Tar Heels looking for answers as injury bug continues to bite

Nineteen players are named on UNC's injury list for this week's game at Georgia Tech, including 13 that are designated as out for the season

UNC's Austin Proehl is tackled by Duke's Koby Quansah during Saturday's game at Kenan Stadium. Proehl suffered an injury in the game (Bob Donnan/USA TODAY Sports)

CHAPEL HILL — The ACC requires its football teams to issue an injury report two days before each game it plays against a conference opponent. The way things are going for North Carolina this season, it might be less time consuming to put together a list of those who aren’t hurt.

Three more key players went down in Saturday’s loss to Duke at Kenan Stadium with injuries that will keep them sidelined for the rest of the season. Wide receivers Austin Proehl and Rontavius Groves, and defensive tackle Tyler Powell are the latest victims of an epidemic that has left as many as 20 Tar Heels either sidelined with or playing through physical maladies.

And has coach Larry Fedora scratching his head trying to figure out why it’s happening and what to do about it.

“Don’t think we’re not searching and digging,” Fedora said. “I’m looking for answers. I’m wanting to know why.

“We’re checking everything out — the way we do things in the offseason, year-around, the way we don’t do things. We’re looking at everything. But it’s not like this has been happening every year.”

Among the nine players listed as “out for the season” on last week’s injury list are middle linebacker Andre Smith — UNC’s top tackler — starting offensive tackle William Sweet and reliable senior wide receiver Thomas Jackson.

Defensive tackle Jalen Dalton and wide receiver Dazz Newsome didn’t see action against Duke while starting offensive linemen Cam Dillard and Bentley Spain were both at less than full strength because of injuries. Numerous others are nursing various other bumps and bruises.

It’s a war of attrition Fedora is rationalizing the only way he can with eight games still to play this season, by chalking it up as one of those things that happens in football and preparing the players he has available for Saturday’s ACC road game at Georgia Tech.

“As a football coach you like to control as much as possible and not worry about the things you can’t control. So that’s what I try to do,” he said. “There are things that are out of our hands that happen and we have to prepare our team to play no matter what the situation. Our guys understand that things happen and somebody else has got to step up and be ready to go.”

As much as the players understand the “next man up” philosophy, it doesn’t make things any easier as they see teammate after teammate standing on the sideline on crutches or being taken off the field in the back of a cart.

The frustration was evident in both the eyes and words of wide receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams in the immediate aftermath of Saturday’s loss.

“Those guys don’t deserve that,” he said. “It’s not the kind of thing you want to see from any of your teammates on the field.”

Ratliff-Williams was especially emotional when talking about fellow receiver Rontavius Groves.

A 5-foot-11, 175-pound redshirt freshman, Groves was playing in his first career game after working his way back from a knee injury suffered during spring practice. Thrust into action because of injuries to Proehl, Jackson and others on UNC’s rapidly thinning receiving corps, Groves became a casualty himself when he suffered what appeared to be a serious knee injury when he landed wrong after jumping for an overthrown pass in the second half.

“That’s probably the most discouraging thing I’ve ever seen, to be honest with you,” Ratliff-Williams said. “I’ve known (Groves) since he got here. I’ve been a good friend of him. To see him get back was very inspiring, but to see him go down was real painful.”

As the Tar Heels dig deeper and deeper into their depth chart to fill the holes created by all the injuries, Fedora said that he and his still will begin turning to freshman originally slated to be redshirted.

With Dalton already out and Powell going out, rookie defensive tackle Jordon Riley was among those pressed into service Saturday. He finished with four tackles and a quarterback hurry.

Another projected redshirt, Beau Corrales, is now listed as a top backup at wide receiver to senior Jordan Cunningham.

“The thing is to try to get the guys you’re going to have on the field in the best position possible,” Fedora said. “Whether that means moving people around, which we’re already doing, we’ve just got to do a better job of it.”

Here is this week’s complete injury list:

Out for the Season:

Antwuan Branch, TB

Jesse Cuccia, S

Luke Elder, OL

D.J. Ford, S

Rontavius Groves, WR

Thomas Jackson, WR

Tyler Powell, DT

Austin Proehl, WR

Jacob Schmidt, TB

Andre Smith, LB

William Sweet, OT

Carl Tucker, TE

Noah Turner, TE

Out:

Corey Bell Jr., CB

Tommy Hatton, OL

Tyler Pritchett, OL

Stanton Truitt, TB

Doubtful:

Jalen Dalton, DT

Questionable:

Dazz Newsome, WR