CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — For the second straight year, North Carolina is starting the season in bumpy fashion.
The school fired Butch Davis as coach a week before the start of preseason practice, putting defensive coordinator Everett Withers in charge of a program operating under the weight of an NCAA investigation into improper benefits and academic misconduct. The Tar Heels also face the distraction of the school's appearance before the NCAA infractions committee in October as well as possible sanctions.
All the players can do now is focus on what happens on the field.
"I try not to worry about it just because we can't change what happened at all," safety Matt Merletti said of Davis' firing. "We have to accept it. Whenever you get presented with a problem, you have a choice about how you want to approach that. We're just trying to be positive about it and just stay focused on our goals."
A year ago, the goal was to contend for an Atlantic Coast Conference championship and a BCS bowl bid with a team that appeared stocked with NFL talent, particularly on defense. But NCAA investigators visited the campus in July 2011, starting a process that ultimately forced the school to sit 14 players at least one game and hold out seven the entire year.
In a sign of what might've been, three of those seven — defensive end Robert Quinn, defensive tackle Marvin Austin and receiver Greg Little — were drafted in the first two rounds of this spring's NFL draft. Yet Davis, with the public backing of chancellor Holden Thorp and athletic director Dick Baddour, guided the Tar Heels to a third straight eight-win season along with his first bowl victory in four seasons.
But Davis is gone after an abrupt reversal from Thorp, who said the NCAA probe had cumulative damage to the university's reputation and integrity. That forced Withers to take over as interim coach, leading a program that appears to have enough returning talent to at least climb past its recent eight-win plateau.
"Here's what you've got to understand: what these kids went through last year, there ain't nothing that's going to shock these guys," Withers said. "So as soon as I was named head coach, I got a bunch of texts that said, 'Coach, let's go. Let's move on.' ... They're looking forward to writing a story on this thing at the end."
The Tar Heels have NFL prospects to lead the defense in linemen Quinton Coples (10 sacks) and Donte Paige-Moss (seven sacks), and linebacker Zach Brown (72 tackles). The unit will also benefit with the return of linebacker Kevin Reddick (team-high 74 tackles) and cornerback Charles Brown, who sat out last year due to the academic probe after starting all 13 games in 2009.
The most immediate question comes under center, where unproven Bryn Renner replaces four-year starter T.J. Yates. Renner, a sophomore, threw just two passes last season behind Yates.
At least he'll have experienced targets. Dwight Jones was one of the league's top receivers who flirted with 1,000 yards, while Erik Highsmith and Jheranie Boyd have had some big games the past two seasons.
Tailback Ryan Houston should give the Tar Heels a physical rushing game to help Renner, too. He opted to redshirt after being cleared to return last year at midseason and is expected to recover from offseason surgery on his shoulder blade in time for the regular season. He'll run behind a line that has three returning full-time starters and a fourth who started four games last season.
"I feel like whatever success that was possible is still possible," junior offensive guard Jonathan Cooper said. "Our goal is to get past the eight-win hump. I feel like we have the team and the coaches and just the mentality to do so."