They gave their word to play at North Carolina at the start of the most tumultuous period in the football program’s history and arrived just in time to see their head coach, Butch Davis, lose his job.
Then it was one thing after another: the uncertainty of being led by an interim head coach, then the hiring of Larry Fedora and a new staff. And then a promising season in 2012, followed by mediocre ones the next two seasons and now, after everything, the success of this one.
Amid it all: the end of one NCAA investigation and the start of another. More coaching changes, for those players on defense. And the recurring thought: It has to get better. Doesn’t it?
“It’s been a wild ride,” Landon Turner, the Tar Heels’ offensive guard, said earlier this week, trying to come up with the best way to describe what he and his classmates have experienced in their four years at UNC.
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They are the “super seniors,” as Turner put it earlier this week – the group of five fifth-year UNC seniors who arrived in the middle of an implosion and will leave, they hope, with a legacy of perseverance, grit and, perhaps, a championship.
Now there’s one more game at Kenan Stadium for Turner and Jeff Schoettmer, the middle linebacker, and Marquise Williams, the quarterback. And for Romar Morris, a running back, and Sam Smiley, a safety. One more home game, on Saturday against Miami, after four years of drama, turmoil and, lately, redemption.
I never wavered from my commitment, obviously – I’m still here.
UNC guard Landon Turner
There will be emotions on Saturday. There might be some tears. There might be some thoughts, among this group of fifth-year players, of what they experienced, what they saw – thoughts of all those team meetings announcing this or that: Davis’ firing, Fedora’s hiring, the end of an NCAA investigation, the start of another.
“It is going to be emotional,” Schoettmer said of Saturday, “playing the last game in Kenan Stadium in front of our home fans and our crowd. But I look at it as it’s another step toward our goal to win the Coastal and then ultimately win the ACC championship.”
Schoettmer, Turner and Williams have been especially integral to the team’s turnaround. Schoettmer is the defensive leader. Turner is among the best interior offensive lineman in the country, and Williams the quarterback who set the single-game school passing record last weekend against Duke.
That the Tar Heels are where they are now, with a firm lead in the ACC’s Coastal Division and on the cusp of clinching an appearance against Clemson in the ACC Championship game, is “sweeter,” Turner said, given what they had to go through to make it here.
Turner committed to UNC the summer before his senior year of high school. At the time, former offensive line coach Sam Pittman, who was on UNC’s staff when Davis was the head coach, would send Turner letters with funny little stick figure drawings of a football player.
“And the stick figure had muscles and then little muscles on top of muscles, and then it said, like, ‘This is you,’ ” Turner said, laughing at the memory. “Just little stuff like that. I’ve got all of (the recruiting letters) – I saved them because they were funny.”
Like all coaching staffs, Davis and his assistants back then sold prospects on a vision. Even in the midst of the NCAA investigation that began in 2010, Davis could have argued that much better days were ahead. And Turner, especially, was impressed by the collection of offensive line talent Davis and his staff had assembled.
Looking back, the more accurate recruiting pitch would have been something like this: If you come here, you’ll play amid the never-ending and unrelenting cloud of an NCAA investigation. The head coach will be fired, you’ll play for an interim coach who, it turned out, didn’t have much of a chance to be hired. And then, after three more years, you just might be in a position to win the division.
The reality didn’t quite compare to what Turner had been told during his recruitment.
“Not exactly,” he said with a smile. “Who could have known that?”
A longtime mess
He knew, at least, some of what he was getting into. UNC’s 2010 season began not long after Turner had committed, and it began with a long list of its best players suspended amid concerns that they’d accepted impermissible benefits.
And so began an NCAA investigation that ignited a mess the school is still trying to put in the past. It all started when Turner was a senior in high school. Other college programs, he said, tried to warn him what might await at UNC. Other coaches, Turner said, told him, “There’s going to be a lot of issues there.”
“I never wavered from my commitment, obviously – I’m still here,” Turner said, sitting on the fifth floor of the Kenan Football Center. “Because it meant something to me, that I committed here.”
Schoettmer, who arrived as a walk-on, and Williams, who arrived with expectations of being the quarterback of the future, could say the same: that they made up their mind to come to UNC, regardless of the circumstances, and stuck to their commitments no matter what.
Their circumstances, though, were different than Turner’s. Schoettmer arrived as a walk-on, motivated by the perception college coaches held at the time that he was too small to play linebacker and not fast enough to play safety. He had no scholarship offers from major-conference schools.
“I just wanted to prove everyone wrong,” he said.
Williams, meanwhile, came to UNC as a heralded prospect. His adjustment to college wasn’t a smooth one, though, and during the spring 2013 semester he found himself out of school because of academic reasons.
At the time he hadn’t yet proven himself on the field, either. On the outside, at least, there were doubts about whether he’d return to school, and more doubts about his place on the team.
Despite a strong finish to the 2013 season, when he played in relief of the injured Bryn Renner, Williams had to win the starting quarterback job during the 2014 preseason. Then he had to prove himself, again, after he was benched in a game against Delaware earlier this season.
Turner, who lived with Williams during their first year on campus together back in 2011, has often said that the Williams he knew four years ago is far different than the Williams who has become one of UNC’s most important leaders. Failures, both on the field and off, molded Williams.
“I’ve been through so much in my last five years here,” Williams said. “And now (that) I have the opportunity to maybe get to play for an ACC championship is crazy.”
Williams said these moments, playing in the stretch run of November, a division championship at stake, is what he and his classmates – Turner, Schoettmer and fellow fifth-year seniors – have “dreamed of.”
“This is what we wanted to get to but we just never put the time in to maybe get there,” Williams said.
That’s one of the things that has been different about this UNC team: It has put in the work, both mental and physical, to reverse the direction of the program. The mental transformation began after an ugly loss against Rutgers in an also-ran bowl game gave UNC a 6-7 finish last season.
It continued, even, after a humbling loss against South Carolina to start this season. After everything that preceded the South Carolina loss, everything that happened last year, it might have been easy to think history would repeat itself – that these were the same old Tar Heels. But they haven’t been.
“Right after the first game, I remember we got in the huddle in the locker room, in Charlotte, and we promised each other this game was not going to define our season,” Schoettmer said. “ … It really hasn’t. And really the next day we went back to work.”
A chance for a title
And here the Tar Heels are, eight games later – all of them victories – with one final home game, one last opportunity for the senior class, comprised both by players in Fedora’s first recruiting class and those few remaining he inherited, to play at Kenan Stadium.
UNC’s fifth-year seniors have spent time during the past several months talking about what kind of legacy they wanted to leave. They didn’t want to be remembered the way last season’s senior class is remembered – as a group that was helpless to stop UNC’s team chemistry from turning toxic.
Some of UNC’s failures in 2014 could be attributed to division between older and younger players. Between those recruited by Davis and the old staff and those recruited by Fedora and the newer staff. Turner, Williams and others were recruited by Davis. But they were determined that there wouldn’t be a rift among classes this season.
“We just reached a level of maturity where we sat down in January when we put out all the problems, brought all the problems into the light with coach Fedora,” Turner said. “(And) as a team, I think we really just got behind that whole idea that this year’s going to be different.”
And so it has been. For the team. For this particular senior class.
Four years ago the “super seniors,” as Turner calls his group, arrived in the midst of chaos. Now in their final home game they’d have a chance, with a Duke victory against Pittsburgh earlier on Saturday, to clinch the Coastal Division.
“I’m hoping the legacy we get to leave is win the Coastal and win the ACC championship,” Schoettmer said. “Because no team has done that since 1980 around here.”