By Lee Pace
From T.J. Logan running a 4.37 forty-yard dash at lunchtime on Friday in Indianapolis to a cafeteria full of his former Tar Heel teammates watching on television back in Chapel Hill and cheering and woofing him on ...
From Mitch Trubisky’s spot in the vortex of spirited discussion over who’s the top quarterback prospect in the NFL Draft to him standing up in a press briefing at the NFL Combine and saying, “We’ve got seven Tar Heels here, I take a lot of pride in that ...”
All the way to Michael Jordan donning a spiffy new Tar Heel football shirt adorned with his signature “Jumpman” logo and joining Larry Fedora and six Tar Heels on the Smith Center court at halftime of Saturday’s Duke game to announce a new uniform partnership between “His Airness” and Carolina football ...
It’s been quite a busy and conspicuous week for a football program that didn’t play a game and is facing a spring practice to-do list of replacing eight senior starters, three key juniors to early NFL departures and meshing four new assistant coaches—against the backdrop of a schedule that includes Notre Dame, Louisville and California along with the usual list of ACC Coastal Division foes.
“It was surreal,” offensive tackle Bentley Spain said of standing amid the cacophony of noise and emotion around Jordan Saturday night. “I almost felt like I blacked out during it. What an experience, meeting the ‘greatest of all time,’ it means so much for our school and university.”
“If I’d been a recruit, I’d have committed on the spot,” linebacker Andre Smith added of the totality of the evening, which climaxed with the Tar Heels jetting past their archrivals for a seven-point win. “That was an absolutely phenomenal experience.”
How ironic that Fedora’s program, which won 19 games over the last two years, was getting oodles of exposure 600 miles to the northwest as Logan, Trubisky, Bug Howard, Ryan Switzer, Mack Hollins, Nazair Jones and Elijah Hood were poked and prodded by coaches and scouts at the league’s annual meet (or meat?) market while Fedora and his retooled staff are plugging the holes that those very departures have left.
The good news is that Fedora and his coaches have been recruiting the right guys.
The bad news is they’ve been recruiting the right guys—and they get opportunities in the big leagues, in several cases sooner than expected.
“Having all those guys at the combine gives the younger guys inspiration of where we want to get to next year and years after that,” said senior cornerback M.J. Stewart, who flirted with the idea of joining Trubisky, Hood and Jones in forfeiting his final year of college eligibility.
“It’s great for recruiting for kids to see all of our guys getting that opportunity,” offensive coordinator and line coach Chris Kapilovic added. “We’ve had a lot of fun with Twitter and those kind of things, getting our name out there and building our brand.”
Through four spring practice sessions, the Tar Heels have three young quarterbacks vying for that job, a center who’s never snapped in a college game, a January enrollee running No. 2 tailback and a defensive line with three players in red shirts because of injury/surgery recoveries—those among many issues to address leading to the Blue-White Game April 8.
“The effort’s been good, the recall’s been good, the young guys have come in and done a nice job,” Fedora said. “But we have a long way to go, a long way to go. There are no established starters at any position.”
Fedora was asked about the progress of Michael Carter, the fleet running back from Florida who arrived in January and is running behind sophomore Jordon Brown, and his answer could have applied to seven other January enrollees.
“He’s learning, just like everyone else,” Fedora said. “His eyes are real big, he’s making a lot of mistakes and learning from them. That’s expected. We’re going to push him hard, not cut him any slack, hold him to a high standard. I’m sure his head is smoking right now. But he’ll be all right.”
This is likely to be a year when the Tar Heel defense, maligned early in the Fedora era for coughing up 68 points to Georgia Tech but then stabilizing under Gene Chizik’s leadership the last two seasons, is asked to provide the ballast while the offense grooms a new generation of skill players. John Papuchis takes over for Chizik as the coordinator and is melding a new staff of line coach Deke Adams, who came with Fedora from Southern Miss in 2012 before bounding off to South Carolina, linebackers coach Mike Ekeler and secondary coach Terry Joseph. The good news is the Tar Heels have Smith and five returning starters and a nice reservoir of promising young players set to build on a foundation that got incrementally better as the 2016 season evolved.
“We’re built on four pillars of defense—takeaways, physicality, third-downs and red-zone,” Smith said. “That’s what Coach Chizik preached. If you’re good in those four areas, you’ll have a good defense. Nothing’s changed. JP has taken over and I don’t feel like anything has changed. It’s been an easy transition. The bottom line is we’re working hard to become a much more dominating defense.”
Receiver Austin Prohel played extensively as a junior at both outside and slot positions and hinted during bowl practice in December that he and a cadre of talented but little-used teammates like Thomas Jackson, Anthony Ratliff, Jordan Cunningham, Juval Mollette, Rontavius Groves and now the gifted freshman J.T. Cauthen were hearing the whispers outside the program that the 2017 receiving cupboard would be quite bare.
“They’re saying we’re not going to have this, not going to have that,” Proehl said. “Our job is to prove them wrong.”
Tuesday he added: “We have guys with chips on their shoulders, guys who want to prove no matter how many people we lost, we can win games, we can win with what we’ve got. I look at it as a privilege to come out here in a North Carolina uniform and prove what we’ve got. We have a bunch of young guys who want to show we didn’t lose anybody, that we’re going to be better than we were last year and the year before that.”
As Fedora said, there’s a long way to go for everyone. In the meantime, the Tar Heels will live in the moment and enjoy the totality of why they came to Chapel Hill in the first place—a balance of athletics, education and social life hard to equal anywhere else. Indeed, Michael Jordan taped from afar a quick welcome to the University of Michigan when “Jumpman” was unveiled in Ann Arbor last August. For the Tar Heels, he arrived in a quiet and vacant Kenan Stadium late Saturday afternoon so that his media team could get footage of him wistfully looking out from the tunnel onto the playing field that in a mere few hours would be shown to the Smith Center denizens.
Then he attempted at halftime to tell Fedora and the Tar Heels that the “sky is the limit” for their program, but in the rush of the moment even the greatest sometimes bobble the pass and it came out as the “ceiling is the roof.” A malaprop perhaps, but all anyone was talking about in the national media Sunday morning and Twittersphere was the one and only M.J. and his ties to Carolina.
“Shaking his hand, what an experience,” Proehl said of being a basketball fan for a night. “Then rushing Franklin Street was an experience I’ll never forget. I haven’t done that since I’ve been here. It was an awesome time. The vibe was incredible with everyone chanting, ‘Go Heels.’”
That they were doing last week in spades—for many different reasons.
Chapel Hill writer Lee Pace has covered Tar Heel football for 26 years through “Extra Points” and a dozen as the Tar Heel Sports Network’s sideline reporter. He has just published a book on Kenan Stadium, “Football in a Forest.” Follow him at @LeePaceTweet and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.