Duke at North Carolina Noon Saturday (ESPN2)

UNC seniors prepare for final home game after 'wild ride'

acarter@newsobserver.comNovember 28, 2013 

— Most of them arrived in the summer of 2010, lured to North Carolina by a vision Butch Davis and his coaching staff sold to them – a vision that began to evaporate just as they began to move onto campus.

The Tar Heels’ senior class on Saturday will play its final game at Kenan Stadium, against Duke, and what a four years it has been: the beginning and ending of a major NCAA investigation. The firing of Davis and his staff.

A season under a lame duck interim coach. The arrival of a new coach, Larry Fedora. A postseason ban which cost North Carolina what would have been the Coastal Division championship last year. And then a 1-5 start to this season, which began with high hopes.

“I would say a roller coaster,” A.J. Blue, the UNC senior running back, said when asked how he’d describe his time at UNC. “You don’t know what’s going to happen, you don’t know the next move. And I kind of look at our senior class as a resilient group of guys. And we’ve overcome a lot of adversity coming through this program.

“But the type of thing that I always talk about is family, and sticking together.”

The guys who have managed to stick around have stuck together, at least. UNC will honor 16 seniors on Saturday, including four players who were a part of the 2009 recruiting class.

The class that entered in 2010, though, is perhaps the one that best reflects all that has transpired at UNC since those players’ first summer, when Davis’ program began to unravel. According to Rivals.com, 21 players signed on to play at UNC in the class of 2010. Eight remain.

“You come in in the summer (before your freshman season) and they tell you look to your right, look to your left,” James Hurst, a senior left tackle, said earlier this week. “Like, one of those guys isn’t going to be here when you’re seniors. And you don’t believe any of it. But it’s absolutely true.

“And it’s just tough to see some guys disappear and go different ways.”

Not only have members of UNC’s senior class had to watch their own disappear during the past four years, but they’ve also done the same with coaches – both the ones they came to school to play for and others. Kareem Martin, the defensive end, has played for six position coaches. Tre Boston, the safety, has played for five.

The majority of the Tar Heels’ seniors have played for three head coaches – Davis, Everett Withers and now Fedora. The seniors’ memories of the past four years tell the story of a program that might have been on the brink of breaking through nationally before turmoil erupted. Now, they hope, they’re part of a story of redemption.

“There have been a lot of good and bad times,” Hurst said. “The bowl game at Tennessee (the 2010 Music City Bowl), I’m never going to forget that one. Winning at Florida State (in 2010).

“But at the end of it all, I think you remember some of the bad things that happened just to see how we were able to overcome those things and how we were able to turn it around and keep a positive attitude.”

To Fedora, that is legacy of this class: That it helped keep things together. Through an NCAA investigation. Through coaching changes. Through a postseason ban. And, again, through the dreadful 1-5 start to this season.

In August, the Tar Heels spoke openly about their goal of winning the ACC’s Coastal Division. Losses in five of their first six games silenced that talk, but UNC has won five consecutive games and with a victory against Duke could end the regular season in a tie for first in the Coastal.

“It’s not a big class, but I can tell you this class has been through a lot here,” Fedora said. “And (I’m) proud of the way they responded this season. Back when things weren’t going real well, they hung in there and they kept this team together and kept them tight.”

Blue and Hurst and Martin and others – Boston, the safety, and Tim Jackson, a defensive lineman – all said earlier this week that it hadn’t yet really hit them, the reality that this would be their final game in Kenan Stadium. When they visited campus all those years ago, Davis was still the coach.

There were no NCAA sanctions, no investigation. Just hope, then, that during the next four years – the past four years – they would be a part of something extraordinary. Then came Marvin Austin’s infamous tweet, and the start of a saga that is still playing out in an Orange County courtroom.

The mess that erupted in the summer of 2010 altered the direction of UNC’s football program. It covered it in a stain the school is still trying to scrub away. In the years since, many players left – either through their own choice or because of an injury, or because maybe they felt they might not fit in with a new coaching staff.

The seniors UNC will honor on Saturday are the ones who could have left but stayed. When everything was changing around them – falling apart, at times – they stayed. Jackson, the defensive lineman, thought earlier this week about the same thing Hurst did – that talk when he first arrived about how some wouldn’t last.

“I didn’t think it was going to be to that exact extent,” Jackson said. “We’ve lost a lot of guys, but at the same time the guys who are here – we’re still well-connected, we’re strong. We have a good camaraderie.

“It’s been a wild ride, but the guys who were able to stay here, we appreciate what we’ve been through and we know it’s going to make us better people.”

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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