By Robbi Pickeral, GoHeels.com
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Technically speaking, freshmen don't officially become sophomores until they reach a certain number of academic credits. On the football field is a different matter.
Rookie safety Dominque Green?
"Not a freshman anymore,'' North Carolina senior safety Tre Boston insisted.
DB Brian Walker?
DB Desmond Lawrence?
Bandit Mikey Bart?
"No,'' Boston said again, grinning.
"Those are all guys who have overcome it. Once you are thrown in the fire and you make those plays, you're not a freshman anymore. Those guys are confident now ... and it's been great for this team."
Indeed, as much as big play youth on offense - think Marquise Williams, Ryan Switzer, T.J. Logan -- has been key to UNC's five-game winning streak, the quick growth of young guys on defense such as Green, Walker, Lawrence and Bart has been instrumental, as well.
*Green, a starter, ranks second on the team with three interceptions (including a 62-yard pick for a touchdown at Virginia), and is sixth with 47 tackles.
*Walker, too, has played in all 11 games, snagging a pick at NC State and breaking up five passes this season.
* Lawrence has come on strong of late, posting eight tackles in six games.
* Bart has seven tackles, and a sack against Boston College, in six games.
"A lot of what it is, for all of us, is confidence,'' Green said. "I know when I first got here, I didn't think anybody on the team really believed that I could make plays. Now I feel like everybody has faith in me."
Green said his turnaround began when he started the first game of the year at South Carolina, and Boston said four simple words: "We believe in you."
Similarly, Bart said it all clicked for him when he started the Boston College game.
"When you come in, the playbook is 200 pages worth of notes that you have to learn, and the speed of the game, you have to adjust to that,'' he said. "And it's not just knowing the plays, but being able to do them well with the speed ... and at first, that's a lot to take in. But in that Boston College game, I just gained so much confidence, knowing I could do it."
And it's carried on, throughout his class.
"We push ourselves,'' Bart said. "The [freshmen] playing right now, we try to challenge each other, to say, ‘Hey Mikey, are you going to get a sack this week? Brian, are you going to get an interception?' We push each other to do whatever we can to help our team win."
And it's worked. After a 1-5 start, the Tar Heels are bowl eligible, with a chance to improve their postseason destination with a victory over Duke in the regular-season finale Saturday.
Boston said he's proud of the team's turnaround, and the group of not-freshmen-anymore's role in it.
"A freshman can be a freshman as long as he wants to be, until he says ‘I am a grown man,'" he said. "It's up to you. It's how you play. And you've seen how these guys play. ... To see them come along so fast is amazing. They've worked so hard, and it's really paying off for them -- and the team."