In less worrisome times, Larry Fedora warned of more difficult circumstances, the challenges that would inevitably arrive, at some point.
“It’s coming,” Fedora, the North Carolina coach, said more than once earlier this season.
He wasn’t talking, necessarily, about what was known – the difficult four-game stretch, for instance, that the Tar Heels (5-2, 3-1 ACC) have successfully navigated. He was talking about the unknown – things like bad breaks and injuries, two things that are sometimes the same.
Entering their game on Saturday at Virginia (2-4, 1-1), the good news for the Tar Heels is that the most difficult portion of their schedule is already in the past. They won three of those four games against Pittsburgh, Florida State, Virginia Tech and Miami.
And yet UNC faces an uncomfortable reality, too: Injuries are becoming a prominent concern.
The Tar Heels began their week of preparation for Virginia with bad injury news. And they ended it with more of the same. When UNC arrives at Virginia’s Scott Stadium on Saturday, it will be without two all-conference players, two seniors who were expected to play a vital role on the offense.
Mack Hollins, a wide receiver, suffered a broken collarbone last week during a 20-13 victory at Miami. He has played his final college game after undergoing surgery last Sunday. So, too, has Caleb Peterson, the starting left guard. He was scheduled to undergo season-ending back surgery on Friday.
The loss of Hollins and Peterson reshapes the look, and potential, of their position groups. Hollins’ absence will undoubtedly hurt the Tar Heels’ passing offense, given his proclivity for dazzling catches on deep passing routes. That part of Hollins’ absence, though, might be the easiest to replace.
“I think we’ve still got some guys that can stretch the field vertically,” Fedora said earlier this week. “That doesn’t overly concern me. We’ll miss Mack’s ability to do it because that’s probably the thing that he does best. But we’ve still got guys that are getting behind people.”
Ryan Switzer, UNC’s most prolific receiver, is among those guys. So is Bug Howard, who at 6-foot-5 presents a formidable target for quarterback Mitch Trubisky. In Hollins’ absence, UNC will also be reliant upon Austin Proehl, a junior, and Anthony Ratliff-Williams, a second-year freshman.
We’ll miss Mack’s ability to do it because that’s probably the thing that he does best. But we’ve still got guys that are getting behind people.
With Switzer, Howard and Proehl, especially, neither Trubisky nor Fedora is expecting much of a decline in the productivity of the passing offense. Special teams is a different story, though, because Hollins played on all of UNC’s special teams, and he has been the team’s special teams captain in each of the past three seasons.
The Tar Heels received a taste of life without Hollins during the first week of the season. Hollins sat out the first half of UNC’s season-opening defeat against Georgia while serving a suspension for a targeting penalty in a bowl game last year. Filling Hollins’ void on special teams isn’t new.
“We’re more prepared now than we were at the beginning of the season for the special teams problems, because we’ve got more of those younger players (who) have played now in all of those phases,” Fedora said. “So we can move more people into there.”
Hollins’ injury might be the team’s most high-profile. The loss of Peterson might be the most damaging. UNC has been without him the past two weeks, and the offensive line has had difficulty compensating for his absence. Another starter, right tackle Jon Heck, is also unlikely to play on Saturday.
Heck endured a head injury last weekend against Miami. He woozily walked off the field. Heck is listed as questionable for Saturday, but it appears unlikely he will play. If he doesn’t, that would leave the offensive line with only two starters who were expected to start before preseason practice began.
Entering the second half of its conference schedule, UNC’s greatest challenge appears to be compensating for injuries. These are somewhat new circumstances but not entirely unfamiliar, given the Tar Heels’ recent success in uncomfortable circumstances.
They’ve won eight consecutive road games, after all. That’s the longest streak of road victories since UNC began ACC competition in 1953, and the Tar Heels own the fourth longest road winning streak in the country, behind Ohio State (20 consecutive road victories), Alabama (10) and Iowa (nine).
“I think we just feed off it,” Trubisky said earlier this week of playing on the road. “I think we like playing on the road. I think we like either getting booed or people rooting against us.
“I don’t know – being the enemy? I think it gives us energy and I think we just feed off it, honestly. It brings us closer together and then we play harder.”
When Fedora provides those ominous warnings about adversity – “it’s coming,” he has often said of challenges – he emphasizes the importance of unity. It’s an opportunity for him to espouse the “I’ve got your back” mantra he regularly cites as a primary reason for his team’s success.
Now comes some of the trouble Fedora has warned against: UNC will definitely be without two offensive starters on Saturday, and it’s likely to be without three, if Heck is unavailable. The injury woes just happen to coincide with another road trip.
Those, at least, haven’t bothered the Tar Heels.
“To go down to those different crowds, I feel a little amped,” Jeremiah Clarke, a defensive tackle, said earlier this week. “Especially Florida State, I mean you get the crowd noise in it and the arms chopping and it kind of hypes you a little bit for some people.
“For some others, you might get spooked by the spotlight. But I thrive off the crowd atmosphere.”
UNC at Virginia
When: 3 p.m. Saturday
Where: Scott Stadium, Charlottesville, Va.
TV/Radio: Fox Sports Carolinas, 106.1-WTKK