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The Tar Heels' tailback dilemma, and some more UNC notes

By Mark Giannotto

With North Carolina's top running back Johnny White out for the remainder of the regular season after breaking his clavicle in the Tar Heels' 37-35 win over Florida State last weekend, Coach Butch Davis might do something unprecedented when Virginia Tech pays a visit to Chapel Hill.

Davis is debating whether to dress senior running back Ryan Houston for the first time all season. Houston was one of the 14 players implicated in the NCAA's investigation into illegal contact with agents and academic impropriety. The senior was suspended for the first five games of the season, and as a result decided to take a redshirt year in 2010.

But with White's replacement, Shaun Draughn, questionable after injuring his ankle in the Florida State win, the Tar Heels could be left with only a converted fullback (senior Anthony Elzy) and a player who was the scout team running back just a week ago (sophomore Austin Furr) in the backfield against Virginia Tech.

This, though, is a delicate decision for Davis. He must determine whether the potential to improve the Tar Heels' 6-3 record is more important than Houston getting another full season. If Houston plays, his eligibility would run out at the end of this season and his college career would be over. Houston gained 713 yards and scored nine touchdowns in 2009. In the Tar Heels' 20-17 win over the Hokies a year ago, he had 66 yards rushing.

"Certainly I’ve had some conversations with Ryan and that'll probably be a potential game time decision," Davis said on the ACC teleconference Wednesday. "The other running backs, obviously we’ve lost Johnny White for the remainder of the regular season and we’re working with the guys that played in last week’s game.”

“A lot of it will obviously have to do with the help of some of the other guys before we would make any kind of final determination,” Davis told the Winston-Salem Journal earlier in the week. “It’s a tough balancing act. It’s one of those things that’s ‘what’s best for the team and what’s best for the kid.’ It’s a confliction.”

More notes from Davis's teleconference

One of the big reasons North Carolina has reeled off six wins in its last seven games and remains in the hunt for the Coastal Division title despite all the distractions it has been through has been the play of fifth-year senior T.J. Yates. Through nine games, he already has more yards (2,312) and touchdown passes (15) than he had during the entire 2009 season.

Even though the Tar Heels lost star receiver Greg Little for the season because of those NCAA violations, Yates found a new favorite target in 6-foot-4 junior Dwight Jones, especially of late. Jones has been described by Virginia Tech coaches and players this week as a future NFL draft pick, and he's got 28 catches for 612 yards and three touchdowns in his last four games.

Throwing all those completions, though, is Yates. While many North Carolina loyalists thought this might be the year Yates lost his grip on the starting job to 2008 All-Met Bryn Renner, the senior has responded with his best year ever. He's completing a career-high 66.4 percent of his passes and has thrown just four interceptions -- in 2009, he threw 15.

"He had some growing pains a year ago where obviously he was criticized by a lot of people for trying to squeeze balls in that he wishes he had certain throws over," Davis said. "I think you’re always a byproduct of the experiences that you go through. People make mistakes and you learn from them and he clearly is much better at a lot that stuff this year. He’s making really wise decisions … not feeling like you have to get it all in one chunk.”

*Defensive tackle Quinton Coples has been a force along the defensive line for North Carolina this season. But like many of the Tar Heels, his life has been altered because of the multiple suspensions North Carolina has endured. Coples was originally slotted to be the left defensive end this year, but with the loss of Marvin Austin and Robert Quinn, he's been moved inside permanently.

On Tuesday, Coach Frank Beamer remarked just how tough it is to block Coples because of his quickness playing on the edge prior to this season. He leads North Carolina with 6.5 sacks and 12 tackles for a loss.

"We moved him to the defensive tackle position and it was kind of baptism under fire," Davis said. "There's a lot of growing pains. ... Every week his fundamentals and technique improve."

*One of the more interesting parts of this week has been trying to decode Beamer's take on North Carolina's situation this year since Davis and the Tar Heels have re-established themselves as a recruiting force in Virginia Tech's neck of the woods in recent years.

While Beamer has not said anything negative about Davis whatsoever, it is curious that almost every time the success North Carolina has had this season is brought up, Beamer is quick to credit the "talented players" on the Tar Heels' roster. There's been little mention of the Tar Heels coaching staff, which is unusual for Beamer when he's talking about the opposition.

I asked Davis specifically about the resiliency this year's Tar Heels have shown in the face of so much drama surrounding the program and like Beamer, he praised his players.

"Ultimately a lot of the credit has to go to the leaders on the football team, the unspoken voices in the locker room, away from the football facility," Davis said. "Those guys helping younger guys that could get distracted or could get dismayed because of circumstances going on. They’re kind of the rallying point."

*Last, but certainly not least, I thought all of you would be interested in reading what Georgia Tech Coach Paul Johnson told reporters earlier this week about playing at Lane Stadium last Thursday night.

"I have had the opportunity through the years to play in front of probably 95,000 people in different arenas and I have never played anywhere that was louder than Blacksburg was on Thursday night," Johnson said. "Especially when the game got tight in the second half.
Our guys had a hard time hearing.”

I've watched games at places like Michigan and Penn State and I can certainly attest to what Johnson is saying. When I was on deadline Thursday and they cued up "Enter Sandman" in the fourth quarter, I could barely hear myself think.

By Mark Giannotto  | November 10, 2010; 2:16 PM ET
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Next: Virginia Tech basketball officially nabs top 15 recruiting class


To set straight the record, Ryan Houston was never suspended. He was withheld (as a precaution)from the first five games until cleared in the UNC/NCAA investigation into improper gifts and academic cheating...

Posted by: jason316 | November 12, 2010 7:39 AM | Report abuse

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