CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Butch Davis says his North Carolina team should be ready to play without several key players amid an ongoing NCAA investigation. Still, that doesn't make things any easier for the Tar Heels as they prepare to face Atlantic Coast Conference division rival Georgia Tech.
The Tar Heels (0-1) played without 13 players in the opening loss to LSU and had hoped to find out the status of several players during the open week that followed. But only one member of that group — tailback Shaun Draughn — was cleared in time to go through full week of game preparation, while Davis said any other last-minute additions won't start and likely would be limited in any role they played.
"Going into the LSU game, we said, 'Look, this is the football team we've got,'" Davis said, "and we've kind of stayed the course with that."
North Carolina came into the season believing it could win behind a defense filled with NFL prospects, a unit that also figured to be talented and disciplined enough to stand up to the Yellow Jackets (1-1) and their triple-option running attack.
But that defense was gutted for the opener, losing starters Marvin Austin, Robert Quinn, Kendric Burney, Charles Brown, Deunta Williams and Da'Norris Searcy.
Those players are still in doubt, along with top receiver Greg Little and goal-line back Ryan Houston among others as the probe continues into agent-related benefits and possible academic misconduct involving a tutor. While the Tar Heels nearly pulled out a last-second win against LSU, the personnel losses caused a trickle-down effect with younger players pressed into duty on defense and depleting the kick-coverage units that gave up a big day to the Tigers.
Against Georgia Tech, it could lead to missed defensive assignments by inexperienced players.
"As long as everybody goes out there on the same page, we have to communicate — that's our No. 1," linebacker Bruce Carter said. "As far as athleticism and size, I think we can match up with them all day. But the main thing is knowing what you've got to do."
Draughn's return will provide a boost to a running game that did nothing against LSU but could help quarterback T.J. Yates and the offense sustain enough drives to keep the Yellow Jackets' offense on the sideline. That worked two years ago, when the Tar Heels ran for 186 yards and the defense didn't allow a touchdown until the fourth quarter in a 28-7 win.
The reverse took place in Atlanta last season. The Yellow Jackets shut down North Carolina's ground game while rolling to 317 yards rushing in the 24-7 victory, Georgia Tech's 10th in 12 meetings.
The Yellow Jackets are coming off a 28-25 loss at Kansas that knocked them from the national rankings. Earlier this week, coach Paul Johnson said he wasn't interested in what his players had to say about learning from their performance against the Jayhawks. Rather, he said he wanted them to "Show me, don't tell me."
"It is a chance for us to make a statement moving forward," Johnson said, "as opposed to looking backward."
The defending ACC champions were a big favorite in that game, but were plagued by dropped passes and a 13-yard punt on a frustrating afternoon that might have come just in time considering the Yellow Jackets are starting a stretch of four straight league games.
"We learned there's a lot to work on," linebacker Steven Sylvester said. "We weren't as good as we thought we were. We came out there a little cocky and got punched in the mouth pretty quick. It was humbling."