SPARTANBURG, S.C.– North Carolina's talent-laden offense has been generating most of the hype and attention during the week of practice leading up the 68th North Carolina-South Carolina Shrine Bowl Saturday. But, it's their defense that might have the edge when it comes to intelligence and preparation for the annual all-star game.
North Carolina defensive coordinator Steve Johnson said he feels his unit would be ready to play the game if it began this afternoon. Both teams have held eight practices since starting Monday.
"Defensively, I'm real pleased with where we are right now," said Johnson Thursday night. "We are making the right calls up front right now and calling the right coverages. Mentally, it's a big plus having these guys. Not only did we select great athletes, but we made sure they came from programs where they would be well-coached and that is showing."
Safety Stephan Virgil (6-0, 177) comes from one of the top programs (Rocky Mount High) in the state of North Carolina and ranks among the most savvy players on either squad. Virgil plans to verbally commit to either UNC or Virginia Tech next week.
"I couldn't ask for a better kid back there than Stephan," Johnson said. "He picks up everything quickly and it's like having another coach out there because he is so smart."
Virgil's secondary partner and Tennessee commit, Antonio Wardlow (6-1, 200), has been drawing solid reviews from his teammates. Many of the receivers have said Wardlow is the best "cover" cornerback on the team, with Wake Forest commit Brandon Ghee (6-1, 185) coming in as the runner-up for that title.
Duke commits and defensive backs Marquis Melvin (6-1, 200) and Requan Boyette (5-9, 185) have impressed receiver Maurice Covington (6-3, 210), who has committed to Virginia.
"Melvin and Boyette are both real strong and real fast," Covington said.
Johnson called defensive lineman Antonio Jacobs (6-0, 261) and Jonathan Hannah (6-4, 255) "outstanding" and said Derek Nicholson (6-0, 225), "is going to be a great linebacker." He also talked about the emergence of linebacker D.J. Rice (5-11, 228), who doesn't have any Division I scholarship offers.
But, when asked who he thought would have the best chance of making a big impact at the next level, the coach came up with another name.
"Everette Brown," he replied, "He is just a playmaker. When you look at his body and his athleticism he could really make a great outside linebacker."
NO LEARNING CURVE ALLOWED
Jordan Sorrells (Furman), the heavy favorite to be South Carolina's starting quarterback has the luxury of having his own high school head coach (Larry Frost) as his offensive coordinator this week. Sorrels, a left-hander who turned down a scholarship offer from Kentucky, has taken a heavy majority of the snaps under center.
THE OFFERS ARE COMING
Three of the most impressive defensive players on either roster are all on the South Carolina roster and none have been heavily recruited.
Coaches and players have all been pleasantly surprised by defensive end Mike Hill (6-2, 235), linebacker Will Newell (6-2, 225) and defensive end Derell Nichols (6-2, 280). Look for each of them to start receiving attention from D-I coaches.
COX OR CROMPTON
No one is quite sure who will be North Carolina's starting quarterback. Jonathan Crompton (Tennessee) and Joe Cox (Georgia) have been trading about the same number of reps all week long. Crompton was more impressive earlier in the week, but lacked sharpness in the final practice Friday morning.
At 6-feet tall, there has been talk about Cox not being able to see over his offensive lineman once he gets to Georgia. But, many of his teammates certainly believe in him. Receiver Levin Neal (N.C. State) said Cox would be the best quarterback in the nation if he was 6-foot-4.
And don't forget that Neal caught passes from five-star quarterback Ryan Perrilloux this summer. Receiver Brandon Woods has been pleasantly surprised by his new quarterback.
"I knew Joe was this good, but not quite this good," he said. "He throws a really nice ball."
MORE PLAYING TIME
North Carolina was already thin at receiver and they recently found out that Levin Neal won't be able to play.
Neal re-aggrevated a sprained ankle that bothered him during the senior season. That means more playing time for Mohamed Massaqoui (Georgia), Woods, Maurice Covington (Virginia), Josh Briscoe (Tennessee) and James Arnold (UNC).
The North Carolina-South Carolina Shrine Bowl is an annual all-star game that pits the top seniors from both states. The game will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday. Rivals.com will continue to bring you coverage of practices and events leading up to the game.