UNC's turnaround brings optimism for next season

Dec. 29, 2013 @ 09:21 PM

For a team that entered the season with thoughts of competing for championships, a 7-6 record may have been a letdown.

But after losing five of its first six games, the Tar Heels had nothing but positive thoughts about this year’s campaign, which ended Saturday with a 39-17 win over Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl.

“I can’t tell you how proud I am of this staff and the team for what they were able to accomplish when they were 1-5,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said. “You don’t really understand the feelings of those guys when everyone on the outside is telling them what’s wrong, and why they can’t be successful. They just did a great job of focusing on what the coaches were telling them and kept believing.”

The turnaround started after Miami went into Kenan Stadium in an ESPN Thursday night game and dropped the Tar Heels to 1-5.

“After the Miami game we started questioning ourselves, (asking) ‘What’s going on?’” sophomore quarterback Marquise Williams said. “After guys started to just pour their hearts out and cry, we knew we had to get it together some way.”

Freshman Ryan Switzer, who was named MVP of the Belk Bowl after tying an NCAA single-season record with his fifth punt return for a touchdown, credited the coaches and the senior leadership for not allowing the players to hang their heads.

“They didn’t let one person step into the facility who wasn’t ready to work,” Switzer said. “We didn’t change anything practice-wise. If anything, we practiced harder. We knew we had the talent. We knew we had the ability to turn our season around. We just had to have the heart to do it.”

All five of Switzer’s punt-return touchdowns came in the second half of the season. In fact, the Tar Heels’ last 31 touchdowns were all scored by players who should be returning in 2014, and 46 and their 55 touchdowns overall were scored by underclassmen.

Williams will return after finishing 4-2 as a starter in place of Bryn Renner, who suffered a season-ending shoulder injury midway through the season. The Tar Heels also graduate just one player on the offensive line (all-ACC left tackle James Hurst) and one member of its four-running back rotation (A.J. Blue). Though junior Eric Ebron declared for the NFL draft after setting a single-season conference record for receiving yards by a tight end, UNC’s top four wide receivers will also be back, led by 10-touchdown scorer Quinshad Davis.

The defense will lose four starters who were all key components – defensive linemen Kareem Martin and Tim Jackson and defensive backs Tre Boston and Jabari Price. But everyone else who played significant minutes is expected to come back, and they’ll be joined by a recruiting class that’s ranked 20th in the country by ESPN.com.

In 2011, the entire coaching staff was let go after the Tar Heels went 7-6 under looming NCAA sanctions. This year’s 7-6 season has brought much more optimism.

When Fedora stepped to the podium to accept the Belk Bowl trophy, he finished his brief remarks to the remaining crowd at Bank of America Stadium by promising that next year’s team will be even better.

“I am excited for the future, I really am,” Fedora said. “We are going in the right direction. Recruiting is going extremely well, there is a tremendous positive buzz around the state around the Tar Heels and good things are coming in the future.”