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October 21, 2011

Sammy: Heels adjust to personnel changes

Losing a kicker and linebacker may not seem like significant setbacks, but that very situation could have a profound affect on the second half of North Carolina's season.

It wasn't a surprise on Thursday when the Tar Heels announced senior kicker Casey Barth will not return this season due to a lingering groin injury that sent him to the sidelines in the first half of the Virginia game on Sept. 17. Barth will seek a medical redshirt waiver from the Atlantic Coast Conference so he can return for a fifth year in 2012.

Unexpected was the sudden dismissal from the team Monday of senior linebacker Ebele Okakpu for "conduct detrimental to the program.''

Okakpu's departure costs UNC an experienced defender who was finally starting to come into his own this season after spending three years on special teams.

The Roswell, Ga., product had broken into the starting lineup at the weakside linebacker position where he'd made 14 tackles, including three for losses.

The Tar Heels will adjust to the loss by shifting Zach Brown to the weak side and pressing sophomore Darius Lipford into the starting lineup at the strong side position.

True freshman Travis Hughes now becomes the backup at both the weak side and strong side spots, putting him an injury away from becoming a starter. So depth could now become an issue at linebacker down the stretch for UNC.

The decision on Barth may be the biggest blow to the Tar Heels. The Wilmington, N.C., native is one of the school's all-time greats and regarded among the nation's best this season. He's just four shy of breaking his brother Connor's school record of 54 career field goals. And like Connor, Casey has built a reputation for delivering in the clutch.

Freshman walk-on Thomas Moore has handled the placekicking duties since Barth's injury. While Moore is an adequate kicker, he clearly lacks the leg strength of the older Barth and that will limit UNC's options for attempting field goals in the second half of the season.

Moore was a clutch performer in high school - he booted a 50-yard field goal as a senior to beat Northern Durham at homecoming - but significantly different being in that situation in an opposing ACC stadium with 60,000 people screaming at you.

How well the Tar Heels deal with the losses of Okakpu and Barth will make a significant difference in the second half of the season.

Fortunately for UNC, they will have senior center Cam Holland and senior safety Jonathan Smith on Saturday, as head coach Everett Withers indicated Thursday afternoon that both players would be available.

Both Holland and Smith are listed as 'probable' on the team's injury report for this week.

I have to take my hat off to senior running back Ryan Houston, who surely must be wondering at this point if he made a mistake by not coming back to play last season when he had the chance.

Houston, of course, decided to redshirt when cleared in the NCAA and school investigations with seven games remaining last year. He made that decision believing he'd become the Tar Heels major ball carrier this season.

That has not happened due to the development of Giovani Bernard, who enters Saturday's game against Clemson as the nation's top freshman rusher and on track to become UNC's first 1,000-yard runner since 1997.

But despite getting far less playing time than he expected, Houston has remained a contributor in short-yardage situations and is constant source of support for his teammates on the sidelines.

He is regularly the first one to congratulate Bernard after a score or big run, can be seen cheering one the sidelines and hustles on and off the field.

A player of lesser character might pout under the circumstances, but that hasn't happened with Houston. Ultimately, there will be a time during the second half when the Tar Heels need him. I'm confident Ryan Houston will be ready to deliver when that time comes.

Speaking of Bernard, the Davie, Fla., dynamo is on track to have one of the best seasons by a running back in North Carolina history.

Bernard enters the Clemson game averaging 109 yards per game rushing and with 767 yards overall. If he continues at that rate over the final five regular season games, he'll have 1,312 yards rushing which would rank third in UNC's single-season record book.

Tack on a bowl game at that average, and Bernard could reach 1,421 yards. That would put him second on the all-time list behind only the 1970 performance of the great Don McCauley, who racked up 1,720 yards that season.

The schedule down the stretch isn't exactly favorable for Bernard. Three of UNC's final five games will be against teams ranked among the ACC's top five in rushing defense, including leader Virginia Tech.





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