There was the noise, that deafening noise, and the pressure and, most of all, the simple realization that this was happening – that he was playing in his first college game under the glaring lights at the Georgia Dome on Saturday.
“The whole thing was kind of surreal, honestly – (just) to be out there” Patrice Rene, the North Carolina freshman cornerback, said after a practice earlier this week.
Rene received raves throughout the preseason. UNC coach Larry Fedora repeatedly found reason to praise him. Rene’s teammates did the same.
And so it wasn’t a surprise that Rene played on Saturday against Georgia. He was on the field for about 25 plays, he said, and he played as prominent a role as any UNC freshman.
And yet his debut will be remembered, mostly, for two plays: the two pass-interference penalties he committed during the third quarter, with the Tar Heels leading 24-14 and the Bulldogs desperately trying to turn the game in their favor.
With less than six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Georgia faced a third-and-8 from its own 39-yard-line. Jacob Eason, the freshman quarterback, dropped back and attempted a pass deep down the left sideline, toward Maurice Smith.
Rene, covering Smith, never turned his head. The ball fell incomplete moments after Rene had collided with Smith, and the pass-interference call was clear enough. It gave Georgia a first down at the UNC 46.
Two plays later the sequence nearly repeated itself. Georgia facing a third-and-7, Eason passing deep down the left sideline, Rene covering his man – this time Reggie Davis – and the play ending with another incomplete pass and another penalty flag and another pass-interference call.
The penalty moved Georgia to the UNC 28. The Bulldogs scored a touchdown four plays later and, not long after that, forced a safety that changed the complexion of the game. The pass-interference penalties, though, were pivotal – two moments that Georgia used as a catalyst.
Now it’s Rene’s turn to use them the same way. They were, he said, “most definitely” part of a broader educational experience that encompassed his first college game.
“They’re big, tough plays for our team,” Rene said. “And I know I’m aware of that and that’s on me, ultimately. But those are mistakes that I could fix and can go back in the lab and come in and correct with coach (Charlton) Warren and coach (Gene Chizik).
“So that’s one of the positives of that.”
Part of using freshmen in prominent roles, said Chizik, the UNC defensive coordinator, is calculating the risk of mistakes. And Chizik and the rest of UNC’s defensive coaching staff well understood the risk of calling on an inexperienced player on Saturday night in a tense moment.
Yet the staff has believed that much in Rene, too. He had earned his coaches’ trust.
“We’re going to live with some growing pains that go with that,” Chizik said earlier this week, speaking broadly about the downside of relying on freshmen. “That’s just the way it is. But like we told them on Sunday, you get thrown into this and if we put you on the field it’s because we expect you to produce.
“So you being a freshman or you being young isn’t your license to fail. And in those situations, they have to produce.”
Both times he was called for pass interference, Rene was in position to make a play. Both times, he ran step for step with the intended receiver.
And both times, Rene lost track of his proper technique. His first pass-interference penalty was more egregious than the second but, twice, Rene didn’t play the ball as much as he played the receiver, and that led to contact and, ultimately, a penalty.
After the first one, Rene said, Fedora came up to him.
“Stay calm, keep composed,” Rene said, reciting Fedora’s words in the moment.
Then came the second pass-interference penalty. Rene, who seemed incredulous at the call, left the game, walked to the sideline and met with Warren, the Tar Heels’ secondary coach.
“That was kind of tough,” said Rene, a native of Alexandria, Va., who was considered among the top 25 defensive back prospects in the nation. “Going back to coach Warren, he just coached me up real quick, told me what to do. Because like I said, I was in position.
“All I had to do was kind of wedge and turn my head around.”
It was a lesson that Rene hopes, and believes, will make him better. There might come a time, sometime soon, when Rene finds himself in a similar position, after all. He will have been there, and experienced it, thanks to a couple of moments in his first college game that he won’t soon forget.