Withers, Tar Heels open preseason practice
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP)
Everett Withers had spent the past three seasons focusing on North Carolina's defensive players, yelling to motivate them or pulling them aside to talk about technique. He had a lot more to worry about Friday in his first practice as the Tar Heels' interim coach.
''I just didn't know where to go,'' Withers said. ''Am I going to go watch the running backs? Go watch the receivers?''
Withers' whereabouts on the campus practice fields were the most noticeable change for the Tar Heels, who carried on with a business-as-usual attitude despite being only a week removed from the unexpected firing of head coach Butch Davis. The 48-year-old Withers - wearing khaki shorts, a white long-sleeved shirt and a blue ball cap - had served as defensive coordinator and secondary coach under Davis. But he kept an eye on everything Friday, especially those offensive players that he typically hadn't seen as much over the years.
''I'm not Butch Davis, I'm Everett Withers, you know?'' he said. ''Learn me, and learn how I do things. Not that I'm going to be this drastic ogre or anything, but I want to try to make sure that we're accountable and do things right, and I'm going to try to hold them accountable to doing the things right on the field, off the field and in the community. I want them to get to know me, because I want them to feel comfortable with me.''
The Tar Heels appeared set to start Davis' fifth season until the school dismissed the coach, citing the cumulative damage over the past year amid an NCAA investigation into improper benefits and academic misconduct within the program. Players reported to campus Thursday night, with defensive players telling everyone to be ready for Withers' direct and more vocal style.
''I don't think it'll be that hard for the older guys, because they have seen him,'' offensive guard Jonathan Cooper said. ''That'll make it easier. And the younger guys, that's all they know. They've only had a spring or maybe a few days under coach Davis, so it shouldn't be that big of a transition.
''The message that he's sending - just push forward - I feel like everybody's buying into it.''
Withers didn't give off an everybody-look-at-me vibe during practice. Rather, he moved from unit to unit and even blended in with the crowd just like the rest of the assistant coaches spread across the practice fields.
As the Tar Heels lined up for stretches early in the practice, Withers weaved in and out of the ranks to give his players a firm pat on the chest, a fist bump, a high five or a tap on the shoulder pads. At times, he was back in a hands-on coaching mode with the defense, from yelling at players during an interception return to talking with freshman linebacker Travis Hughes about his tackling technique.
At others, he watched quietly to the side as quarterbacks Bryn Renner, Braden Hansen and Marquise Williams worked on a drill to improve their footwork in the pocket.
''He's got a lot of intensity,'' Renner said. ''Not saying Coach Davis didn't, but I think he has a lot more energy and he wants to win really bad. He'll do whatever it takes. That's what we like about it. Even bringing it to the offensive side of the ball. He was slapping people on the butts and all that stuff today. It was awesome.''
The school also announced Friday that junior cornerback Mywan Jackson, who started five games last season, would not return. Jackson, a native of Seffner, Fla., was dealing with ''personal issues'' with his family and wanted to play closer to home, according to a news release.
In addition, defensive tackle Brandon Willis has decided to transfer for a second time from UNC. Willis transferred to UCLA last year after two weeks of fall camp here for family reasons, but transferred back to Chapel Hill for summer classes in May. Willis sat out last year as a transfer and has yet to play a college game.
Withers said the Willis family felt like it needed to ''move on and investigate other avenues.'' Withers also said the team is giving scholarships to fullback Curtis Byrd, deep snapper Mark House and holder Trase Jones.
As for the rest of the team, Withers said the players aren't dwelling about Davis' ouster or anything else from the past.
''We just talked about moving on, talked about having the focus to move on,'' Withers said, ''because that's what (Davis) wants us to do.''