Larry Fedora embraces the details, the numbers. During the middle of preseason camp, for instance, he can tell you how many days remain before North Carolina begins the season, or until the Tar Heels play N.C. State.
And yet this was a number that had been lost, even for Fedora. Since the start of preseason practice in early August to now – a span of nearly five months – he’d lost track of how many times the Tar Heels had practiced. Whatever the number, the final one of the season came on Wednesday.
UNC’s final practice came at a high school football stadium on the east side of El Paso, about 1,700 miles away from UNC’s practice fields in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels on Friday will play against Stanford in the Sun Bowl, another moment of finality in these waning days of a season that began with much hope.
“It probably won’t hit me until after the game or when I’m on the plane or when the guys are like, ‘Bro, I love you. I hope the best for you,’” Bug Howard, a senior receiver, said on Wednesday. “It will probably hit me then but right now I’m just really trying to enjoy it.”
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Howard and his classmates – those who arrived at UNC in the fall of 2013 – comprised Fedora’s first real recruiting class at the school. Technically it was Fedora’s second class, but it was the first one that he and his assistants had a full recruiting cycle to complete.
It was a class that persevered through consecutive six-win regular seasons before the breakthrough of a year ago – the 11 victories and the appearance in the ACC championship game. It was a class that arrived on campus amid a lingering scandal whose fallout still isn’t understood.
And it’s a class that for the final time went through familiar drills on Wednesday. Over the years, players sometimes loathed those practices, the repetition. Then the final one came and for some it was a cathartic experience.
“Before I was kind of sad,” Nazair Jones, a fourth-year junior, said after UNC’s final practice. “I was like, man, I should stay another year, something like that.”
Jones, though, stood in a hallway at the team hotel and said that sense of melancholy had left him. Now he anticipated what was next for him.
Jones has already announced his decision to enter the NFL draft. Mitch Trubisky, another fourth-year junior, may do the same. Regardless, several of UNC’s most prolific senior skill players are set to play their final college game on Friday.
Ryan Switzer, the receiver. Howard. T.J. Logan, a running back. Des Lawrence, a cornerback.
“That definitely hit us,” Logan said of practicing for the final time. “I feel like we were out there talking like it’s the last time we’re going to do this, the last time we’re going to stretch before practice and all this.”
The practice was scheduled to last 90 minutes. There was a team dinner set for later in the day. Those are numbered, too for this particular group of players. Before the season began, Fedora spoke of this sort of thing.
He spoke of the finite number of opportunities ahead of his players: the 12 regular season games, the dozens and dozens of practices, all counting down to zero. And so the Tar Heels on Wednesday reached a finish line before the finish line, a milestone that leaves only the last game remaining.