The realization began to hit Ryan Switzer earlier this month in the days before North Carolina’s game at Duke on Nov. 10, a Thursday night. The Tuesday before, Switzer completed an afternoon workout and when the adrenaline wore off he thought about the arrival of another final act.
This has been a season of them for Switzer, the Tar Heels’ receiver, and his senior teammates. That week, it was the last time for those seniors to prepare for a game against Duke, which made the Tar Heels’ 28-27 defeat all the more bitter. For Switzer and his classmates there is no chance for redemption.
Now comes another end point for these seniors: their final game at Kenan Stadium, where UNC plays N.C. State on Friday. Players have processed the finality in their own ways. Switzer, sentimental as he is, has often thought about the legacy of his class, how it’ll be remembered.
“Oh, man,” he said. “I want to be a part of the class that kind of kicked off this new era of Carolina football.
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“With the past two seasons that we’ve had, being coach Fedora’s first true class … I think that’s a thing that (you) can look back on and say, “Hey, we were kind of the guys that started this thing.’”
To an extent, the same could be said of UNC’s senior class of 2015. That group included quarterback Marquise Williams and linebackers Jeff Schoettmer and Shakeel Rashad. The leadership and production they provided last year proved instrumental in UNC’s best season in nearly 20 years.
That class, collectively, connected UNC’s difficult recent past with what appears to be a future of optimism. And yet this class of four-year seniors, the one that will celebrate senior day on Friday, is different. It was the first one that coach Larry Fedora had a full recruiting cycle to assemble.
When Fedora and his staff of assistants arrived in January 2012 they had one month, before national signing day in February, to hang onto the players who had committed to UNC under a previous coaching staff, some of them before the turmoil that led to former head coach Butch Davis’ firing. Fedora scrambled to fill that class.
One of the final players to join it, Quinshad Davis, left school last season as UNC’s all-time leader in receptions. Switzer, who arrived at UNC as part of Fedora’s first true class, broke Davis’ record earlier this season.
“It’s kind of surreal, how fast the time’s gone,” Switzer said. “But I’ve always made the most. I haven’t taken any game I’ve played for granted.
“So I think when I look back at my college career, I won’t have any regrets.”
Switzer became one of the centerpieces of Fedora’s first class – or at least the first class he had more than one month to put together. While Fedora and his staff hurried to salvage the 2012 class – one that includes four fifth-year seniors still on the team – he looked ahead, too.
Finding a quarterback of the future was on the to-do list – and perhaps on top of it. Fedora and Blake Anderson, the former offensive coordinator who left after the 2013 season to become the head coach at Arkansas State, quickly narrowed their focus to Mentor, Ohio, where Mitch Trubisky had become one of the best college prospects in the country.
“Yeah, he was a priority,” Fedora said, “and we were on him very early. And we were sold on him, we just had to sell him on us.”
To varying degrees, that was the challenge with every player Fedora and his staff targeted back then. At the time, UNC was less than a year removed from the end of an NCAA investigation into the football program – a probe that led to Butch Davis’ dismissal.
This senior class can still do some very special things. We haven’t done them yet, but we’ve got to do them. We have to finish this season out strong, and then if they do that, they have the opportunity to do something that’s only been done here two times in 126 years.
Fedora inherited the fallout – the postseason ban that kept his team out of the ACC championship game his first season; the scholarship cuts; the impossible-to-quantify intangible consequences of a program’s tarnished reputation, regardless of a coaching change.
His recruiting pitch, then, was to come be a part of the solution. Be a part of a new beginning.
“You remember,” Fedora said, “we had scholarship limitations, we had all kind of negative publicity 23 out of the 24 hours of the day. And it was to just believe in, really, the coaching staff and what we were selling as far as that we can make things happen here at the University of North Carolina.”
For those seniors who have been around for four years, the beginning of their time at UNC didn’t exactly match what Fedora had sold. The Tar Heels began the 2013 season 1-5 before rallying and defeating Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl – a victory that gave UNC a lackluster 7-6 finish.
The next year brought another poor start and another 6-6 record entering the postseason. The Tar Heels, beset by one of the worst defenses in school history, finished 6-7 after an ugly loss against Rutgers in the Quick Lane Bowl.
Fedora after that season held a state of the program meeting with his returning players. In many ways that low point, which essentially stretched across the entire 2014 season, allowed Fedora and his players to lay the foundation for what was to come.
“We got off to a rocky start, and then we finished kind of strong,” said Des Lawrence, the senior cornerback. “So sophomore year wasn’t what we planned for but eventually I knew that we were going to turn things around and our talent in this class I knew was going to be able to be shown.”
Last year, the Tar Heels lost their season-opener against South Carolina but then won 11 consecutive games. This season, another 10-win season is within reach, and would become a reality with a victory against N.C. State on Friday and another victory in a bowl game.
“This senior class can still do some very special things,” Fedora said. “We haven’t done them yet, but we’ve got to do them. We have to finish this season out strong, and then if they do that, they have the opportunity to do something that’s only been done here two times in 126 years.”
Fedora was talking about finishing two consecutive seasons with double-digit victories. UNC did that in 1996 (10-2) and ’97 (11-1), and also in 1980 (11-1) and ’81 (10-2). And that’s it: the only pairs of seasons in which UNC has won at least 10 games both years.
Friday will bring the final home game for 16 seniors. It’ll be the final game at Kenan Stadium for Switzer and for Bug Howard, another receiver. It will be the final home game for T.J. Logan, a valuable running back, and it could be the final home game for Trubisky, if he decides to enter the NFL draft.
Together, UNC’s seniors have been a part of 32 victories the past four years. It’s a class that helped lead UNC to its first appearance in the ACC championship game. The seniors have done what Fedora told them they could do, years ago: “Compete for championships,” Fedora said, repeating his old pitch.
“And I think these guys have got it to that point,” Fedora said. “They’ve bought in and they’ve got it that point were the culture has changed.”
N.C. State at UNC
When: Noon Friday
Where: Kenan Stadium, Chapel Hill