It is the first day of practice at North Carolina, and for the first time in his career, Bryn Renner is a free man. No NCAA scandal hanging over his head. No interim coach. No new playbook to learn. No postseason ban. All he faces is football, his senior year, uncomplicated, unfettered.
The senior quarterback has seen his program go through so much. And now, as his career concludes, the future has finally arrived.
“It’s a huge relief,” Renner said. “This is my second year with coach (Larry) Fedora. We know what he wants from us. It’s almost like Christmas. You know that everything’s out of the way and you’re getting a new toy. You can go out and play football and have fun.
“It’s your senior year, you get new jerseys and all the exciting things happening around Chapel Hill, it’s just an exciting time and we couldn’t ask for a better opponent than South Carolina to line up against in Game 1.”
From the moment Renner first stepped onto the field as a redshirt freshman, not long after the first NCAA investigators first stepped foot on campus, football at North Carolina has been about everything but football.
It’s been about suspensions and sanctions and staff changes. Three different head coaches. Two very different offenses. Countless missed opportunities, from the 2010 team that had such high expectations dashed to last season’s postseason ban that kept the Tar Heels not only out of a bowl game but the ACC championship as well.
That’s all in the past now. This season, for the first time in Renner’s career, is about football, and only football. It’s been a long time coming.
Coming off his first year as a starter under Butch Davis’ old staff and transitioning into Fedora’s offense last season, Renner’s passing yardage and touchdowns went up, his interceptions down, his attempts and yards per game up.
Still, Fedora admits he threw a lot at Renner last season, and Renner’s performance improved considerably when Fedora and offensive coordinator Blake Anderson thinned out the playbook at midseason.
“We gave Bryn too much. I know Blake blames himself, but that’s my fault,” Fedora said. “I’m there watching from the outside to see what we need to be doing and we were doing the same things we were doing with Austin Davis, who was a four-year starter for us at Southern Miss. That wasn’t fair to Bryn.
“We cut back midway through the season and you saw what Bryn did. We put more things in, in the spring, to see what he could handle, and Bryn’s so comfortable now, we can do more things. But I don’t know – how much more do we need?”
If the opener at South Carolina is a big stage, so is the Thursday night home game against Miami in October, the second on-campus Thursday night game of Renner’s career, but the first one where he’ll actually get to play.
Renner was redshirting in 2009 when the Tar Heels hosted Florida State in an unforgettable atmosphere with a forgettable outcome. North Carolina squandered a 24-6 second-half lead as Christian Ponder outdueled T.J. Yates in a battle of future NFL quarterbacks.
“It was awesome. I’ll never forget that Florida State game,” Renner said. “We pulled out the all-navy jerseys. Everyone was excited. We just didn’t come up with the victory. I talked to T.J. the other day. He’s jealous about our schedule, that’s for sure. His senior year he got to play Louisiana State in the kickoff classic, and we’re getting the same opportunity he had that season.”
Renner will have one opportunity Yates didn’t have as a senior, though. He’ll play without the NCAA hanging over his head, without a new offense to learn, without any baggage other than the offense he’ll be expected to carry on his shoulders.