NCAA probe overshadowing Tar Heels' potential
North Carolina entered the summer with everything just about where it wanted: A top defense, a high-profile opener and a buzz that comes with being regarded as a title contender.
Now an NCAA investigation into the program is putting a damper on all that excitement as the Tar Heels work through training camp.
The probe is focused on whether two players - senior defensive tackle Marvin Austin and senior receiver Greg Little - received improper benefits from agents. Their uncertain status for the opener against LSU and beyond makes it difficult to know exactly what to expect from the Tar Heels in 2010.
''It is kind of a distraction,'' quarterback T.J. Yates said. ''But we kind of look at it as we've already taken our adversity for the season. So once we get over this little speed bump, we'll be able to put it behind us and go forward through the season.''
With Austin - a projected first-round NFL draft pick - and Little, the team's top receiver, North Carolina looks like it can contend in the Coastal Division of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Without them, the defense would lose a key cog in a unit still filled with NFL prospects while the offense could slide backward to a repeat of last year's inconsistency.
Coach Butch Davis said he doesn't think the investigation can derail all the momentum that the Tar Heels have built after winning eight games and reaching a bowl the past two seasons.
''I think they are instances that happen and we will deal with these things and I think we'll be a better program because of it,'' Davis said. ''I think we'll learn some things about this world that's out there that maybe we were somewhat naive or maybe not as educated or maybe didn't know much about.''
Before the investigation - which began with the NCAA contacting the school in late June before making a pair of campus visits - North Carolina was best known for returning nine starters from a unit that was sixth nationally in total defense and ranked in the top 15 of four other categories.
Austin, linebackers Quan Sturdivant and Bruce Carter, defensive back Kendric Burney and safety Deunta Williams announced in January that they would return for their senior seasons instead of entering the draft. They join an experienced unit that includes another top NFL prospect in pass rushing end Robert Quinn.
''I don't feel any pressure and I feel the leaders on this team don't really feel a lot of pressure,'' Williams said. ''I feel like we just know what we have. Most of us, this is our last go-around and we can't waste this opportunity.''
The defense had to carry more than its share of the load last season while the offense faced injuries on the line and inexperience at receiver. Yates struggled all year, getting booed often by the home fans and even being hit in the helmet by a coin thrown from the Kenan Stadium stands after the Tar Heels let a big lead slip away in a loss to Florida State. The senior with 31 career starts dating to Davis' first game here now has competition in sophomore Bryn Renner, putting pressure on Yates to perform better immediately.
He should get more help this year. Four of the five starters on the offensive line are back, while tailbacks Shaun Draughn and Ryan Houston formed an effective 1-2 punch.
His receiving options should be better, too. Little emerged as the team's go-to guy late in the season, while Erik Highsmith and Jheranie Boyd showed flashes of big-play potential while being pressed into the lineup as true freshmen. Tight end Zack Pianalto returns as well after finishing third in receptions last year despite missing five games due to injury.
''Coach Davis presses it every day in practice, that we can't take any practices off,'' Carter said. ''You can't worry about what you did yesterday. For now, we're just going out there trying to push each other. On defense, we're out there running to the ball and the offense is looking good.''
They'll just have to wait to find out whether those units will have their full lineup against the Tigers in Atlanta on Sept. 4. If so, the Tar Heels could live up to all the preseason national rankings.
''It's good to have some positive energy and feed back from the rest of the country going into the season,'' Yates said. ''I know people expect a lot out of us.''