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September 4, 2008Anyone who has followed Carolina athletics closely through the years and understands the impact Dean Smith had on so many of the coaches at UNC and the philosophy taken in how a coach conductions himself and accepts responsibility publicly, Butch Davis' words this week should be music to one's ears.
Davis did not blame his players for any problems that occurred in the first game of the season. He took full responsibility as head coach, and he talked about focusing the efforts of the players and the coaching staff on making UNC better and not worrying too much about the next opponent.
Smith, the father of the so-called Carolina style, could not have said it better himself.
"Obviously not playing this Saturday gives us an opportunity to take look at some of the struggles we had and maybe some of the reasons we struggled," Davis said. "We were very fortunate to have won the ball game. There were an awful lot of bizarre things: an excessive, over two-hour rain delay that obviously we didn't do a good job, myself as a coach, of getting our players back into the emotion that we had at the start of the ball game.
"I certainly take full responsibility for that."
Nonetheless, the most important thing is to remember that UNC won the game 35-27, and it is much better to work on one's errors after a win than a loss. Smith always believed that message as well.
He also preached that Carolina should worry most about Carolina.
Now before any Rutgers fans take offense, just understand that Smith rarely showed film of the other team to his players. He believed that if Carolina executed its principles, they would carry the Tar Heels against any opponent.
Football is a little different in that the kids need to see the film, but Davis was insistent that UNC work on itself first.
"There are some areas we have to try to get better at," Davis said. "The early part of the season is when you have the chance to make the most improvement as a football team. It's the first chance you have to work full speed, live special teams. You can actually work on punt cover, kick cover and all the special teams' aspects.
"This week, not playing, gives us a chance to work on us more than anything else. Later in the week we'll certainly turn our attention to Rutgers, which is a terrific football team. They have an awful lot of speed and some very good athletes. Right now it is more important for us to work on Carolina than it is to work on anything else."
After the game on Saturday and again in the ACC coaches' conference call on Wednesday, Davis talked about the team and the coaches dealing in reality, not preseason predictions. So it's obvious he is concerned about grounding a young team that may have read and listened a little too much to how good it should be this season.
The key to realizing potential is working and focusing mentally on actually executing what the coaching staff is teaching.
So when someone asked him if he looked at how the league did and whether its bruised reputation had an impact on this next game, Davis said quite simply that he is not looking at anything but making sure his coaching staff and players are correcting the errors from the first game and become fundamentally better.
"In the month of September, you're going to make you're most improvement," Davis said. "From game one to game two is probably the biggest leap, and game two to game three. One is because you're playing with an awful lot of kids that are in their first opportunity to play in a ball game. They are true freshmen, red-shirt freshmen or maybe even sophomores or red-shirt sophomores. The speed of the game, no matter how hard you try, you cannot replicate the game speed in practice.
"Fifteen or 30 years ago, maybe you could. You could scrimmage more and get kids used to live scrimmage work. But now with the reduced number of scholarships, it's almost impossible to replicate that, certainly during August. You're worried you're not going to have some of the guys ready to go the first couple of weeks. God forbid you would lose them."
That is why the nature of the schedule, after years of brutally working against UNC, finally is operating in the Tar Heels' favor, and that is no reflection on Rutgers. It has to do with the approach Davis and the staff are taking with a team that is still young and learning on the job.
McNeese State, especially with the experience and great speed the Cowboys brought to Kenan Stadium, provided a critical baseline off which the Tar Heels have a chance to build. The extra time, given UNC will not play until Sept. 11 at 7:30 p.m. on ESPN at Rutgers, gives the coaching staff the extra time it needs to teach.
"If you have an experienced, veteran football team, you want to start playing and you want to play every single week," Davis said. "When you're playing a lot of young kids like we are having some extra time is a good thing."
Nowhere is that truer than on special teams. UNC returned a punt for a touchdown and gave one up. Senior return specialist and wide receiver Brandon Tate made the difference in the game with his 397 yards of total offense, his two touchdowns and his run from scrimmage that set up another.
Davis said the key now is to make sure his teammates on the return teams do their jobs to the best of their ability because they have a special talent on their team that can take advantage of any opportunity to squirt through for big plays.
"Of all the years I've coached on every single level, I don't know that I've seen every single performance where someone showed up and had that much yardage," Davis said. "He was a difference-maker in the outcome of the ball game. He's a special kid. We need to get him touches in the course of ball games.
"But you also need to understand that if you're playing on special teams with him, something big could happen every time the ball is kicked. Everybody needs to take good responsibilities to give him those opportunities."