North Carolina quarterback Bryn Renner would love to play in a bowl game this football season, but he’s not complaining that his fellow Tar Heels must sit out the postseason.
Fair or not, this group of Heels will have to deal with the NCAA sanctions handed down as a result of the misdeed of the Butch Davis regime.
“You can’t worry about it because there’s nothing any of us can do,” Renner said. “We still have 12 opportunities to make a statement, win as many football games as we can, and have a lot of fun.”
The Tar Heels finished 7-6 under interim coach Everett Withers a year ago. Withers, the defensive coordinator under Davis, took over a week before August camp opened when Davis was abruptly let go. The weight of the 2010 season, which was enveloped by the NCAA investigation and the slow unveiling of one violation after another, and somewhat chaos of last fall eventually took its toll on the team.
UNC was blistered in its Independence Bowl loss to Missouri. Some players said there was little direction in the program between the end of the regular season and the bowl game.
Enter Larry Fedora.
Fedora was hired from Southern Mississippi, where he led the Golden Eagles to the Conference USA championship last season. The 49-year-old coach lends new meaning to the term “intense” and is rarely seen without a can of Red Bull. He’s high octane.
“Coach Fedora, he’s like one of us,” said cornerback Jabari Price. “He can spaz out like one of us. Everyone respects him. He will get in your face but will show you some love, too. I think he’s just what this program needed.”
Fedora also runs and lifts weights with the players, and his endless abundance of energy has trickled down to them. With energy comes greater focus, and that’s what this season is about.
Fedora doesn’t want his players thinking about what they can’t accomplish in a 13th or 14th game. He wants them to focus on getting down new schemes on both sides of the ball, fully adopting the new attitude expected of them, and to win football games.
“You play the game for so much more than going to a bowl,” Fedora said. “There are a lot of bowls out there, but there aren’t a lot of great bowl sites…
“These kids play to win, they play for the interlocking ‘NC’ on their helmets and on their chests. They want to make their fans proud and they’re competitors. So they’ll go out and compete each and every day, I promise you that.”
It will take time for the Tar Heels to feel comfortable executing the new spread offense. In some respects, it’s not a terrible thing there’s no bowl game this season. It takes some of the pressure off of the players, which may actually allow them more clearly maintain their focus. This is a year to learn, they say, and build a massive bridge with a strong foundation to the future.
But that doesn’t mean the Heels can afford to take a loss or two. Each game on their schedule has specific meaning. They actually have a chance to go 5-0 against instate schools, as in addition to playing N.C. State, Duke and Wake Forest, UNC also takes on Elon and East Carolina. Carolina is also intent on ending a five-game losing streak to arch rival N.C. State, and quite a few Tar Heels have a chance to racking up impressive numbers and earning all-conference honors.
There’s plenty to play for.
“It’s not even on my radar right now,” said Gene Robinson, who will play the new Ram (rover) position on defense. “We’re working our butts off this summer to get ready… If you go out and lose eight games you won’t have a bowl game regardless. So (we’re) just thinking about the next game.”
The next game is the season opener versus Elon on Sept. 1. It will be the first of 12 chances UNC can make an impression this fall. So far, everything coming out of the Carolina camp suggests this club’s collective nose is pointed in the right direction.
“We can still win more games than any North Carolina team ever has, right,” tight end Eric Ebron asked, knowing UNC’s high-win total for a campaign is 11, several times. “Well then, why not shoot for that.”