record 95 receptions for 1,334 yards last year. Roberts led the FCS with 19.2 yards per punt return.
“We’ve tried to spend a significant amount of time on covering kicks,” Davis said. “He’s an electrifying returner, and you can’t give him that kind of an opportunity.”
Bart Blanchard returns at quarterback after compiling a school-record 2,609 total yards and 2,436 passing yards, third-most in school history, as a sophomore.
Kevin Hardy, who won the long jump title at this spring’s SoCon track meet, is expected to be Blanchard’s second option behind Roberts.
The Tar Heels have won all three games in the series but have not faced the Bulldogs since Sept. 6, 1986.