UNC youth served despite down season

Tar Heels, mired by injuries, finished 3-9 but gained valuable experience

The experience gained by players like quarterback Nathan Elliott during a diffcult 3-9 season should play off down the road for the Tar Heels. (Charles LeClaire / USA TODAY Sports)

M.J. Stewart had an opportunity to join several of his North Carolina football teammates in the NFL Draft last spring. But he decided instead to return for his senior season “to come back and end on a bang.”

The star cornerback said he has no regrets about his choice, even though his career and the Tar Heels’ season ended with more of a whimper than a bang.

In fact, his comments following Saturday’s 33-21 loss at NC State were remarkably upbeat for a player whose team had just suffered through a 3-9 disaster in which virtually everything that could go wrong did go wrong.

“I’m so proud of the team,” Stewart said. “I can’t be any happier right now. Even when we lost, we fought. That’s all you can ask.”

While that might sound like a classic case of declaring victory to avoid the pain of admitting defeat, Stewart and his teammates actually do have reason to glean at least something positive from an otherwise lost season.

As bad as 2017 might have been, it could have been worse once things began to fly off the rails amid a rash of injuries that saw 21 players — many of them starters — sidelined for Saturday’s finale at Carter-Finley Stadium.

But instead of simply going through the motions once the goals of a winning season and bowl bid became unreachable, the Tar Heels responded by digging in and playing their best football of the year.

After hitting rock bottom with a 59-7 embarrassment at the hands of Virginia Tech, coach Larry Fedora’s team nearly beat Coastal Division champion Miami before winning two of its final three games to create some momentum heading into the offseason.

“You build each week, and we got better as the season went on,” freshman running back Michael Carter said. “It was really all about the experience. For me, individually, I learned a lot this year — things you can do, things you can’t do. I’m excited for what’s ahead.”

If there’s a silver lining to the dark cloud that hung over UNC this season it’s that its young players might be farther along in their development than they might otherwise be because of the adversity that pressed them into service before they were ready.

Among them are Carter, who averaged 5.8 yards per carry and led the team in rushing touchdowns with eight, sophomore wide receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams, who developed into a versatile weapon on both ends of the passing game and special teams, and ball-hawking freshman safety Myles Wolfolk, who recorded 32 tackles and two interceptions.

Fedora and his staff also got good long looks at young quarterbacks Chazz Surratt and Nathan Elliott, both of whom had flashes of success despite the handicap of inexperience and playing behind a less-than-stellar offensive line.

Their performances under game conditions will go a long way toward helping Fedora determine where his program stands and what it needs to do to get back on a winning course.

“You can look at it two ways,” said Elliott, who started the final three games, throwing for 925 yards and 10 touchdowns with five interceptions “Obviously, it’s very frustrating to not be winning as many games as you want to win. Another way is that it gave a lot of guys opportunities this year, a lot of younger guys who were given forced reps, which I think is going to pay off in the end.”

One thing Fedora said he won’t do is change his basic coaching philosophy because of one bad season, complicated by an unprecedented epidemic of injuries.

“We’ll go back and evaluate everything, everything that we do in this program,” he said. “We never stop doing that. We’ll try to tweak things to make them better. Hopefully, we’re going to get a bunch of guys healed up and then we’ll be ready to go.”