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October 27, 2011Prior to Thursday afternoon's practice session, North Carolina head coach Everett Withers spoke to a handful of reporters.
Once the Tar Heels starting practicing there were a number of players that were noticeably either not practicing, or wearing red 'no contact' jerseys.
Coach Withers indicated that two redshirt freshmen will be out of commission this week as they work through various injuries.
"Reggie Wilkins won't play this week. Really the only other guy this week has been Sean Fitzpatrick. He won't play. He's got a little bit of a head injury, so we'll hold him. We feel like we'll have available everybody else," said Withers.
Senior running back Ryan Houston and junior wide receiver Jheranie Boyd were each wearing red 'no contact' jerseys Thursday, but both UNC veterans are expected to take the field Saturday when the Tar Heels take on Wake Forest.
Redshirt freshman running back Giovani Bernard still continues to deal with a nagging hip ailment, but he was practicing Thursday and he should be fine for Saturday.
"Gio is fine. Gio is ready to go. He's more healthy this week than he was last week. I think he'll start the game," said Withers.
UNC should also have senior fullback Curtis Byrd available to play against the Demon Deacons.
"We think he (Byrd) will be available," Withers said.
One of the challenges for the Tar Heels this week in practice has been dealing with the loss of senior leader Matt Merletti, who was lost with a knee injury down at Clemson.
Sadly Merletti has played his last down of football at UNC, and a handful of players will have to pick up the slack both in the secondary and on special teams, where Merletti was a valued team captain.
"You miss Matt because of his consistency and focus and the way he carries himself, but we've got other guys back there to play snaps too," Withers said. "We've got enough guys in the back end. Jonathan Smith has played a number of snaps. Charles Brown has played a lot around here. So we've got guys to line up."
Smith, who has been injured as well at different points this fall, is the projected starter for Carolina at strong safety heading into Saturday's game, with Gene Robinson his primary backup.
Tre Boston, who has been getting back up to speed the last couple of weeks at free safety, is projected to start there against the Demon Deacons, with Brian Gupton serving as his primary backup.
It's been an interesting transition over the past several months for Boston from safety, cornerback, and then back to safety, but now he appears locked in at the free safety spot at least through the rest of this season, barring significant injuries.
"Tre has been back there (at free safety in practice) last week, and he'll be back there again this week. Jonathan Smith is back there, Brian Gupton. Those kids, they're into their positions and they're ready to go."
Coach Withers says he hasn't noticed a drop in morale from his team coming off back-to-back losses and after losing such an influential team leader as Merletti.
"I think it's been pretty status quo as far as work ethic and practice habits and those type things. We've been in a mode. We can and need to play better on Saturdays. We know that," he said.
Withers admitted that the coaches are trying to talk a fine line in these last few weeks of the regular season between getting the Tar Heels sufficiently ready to play, but also trying to save up their stamina while minimizing the risks of injuries in practice.
"It's been a long year for these guys, and we haven't had the bye yet. We're trying to protect them as much as we can but still get our work done," he said.
Withers did seem pleased to pass along that he doesn't feel the players themselves are affected in the least by what happens Friday at North Carolina's hearing in front of the NCAA Committee on Infractions.
"I don't think it (the NCAA hearing) will have one bit of an impact. (The players haven't talked about it) not one bit," he said.
One of the particular challenges in practice this week has been getting prepared for having to go against Wake Forest sophomore quarterback Tanner Price, who has been lethal at times this season through the air.
Price has shown solid escape ability along with the ability to make precise throws on the run, so it's going to be up to the Tar Heels to try and rattle him and throw him off his game on Saturday.
It won't be easy, but UNC is using everything in its arsenal to prepare adequately for Price and what he figures to throw at them during the game.
"It's part of what we call a 'plaster' drill. We do it in practice, and we've done it both practices this week. We'll do it again today (Thursday)," Withers said.
"It's not that they (Wake Forest's coaches) get him out there (outside the pocket). He (Price) does a good job of escaping the rush and get out on the edges. What you want to do is make this guy step up if you can, and you just have to work on that."
"It's really an off-schedule type play (Price taking off and running)," Withers continued.
One of the really big keys on Saturday is going to be the turnover margin, as Wake Forest comes in positive in the turnover margin for the season, while UNC is giving up the ball more often than its forcing turnovers.
Although Wake Forest has struggled to put teams away at times in the fourth quarter this fall, they're a team that is capable of beating just about anybody they play when they're forcing turnovers. Just ask N.C. State, Florida State, and Boston College.
For UNC, coming off a week in which it handed away six turnovers to Clemson, this week has been all about ball security and stressing more than ever the need to hang onto the football.
While it's easy to say UNC should beat Wake Forest looking strictly at the two teams' personnel, nothing will get the Tar Heels beat on their home field more quickly than dropping the turnover margin to the Demon Deacons.
And Withers seems to get that.
"It's a mindset, focusing on it in practice. I think the big thing is don't have them (turnovers) in practice and really focusing on protecting the ball and ball security in practice. We do drills on it all the time, so again, I think it's more of a mindset holding onto the football," he said.
"I think you've got to stress it. I think every team in America stresses it, so we've got to continue to focus on it and let it be part of our daily plan."
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