Tri-partisan

Injuries, poor start leave UNC football with new goals in 2017

Posted October 12

The big news out of Larry Fedora's Monday press conference was that the Tar Heel football head coach had shaved the beard he'd been sporting for a season and a half. “Just a change-up,” he said when asked about the midseason grooming decision. “That's it. Just a change-up.”

Such is the Carolina beat in a 1-5 season: Frustrated football freelancers feign fascination, find fodder from Fedora's facial follicles. That's it. There's just not that much more to say about Carolina football in 2017: The inexperience at every skill position on offense entering the season was one thing; it was a known variable entering the season. On the other hand, the injuries that have absolutely decimated the roster have been an entirely different animal.

Carolina didn't release an injury report ahead of last weekend's game with Notre Dame; as an official out-of-conference game, it wasn't required. But the proof was on the field, as six would-be starters from the season's initial depth chart didn't take the field against the Irish, and another, senior safety Donnie Miles was injured Saturday and had surgery this week. Carolina's two most vocal leaders on defense, Miles and linebacker Andre Smith, are no longer on the field with their teammates. And Carolina's most experienced, healthy skill position player on offense is Jordon Brown, who had 20 carries for 45 yards a year ago.

The Tar Heels are 1-5 now entering Saturday's game with Virginia. Carolina, still, somehow, could make a bowl (even with a loss Saturday), but the fact of the matter is that that is unlikely, and any bowl that would take this Tar Heel team isn't a bowl you'd want to go to anyway.

So, what to do now? First, don't get Chazz Surratt hurt. If the Tar Heels are trailing late in a game, there's no reason not to play graduate transfer Brandon Harris at quarterback. Surratt is a redshirt freshman. If the Tar Heel coaching staff truly believes that he's the signal-caller of the future, they have to protect him, physically and psychologically. A quarterback who gets beaten up in the first 12 games of his college career can have his confidence shaken. And so Fedora and quarterbacks coach Keith Heckendorf have work to do, expressing their own confidence in Surratt and putting him in positions to make plays. They must keep telling Surratt to trust the process, helping him to understand that the work he puts in now, regardless of results in the win-loss columns, will pay dividends down the road.

Additionally, with this season going as it as, the Tar Heel defense needs to identify its playmakers and leaders of the future. Seniors Cayson Collins and M.J. Stewart are having fine individual seasons in a bad year, but they can't help in 2018. Sophomore Myles Dorn is a bonafide stud at free safety; he needs players by his side down the road. Cornerback K.J. Sails has shown flashes of potential, but he's also shown some unfortunate, shall we say, Tre Boston-type tendencies at times. Redshirt freshman Myles Wolfolk has been solid early in his career, but he needs more seasoning. There's nothing wrong with young defenders taking lumps in 2017. Nothing to lose but a football game, right?

The mission for Larry Fedora and his staff remains the same, week to week: put players in positions to make plays, and prepare to win a football game. The obstacles that this team has faced have been virtually unprecedented. It's tempting to fold, but with half the season still to go, there's work to be done, and growth can occur even if it doesn't show up on the scoreboard.

I know, I know. I sound like a broken record. I write the same thing every week. But such is 2017 on the Carolina football beat. And here's something new: Larry Fedora shaved his beard.

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