North Carolina begins training camp next Friday and it appears the team is in pretty good shape from a health standpoint coming in.
That greatly aids the Tar Heels as several players who went down last fall with various knee injuries, including Carl Gaskins, A.J. Blue, Matt Merletti, and Ryan Taylor, have been working in recent months to be at full strength for August.
The good news for head coach Butch Davis is that it appears Gaskins, Taylor, and Merletti are all good to go for camp.
In addition, UNC was very fortunate after an injury-riddled 2009 season to not suffer any major injuries during the spring this past year.
"Carl is full go. He's 100 percent," said Davis earlier this week.
Gaskins heads into August as the projected starter at the all-important left tackle position for the Tar Heels.
Taylor and Merletti were the special teams captains for the Tar Heels back in 2008---when Taylor was a junior and Merletti just a sophomore---and their returns should provide tremendous leadership to UNC's coverage units.
"Certainly two things that hurt a little bit of our entire team last year---the two most dynamic special teams players that we had were Ryan Taylor and Matt Merletti," said Davis. "They were the captains of our team. They were the most productive players in 2008 and we lost both of them for the season last year."
"So certainly getting them back from that standpoint provides leadership---getting your two captains back---and guys that are significant contributors."
Merletti will play a key role as a backup safety in addition to playing on many of Carolina's special teams, while Taylor is going to get a chance in August to earn significant playing time in the UNC offense as an H-Back.
Last summer he was working with the first unit at H-Back when he suffered a major setback during an afternoon practice session.
"It was a total dislocation of his entire kneecap and it put a lot of stress on his patella tendon, and so it was one of those things where they (the medical staff) said, 'Okay you have a certain amount of inactivity. Don't do anything. We're going to put you in a brace and just don't do anything, and then when you get done now we're going to start the rehab and therapy,'" said Davis of Taylor.
"Then when you get done with that we're going to let you go back to practice and see if you can start to run---and a lot of things were really good (with Taylor) running half-speed---and then you start to run three quarters, then you start to run full speed."
"Then they say 'Okay, now let's see you cut.' And you start cutting and you start to square one. All that stuff that looked good running in straight lines wasn't nearly as good."
"It wasn't until probably the last three, four, five weeks of the season that he was actually even able to kind of return to do some limited things," Davis continued. "And at that point the worst thing you could have done is allow him to get hit in a scrimmage and blow his knee out---now you're really second-guessing yourself."
Taylor is not feeling any ill effects after a full offseason of healing, and now he's got a chance in his final year as a Tar Heel player to make an impact in the offensive rotation.
"No (there's no lingering pain in his knee)," said Davis. "What we would like to see out of Ryan is we want to see him play some at H-back and some a little bit maybe in the backfield. He's got very good hands and he's a tough kid. He's a competitive kid. There will be some things that we'll try to create to get him involved."
Blue is perhaps farthest behind in terms of injured players from a year ago, but that's mostly because he suffered his ACL injury in early October, whereas Gaskins, Merletti, and Taylor all suffered their respective knee injuries in August.
Blue suffered complete tears of all three major ligaments (ACL, MCL, PCL) and has an approximate time frame of a year before he could potentially be cleared to play in games.
A medical redshirt in order to get him completely back up to speed for the 2011 season is not out of the question, but at the same time the UNC coaches and trainers are going to work him extensively starting with the beginning of training camp in order to see how far he's progressed in recent months.
"A.J. will be able to start on Aug. 6 doing some things," Davis said. "He's already doing everything in our 'OTAs,' our offseason conditioning program."
Blue will certainly get every opportunity to get himself back on the field for the Tar Heels in 2010, but naturally it will depend on how quickly he can show that he's capable of cutting and making the moves with his knee that will allow him to play at full speed.
"The time when he can actually get hit and take a hit will be kind of a week-to-week basis," Davis said. "We want to go out and we want to find out practicing twice a day if there is going to be an additional swelling with his knee."
"But he has made remarkable strides," Davis added about Blue. "He's a kid that, silently within our program, every guy in our staff and our program is pulling for him, because I don't know that I've seen any kid work harder on a rehab program than what he's done to try and get himself back healthy."
With 13 players missing multiple games last fall and several others suffering major injuries back in 2008---including the starting quarterback and the team's top special teams threat---UNC is certainly due for a season in which few major contributors get hurt.
With Blue being one of the only players on the team with major limitations heading into this summer's training camp, the Tar Heels are in a pretty good place in terms of trying to sway the momentum on that particular front.