More than bragging rights on line for special group of UNC seniors

Fridays rivalry game against NC State will be the final appearance at Kenan Stadium for 16 Tar Heels that helped bring about a dramatic change in the fortunes of their program.

Bob Donnan—X02835
Nov 19

North Carolina has played more important football games in the last four years, including one for the ACC championship last December. None of them, however, has been more meaningful than the game the Tar Heels will play against arch-rival NC State on Friday. It’s not that there’s bragging rights on the line or that UNC can keep its slim Coastal Division title hopes alive with a victory, though both of those incentives will factor into the emotion and intensity surrounding the post-Thanksgiving clash with the Wolfpack at Kenan Stadium. What sets this Senior Day contest apart is the fact that it will mark the final home appearance for arguably the most influential group of players in school history. “This senior class, they’ve done some special things,” coach Larry Fedora said of the 16 upperclassmen that will be honored before the game. “If you look back to when we were recruiting them, there was a lot of negativity surrounding this program in every aspect. These guys were the ones that when we went into their homes and their schools, they believed, they bought in and they wanted to change things here. And they have.” UNC was under the cloud of NCAA sanctions when Fedora and his staff began putting together their first full class back in the winter of 2013. Not only did they have to overcome the handicap of five fewer scholarships, but they also had to fight a battle against the negative recruiting of their rivals. And yet, they were still able to land the likes of defensive back Des Lawrence, defensive end Mikey Bart, wide receiver Ryan Switzer, running back T.J. Logan and center Lucas Crowley — players largely responsible for bringing about a dramatic change in the fortunes of their program. “It’s definitely crossed my mind what we as a senior class have been able to accomplish, how different our freshman and sophomore seasons were from our junior and senior seasons,” said Switzer, UNC’s career leader in receptions and school record holder for punt return touchdowns. “We’ve been able to establish a culture change and set the groundwork for where this program is headed as long as coach Fedora and his staff remain here.” The change didn’t happen overnight. In fact, it took two full seasons and an embarrassing loss to Rutgers in the 2014 Quick Lane Bowl for this year’s seniors to finally take ownership of the team and become the kind of leaders UNC had always seemed to lack. “When I first got here there were some leadership issues,” placekicker Nick Weiler said. “The culture wasn’t what I was used to. Our first few years we were tired with the 6-6 seasons and we wanted to become a force in the Coastal. “One meeting on Jan. 1 we had with Coach Fedora after the Quick Lane Bowl we decided to change it and that’s pretty much what happened. We had a crazy offseason, then had some success last season and just continued that.” The Tar Heels went undefeated in the ACC, won the Coastal Division and posted a school record 11 wins in 2015. Although they’ve experienced some stumbles this year — most notably an upset loss at Duke two weeks ago — they still have a shot at a second straight double-digit win season. In order for that to happen, they’ll have to avoid getting caught up in the emotion of the moment and maintain their focus against a hungry opponent that needs a victory to earn bowl eligibility. “They understand what this game is about,” Fedora said. “They truly get it.” If the memory of that recent Duke loss isn’t enough of a reminder of what can happen happen if they don’t show up ready to play in a rivalry game, then the 35-7 thrashing they took at the hands of the Wolfpack the last time State came to Kenan fo Senior Day in 2014 should. “This is the biggest game of our season,” said junior quarterback Mitch Trubisky, who may also be playing his final UNC home game on Friday. “The leaders of the team have to come together and express to everyone else that this is a huge game. “Passion is always going to be a huge part of it. Momentum is going to be a huge part of it, because it’s a rivalry game so we’ve just got to want it more than them and we’ve got to be hungry all week, then show up on Friday, dominate and go out with a bang at Kenan Stadium for the seniors.”