Nothing about No. 21 LSU’s 30-24 win over No. 18 North Carolina in Week 1 of the 2010 season seems remarkable on the surface. An SEC team beat an ACC team it was fairly evenly matched with at the Georgia Dome. Okay.
Over the next three NFL drafts, both teams would combine for 36 draft picks. Fifteen of the 2011 picks were supposed to be on the field. But just 11 were.
It was supposed to be The Year for then-head coach Butch Davis’ Tar Heels, who went on to have nine players chosen in the 2011 draft. And then the NCAA investigation happened.
It was a slow trickle of bad news for UNC through July and August. Player after player was either suspended by the NCAA or under investigation. The violations ranged from taking gifts from an agent to sleeping on a former teammate’s couch and even academic improprieties.
When the dust settled, 13 Tar Heels missed the season-opener, including nine starters. (Some were held out for precautionary reasons.)
After a summer of learning from veterans, UNC’s freshmen on defense thought they’d have the luxury of learning from a group that would go on to play in the NFL and easing into college football.
Um, change of plans.
Some didn’t find out if they were going to play, much less start, until close to game time.
“I found out I was going to be playing in that game only 48 hours before it started,” cornerback Jabari Price, one of few Tar Heels who played in that game still on the roster today, said. “It was a big shocker for me personally and it’s something I can definitely remember like yesterday.”
The starting secondary was basically gone, and so of the five remaining Tar Heels who saw action, three were defensive backs. Tre Boston was one of them.
Boston knew he would play a bit earlier than Price, who UNC was still hoping to redshirt until that was no longer a possibility. The starters that were missing the game in the secondary — so, everyone — helped both he and Price get ready for what they were going to face.
And there was an unintentional benefit to the suspensions. Not as many offensive starters missed the game, but wide receiver Greg Little (who was drafted in the second round by the Cleveland Browns) was ultimately out the entire season.
“When you’re training against Greg Little in scout team, you don’t have a scout team with NFL players on it,” Boston said. “Preparing like that, it really helped me because I’m guarding the best in practice and then going out on the field having to do the same thing.”
Boston still had nerves when he got out on the field at the Georgia Dome, though. Understandably. As he and his teammates warmed up for what felt like hours as the crowd filled in to the seats, he tried to shake it off. Easier said than done, of course.
It doesn’t show up on the box score — well, Boston’s name doesn’t, anyway — but he still vividly remembers his worst mistake of that game.
“We were supposed to be in switch coverage, which I was supposed to pass off a post to my safety,” Boston said. “My safety didn’t get the call, so I ended up chasing (LSU wide receiver) Rueben Randle down the field and he ended up scoring on me.”
It was a 51-yard touchdown for Randle, and it gave LSU a 30-10 lead on the Tar Heels with 2:28 to go in the first half.
It was as ugly as the score would indicate, particularly in the second quarter. But the very next series, Boston recorded his first actual statistic of his college career by intercepting a Jordan Jefferson pass.
Boston had what is arguably still his best collegiate performance to date in that game (especially considering the circumstances). UNC fought back from that 30-10 deficit and cut it to 30-24 in the fourth quarter.
In addition to the interception, Boston forced two fumbles that were both recovered by the Tar Heels. The last one he forced set up what could have been the game-winning touchdown for the Tar Heels, who ran three plays from the LSU 6-yard line before running out of clock.
Boston has always been confident. But even he was a surprised. And to this day, he can’t explain it.
“I was definitely surprising myself. You think you can do this at this level and being able to do it, but I only knew a week before that I was going to play,” Boston said.
“So being able to come into the game and make impact plays like that, it was great. I had the realization that I could play at this level and I could play at an elite level. Every year I’ve been here, I’ve worked my hardest to be better and that’s what I’ve been doing.”
Defensive end Kareem Martin got his first career start that night, too. A senior now, he was a smallish defensive end whose first taste of college football involved blocking LSU’s Joseph Barksdale, who would go on to be drafted in the third round that year.
“(Barksdale) was a senior at the time, a big 315-pound senior. Me, I’m about 250 at the time, just trying to man up and stay off my back,” Martin said.
Martin was coached, as he put it, by UNC’s defensive linemen who had to miss that game (Robert Quinn and Marvin Austin). He felt ready. He knew his assignments.
When he looks back at film of that game, he says he played assignment football. But that’s about the only thing he did right.
“I did all my assignments right, but my technique was terrible,” Martin said with a grin. “When I look at it now, I kind of cringe every time I watch it just because I’m looking at a lineman go down and I’m up the field and I’m just playing terrible technique. I’m trying to play my assignment so much that I let technique slip out of my mind.”
The Tar Heels would go on to have a pretty good season, all things considered. Despite how depleted they were, they went 8-5 and got wins over teams like Florida State and Tennessee (in the Music City Bowl).
But LSU would lose just twice all year by a combined 15 points. Both losses came to top-12 teams (one to eventual national champion Auburn). LSU was in the national title discussion until close to the end of the season.
And yet it all nearly came crashing down in Week 1 as an undermanned but plucky — and still talented — UNC team just wouldn’t die. “At the end of that game, I know they were scared because we almost won,” Boston said. “That’s hard work. That’s us being able to fight back when you’re back’s in the corner.”
Boston’s not into moral victories, though. A smattering of LSU fans in the Georgia Dome gave the Tar Heels a standing ovation as they headed to the locker room moments after the potential game-winning touchdown bounced off the hands of tight end Zack Pianalto. It almost hurt more that the win was so close.
Boston still watches that LSU game from time to time, just to reflect back on the player he was and the player he knows that he can be. And the lessons he learned then apply now as he and Price train a young crop of defensive backs behind them that will be the future of the program some day. That day might come sooner than they think.
“Now, we’re throwing freshmen in with the 1’s. We’re mixing it all up and they’re getting the same competition reps that we’re getting,” Price said. “So we’re definitely preparing them the same way we should have been prepared then and they’re not going to make the same mistake twice.”
Price said that the game changed him, too. He had to grow up fast, because he really didn’t have a choice. He went from the security of a redshirt season to being thrust into action right away, whether he liked it or not. And so he learned to adjust quickly to whatever situation he encountered.
“It made me more mature. Over the course of a college football season, as a defensive player you kind of learn on the fly, preparing for each team differently,” Price said.
“So it helped me learn on the fly, become more mature on the field as a cornerback and make more plays because as a freshman, you’re playing not to make mistakes. Now that I’m older, I’m playing to make plays now. So it’s definitely something that helped me today.”
Martin, Price and Boston are all starters and leaders on the defense now. And all three of them are the players they are today because of that game.
UNC’s opener this year at No. 7 South Carolina brings back memories for all three of them, too. They remember how nervous they were to face a very good SEC team away from home as freshmen. This will be an actual road environment against a higher-ranked team.
So you’ll have to forgive Price if he doesn’t live in fear of the SEC.
“We’re always going to be the underdog, no matter what. Preseason hype, everyone feels like the ACC is inferior to the SEC and I just beg to differ,” Price said. “They put on their clothes the same way I put on mine in the morning. I really don’t see what the big hoo-ah is about. The way I see it is two teams going to battle and going to play.”
While they’re pumped and excited to have this experience, the moment the ball is kicked off at what will undoubtedly be a raucous Williams-Brice Stadium on August 29th won’t be too big for these three players.
“(The LSU game) showed us that we can play with anybody. I think a lot of guys say, ‘Oh, SEC, SEC.’ We don’t care who we’re playing. We just come to play our best game,” Boston said.
“I think a lot of people have us underdogs. We don’t mind because we love to show people what we have. Being taken lightly is not something we like. We’ll show them that this is a football game and if you take us lightly, you could lose.”
Martin was more reflective of how it’s almost like everything has come full-circle for him. He’s gone from being embarrassed at what he put on film in his first collegiate game to a second-team All-ACC performer a year ago. He wants his young teammates to feel as confident as he felt. Even though he hopes most of them won’t have to play as much as he did.
“Knowing how I felt, I know how to talk to these younger guys who may or may not be playing in that game so I can prepare them the same way as I was, to be prepared like I was,” Martin said.
“I know what to expect, so I won’t be nervous. (South Carolina has) a big stadium but we’ve played on the road before. And on defense, it’s not as hard because the crowd’s not yelling. It’s a lot more calm than (the freshmen) think it’s going to be. It’s just in a different place.”