CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Some players shy away from sharing their true feelings about an upcoming opponent for fear of providing bulletin board material. But not North Carolina’s Mikey Bart. He doesn’t mind admitting that the Tar Heels’ opener against Georgia in the Georgia Dome means a lot of him personally.
“Obviously I can’t wait,” said the senior defensive end out of Buford. “Our team hasn’t really focused on them yet. But me individually, that’s what I’m training for, that’s my motivation.”
The fact is, as a Buford High graduate, Bart knows a ton of people at Georgia, both on the team and at the school. He knew the Lee brothers, Dallas and Dillon. He’s friends with Kolton Houston and Josh Cardiello. He knows Isaac Nauta, the freshman tight end that just arrived from Buford by way of IMG. He played in high school all-star games with several other Bulldogs that he doesn’t know as well.
Meanwhile, Bart said all his friends attend UGA. You can count his brother, Danny Bart, among those. He’s two years older and a senior at Georgia.
“There’s definitely a lot of Georgia-Buford connections,” Bart said. “I’ve had a lot of people talk to me, people I don’t really even know, ask me for tickets. So there’s definitely going to be a lot of people back home watching. I can’t wait.”
The family’s loyalties are actually “all over the place,” Bart said. His younger brother Joey is a freshman catcher at Georgia Tech. Their father, Tom Bart, played baseball at Penn State. Bart said he actually grew up more of a Nittany Lions’ fan than anything else.
But they’ll all be dressed in Carolina blue when Georgia meets the Tar Heels in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game on Sept. 3. Mikey Bart will definitely be playing a big role for North Carolina that day.
Bart emerged last season as one of the UNC’s best defensive players. He started all 14 games for the 11-3 Tar Heels and led the team in sacks with 6.5.
If you’re looking for an athletic comparison, think David Pollack. At 6-foot-3, 270 pounds, Bart is not the traditional size of a defensive end and he’s built like Pollack physically. He brings to the game a lot of the same attributes that Pollack did as he became a three-time All-American and national award winner.
Number one, he’s inordinately quick off the ball. Big tackles have a hard time staying in front of him. Secondly, he’s aggressive and tenacious in his playing style. Third, he’s also strong and durable. Bart has never missed a game in his UNC career due to injury. Also, he’s smart. He meticulously studies his opponent for weaknesses. Wearing the number 45 – Pollack wore 47 – completes the resemblance.
“He’s talented,” North Carolina defensive coordinator Gene Chizik said. “He’s not the most talented out there, but he’s always out there and available and he’s tough. And he finishes stuff off. Not a prototypical defensive end, but he’s productive.”
Last season, Bart ended up with 29 tackles and nine quarterback hurries. He also forced a fumble and blocked a punt.
And he’s continuing to get better. Head coach Larry Fedora lauded Bart for his play this spring.
“Mikey Bart had a great spring. He really excelled,” Fedora said. “He has refined himself as a pass rusher. He’s stronger; he’s more physical. I mean, just all the way around he has really come on. We had other guys move in and out of the position, but he’s the guy that stood out.”
The Tar Heels are expecting big things from Bart his senior season. His name already is popping up on some preseason All-ACC lists.
“It’s just that now I’m more comfortable as the starter, whereas last year I really didn’t know until we were in training camp what my role was going to be,” Bart said. “I’m just playing as hard as I can. The one thing I have going for me is I’m always available. I’m not getting injured like a lot of people are. All the reps over time are definitely adding up.”
While he didn’t come away with an offer from Georgia, Bart got plenty of recruiting attention coming out of high school. He earned first-team All-State honors playing both tight end and defensive end for Buford, which won three state championships and played for four with Bart on the roster.
He actually was sought after more as a tight end than a defensive end. ESPN.com ranked him the No. 24 tight end in the country and also categorized as an offensive player by Scout and 247Sports.
But Bart always preferred the defensive side of the ball, and it was one of the reasons he chose the Tar Heels from among a half-dozen offers.
Georgia showed a little interest, but not much.
“Yeah, Coach (Mark) Richt and them recruited me a little bit. Not as much as I probably hoped,” Bart said during an interview at UNC’s Kenan football complex. “Coach (Kirby) Smart did at Alabama, though, a little bit. I actually had a better relationship with Coach Smart than Coach Richt really. Coach Smart and Nick Saban were always on that field at Buford.”
It actually wasn’t until last season that the Tar Heels realized what they had in Bart. He flourished under the new leadership of Chizik, who came in as a replacement for Vic Koenning.
“It’s different,” Bart said. “Vic Koenning was a good coach, too. A lot of people didn’t give him enough credit. But a lot of it had to do with respect and that kind of stuff. No one was respecting Coach Koenning like they were Coach Chizik. I think a lot of it has to do with we play way harder now, we run harder to the ball.”
Most recall the way North Carolina’s defense finished the season, which was with disappointing finishes against Clemson in the ACC Championship Game and Baylor in the Russell Athletic Bowl. Those two teams combined for 1,364 yards in the two losses.
But before that, the Tar Heels’ had shown great improvement on that side of the ball. They were among the Top 20 nationally in scoring defense heading into the last month of the season.
“I guess you could say it was a dream season,” Bart said. “We always knew that we had the potential to be that good; we just needed everything to work out right. Last year everything kind of fell in place at the right time. The end didn’t really end up like we wanted to. We had some injuries. I don’t want to make any excuses. Baylor’s a tough team, Clemson obviously was the No. 2 team in the nation. So we had to play some dynamic offenses. So, yeah, it didn’t end like we wanted.”
The Tar Heels are hoping for a better beginning this year. It’s the second consecutive season they’ll open against an SEC opponent and they dropped a 17-13 decision to a South Carolina team they otherwise dominated last year.
This season, the Bulldogs have UNC’s full attention. In Georgia, the Tar Heels will be facing a team that will be enters the preseason with a quarterback competition and will be breaking in new offensive tackles.
“I don’t know what’s going to be up with (Nick) Chubb and him getting back from his injury, but we definitely expect they’ll try to run the ball,” Bart said. “They have a new offensive coordinator, but one thing Georgia always has done in the past is run the ball and then throw off play-action. It’s going to be a lot different from our offense. So when it comes time to start preparing, we’re really going to have to dial in on that. We’ve been going against a spread every day in practice, high tempo.”
That has been the refrain on North Carolina, that it is never going to be great on defense because Fedora runs such a fast-paced offense the defense is always on the field.
But Bart feels they can play well on both sides of the ball
“Our offense is always going to be one of the best in the country,” he said. “They run that high-speed tempo, so our defense is going to be on the field all the time. That might be the reason why we gave up some yards last year, especially rushing. But the defense just has to come together. … We have the potential to be a lot better than we were last year.”
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