UNC interim head coach Everett Withers greets freshman linebacker Keeon Virgile (54) during the Tar Heels' first practice of the season. ROBERT WILLETT- email@example.com
CHAPEL HILL – Last year, North Carolina’s Everett Withers spent all of his time on the practice field with the defense – concentrating on the secondary, with the offense mostly an afterthought.
So Friday, during his first official workout as the Tar Heels’ interim head coach, UNC’s former defensive coordinator admitted there were moments when he didn’t know where to fix his gaze
“Am I going to go watch the running backs? Go watch the receivers?” he said.
By the end, Withers had spent a little time with every position group – continuing to get to know, more personally, the team he took over just a week ago from fired head coach Butch Davis.
Over the last few days, he’s dined with players, met with the leadership committee and addressed the team as a whole. His message: the Tar Heels can still win plenty of games, and it’s time to look forward, not back.
“He’s got a lot of intensity,’’ said sophomore quarterback Bryn Renner. “Not saying Coach Davis didn’t, but I think he [Withers] 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.”
Not every Tar Heel was on hand to experience Withers’ energetic first practice, though:
• Mywan Jackson, a junior cornerback who started five games last year, did not return to UNC because of personal reasons.
• Freshman defensive tackle Brandon Willis, who transferred from UNC to UCLA, only to transfer back to UNC, opted to transfer, again.
• Freshman defensive back Brandon Ellerbe is still waiting to be OK’ed by the NCAA Clearinghouse.
• Senior running back Ryan Houston, slated to be a starter, missed practice because he was dealing with a “personal issue” at home in Charlotte. Withers did not specify the issue, but according to court records, Houston had a court date Friday in Cabarrus County for an expired registration card/tag and no operator’s license. The player is expected to be back for today’s practice.
Wearing khaki shorts, a long-sleeved white t-shirt and a Tar Heel blue cap, Withers blended in with his new team at practice – weaving through the lines of stretching players to offer high-fives and fist bumps.
The defensive players who know Withers best have cautioned their offensive counterparts that he’s more direct, and at times louder, than Davis. But, said defensive lineman Tydreke Powell, “they’re going to learn he’s a great guy. He loves to work. He loves to eliminate the little mistakes.”
To that end, UNC will close practice and interviews to the media until next Thursday. It’s a way, Withers said, for his team to get to know him – and vice versa.
“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. So I just want them to know me. I want them to get to know me, because I want them to feel comfortable with me.”
Withers said that despite his sometimes-confusion as to how to spread his attention amongst the position groups, his first practice as a head coach was what he dreamed it would be: teaching good kids who love football, and being taught a few things, himself.
“I jumped in it and felt comfortable with it as practice went on,’’ he said. “ … I wanted to see a little bit more of the offense … so I’m over there learning what Kenny Browning tells the running backs, and what John Shoop tells the quarterbacks. It’s a great learning experience for me.”
BRIEFLY: Withers awarded scholarships to three veteran players: fullback Curtis Byrd, holder Trase Jones and deep snapper Mark House.