Withers, Tar Heels open preseason practice

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.”