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December 26, 2013
Seniors looking for memorable finish
collateral damage (noun)
---any damage incidental to an activity.
North Carolina's 2013 senior football class, in many ways, can always be considered collateral damage.
While the group that will be taking the field for the final time as Tar Heels in Saturday's Belk Bowl aren't exactly civilian casualties of war, which is one way to define 'collateral damage,' they have been subjected to a large number of punishments that didn't exactly fit the crime, and have unquestionably faced 'damage incidental to an activity' throughout their careers in Chapel Hill.
UNC seniors including Kareem Martin, Jabari Price, Tim Jackson, and Tre Boston were forced into early action as true freshmen in 2010, all before they were perhaps ready for the demands of major college football, due to all the suspensions that took place in the infamous summer of 2010 before the LSU game.
Then in 2011 these same players, then sophomores, stood by as one beloved head coach got fired, and then another well-respected assistant coach who became head coach got fired along with the rest of the coaching staff, as part of what was rumored to be Holden Thorp's way of cleaning house and wiping away the Butch Davis regime.
As juniors in 2012, these players were forced to play an entire season with an entirely new coaching staff knowing that no matter how well they performed, they wouldn't play in a bowl game and wouldn't get a chance to win an Atlantic Coast Conference title on the field in the Championship game.
But they turned a lemon into lemonade, winning eight games and a piece of the ACC Coastal Division crown.
Keep in mind that when the overwhelming majority of the transgressions that resulted in the NCAA sanctions occurred, guys like Martin, Price, Jackson and Boston were either still in high school or preparing for their summer 2010 arrival at UNC, but they weren't even on campus when the acts happened that tainted their college experiences.
But that's college football, where the NCAA exacts punishment on schools many months if not years after the infractions were committed---often meaning that individuals who had nothing to do with the wrongdoing or weren't even on campus when the wrongdoing took place are subjected to the infractions themselves.
But through it all, seniors such as Martin, Price, Jackson, Boston and others like James Hurst, Terry Shankle, Bryn Renner, A.J. Blue, David Collins, and others maintained a stiff upper lep and fought through the adversity, bringing respect back to the UNC program, and a certain measure of respect to themselves personally.
It was their leadership who not only brought UNC football through the turbulent waters of coaching transitions and NCAA probation, but back from a 1-5 start this fall to become bowl-eligible again and earn the right to play Cincinnati Saturday at 3:20 pm in Charlotte's Bank of America Stadium in front of what figures to be a heavy pro-UNC crowd.
"The leadership of Kareem and Tim and Jabari, those three guys stand out to me. They've been a positive," said UNC assistant coach Vic Koenning. "I know that I've been a pain in the butt to them and hard to deal with a lot, and they've just been Steady Eddy. They've been really consistent. Tim has been banged up and fought through some injuries. Kareem has had a magnificent year and has gotten so much better."
"Coach Gilmore is such a good coach. He's gotten those guys so much better. And not just Kareem and Tim, but all those linemen."
"Jabari just fights. Probably nobody works harder than Jabari Price. You have to have a lot of respect for a guy that works and strains as hard as he does, and studies the film the way he does. People don't realize how hard he works," Koenning continued.
For the Tar Heel seniors, there's no more time to sit back on how things might have been in their UNC careers.
They've got one more opportunity to make their mark on Carolina football and ensure that the 2013 team goes down in the history books as a winner, and not just in the bowl game.
A win Saturday ensures the 2013 Tar Heels go down in history with a winning overall record at 7-6---and that this senior class had winning records every season of their UNC careers---while a loss would drop UNC to a losing record for the first time since 2007, not counting vacated losses.
"(I want to) make sure I leave everything on the field. I can't leave that game saying, 'I wish I would have.' I should be saying, 'I'm glad I did' instead. So I want to go out and make sure we leave this team on a good note, considering this is our (the seniors') last game in Charlotte," said Price.
"There's some extra pep in my step out here at practice. It's really coming down to the end of this thing. I've just got to cherish every moment I have," added Martin.
"Everything I do now is the last of anything. You've just got to take advantage, because you know, the next step isn't promised. You never know what could happen. Anything can happen. This could be the last time I play football. You never know. God willing, it won't be. But you've just got to take advantage of every opportunity you have to play football."
The Tar Heels have had a good series of workouts, both in Charlotte and in Chapel Hill, in the two weeks leading up to Saturday's game.
Not only has the team knocked off the dust from several weeks off from game action, but they've managed to get several guys back closer to full strength after suffering in-season injuries.
The team will be as healthy as it's been since the start of training camp when the game kicks off Saturday afternoon.
"(There's been) a lot of energy (in bowl practices). Great tempo from the offense and defense. Guys paying attention to detail. Normally you would think bowl week, there's a lack of focus, trying to party and stuff with no school. Guys are showing up and are glad to work," Price replied.
"We're way better than we were the first half of the season," added Martin. "This extra time, we've healed up. As a defense, we had a lot of injuries throughout the season. We've got a lot of guys healthy again. We've got guys looking like they were in training camp as far as speed and everything. I think we're going to be our strongest this bowl game."
Knowing how far this 2013 North Carolina team has already come, earning bowl eligibility after a 1-5 start, gives this group of UNC seniors even more jump in their step to finish things off the right way and go out winners in their final game.
"It means a lot (to have this one last game)," said Martin.
"That was probably one of the biggest reasons for the comeback, the 1-5 turn-around. We weren't able to go to a bowl (last year), and now that we had a chance we didn't want to ruin those chances by not winning the six games. We knew we didn't want to go home again at Christmas. That three or four weeks, it's a long, boring time, especially being away from the game of football. We didn't want that, so we had to change some things."
"Having this opportunity to go to Charlotte and play in front of a big home crowd is going to mean a lot to us," added Price. "It's a great feeling. Coming out 1-5, we weren't even in the bowl projections at that point. A lot of people thought we were going to start our Christmas break early, but we proved them wrong. It's a great feeling to know that we turned the season around."
And absolutely nothing would complete UNC's late-season turnaround better than claiming victory Saturday afternoon over the Bearcats.